‘More imperiled than imperial. ’ Discuss this view of the US presidency (30 marks) Imperial presidency is a term, popularized by the book, written in 1973, by Arthur Schlesinger, a former aide to JFK, called ‘The Imperial Presidency”. It is used to refer to a presidency characterized by the misuse and abuse of the powers of the presidency.. In particular, it refers to the misuse of power and excessive secrecy in dealing with foreign policy. The founding fathers intended the president not to initiate war but be a commander in chief and could only respond to an attack.
They intended Congress to be proactive and initiate military action and that the president is reactive and supervises military action. An imperial president would misuse, abuse and ignore these powers. An imperiled presidency is virtually the opposite and is a term used when the president cannot act effectively due to continuous conflict with Congress. At least one of these two terms have been used to describe each modern president, sometimes both have been used for the same presidency, showing the phrase can be used very flexibly, and can often be down to personal opinion.
Nixon described it as a facade created by liberals and defensive congressman. The Development of the Imperial Presidency is often put down to America’s involvement in WW2 after Pearl Harbor in 1941. Before 1941, America had only been to war 11 times, and was often seen to avoid getting involved in foreign disputes and get on with there own business, but this changed obviously changed when they entered the world war. This saw a seismic shift in the importance of foreign policy, and therefore a seismic shift in what the president could do in times of war.
In 1941, when Congress declared war, FDR was allowed to break free of his restraints written in the constitution. The time for the Imperial Presidency had arguably begun. Since then, America has nearly been at a constant state of war and “the Imperial presidency” continued to develop, through the presidencies of Truman, who when North Korea invaded the south in 1950 sent US troops, Eisenhower, who sent 14000 US troops to Lebanon, and JFK, who launched an attack on the Bay of Pigs in Cuba, all without congressional approval as a result.
In 1964, the idea of the “imperial president” took a major step forward. The President at the time, Johnson, was given the power to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attacks on US armed forces, through the Gulf Agreement, also know as the Tokin Gulf Resolution. The Gulf Agreement was like a turkey voting for Christmas, as it took a sizeable power away from Congress and Schlesinger argued Congress had become a spectator.
Johnson used this new power to rage war in Vietnam, and by 1969, the US had 500,000 troops on the ground there. The term Imperial President was used to describe Nixon, Reagan, George Bush Jnr and perhaps Clinton. Nixon, seen as the revolutionary presidency, made full use of his war making powers, by carpet bombing Vietnam, bombing Cambodia without even the knowledge of congress, the so called Secret War in Laos, and didn’t even ask the Senate to ratify the Paris Peace accords.
Reagan was seen as an Imperial President, due to his involvement in the Iran Contra Affair, in which Regan’s Administration sold weapons to negotiate the release hostages, and then used these funds, without congresses knowledge or approval, to fund anti communist rebels in the Nicaragua. George Bush Junior was seen as an imperial president as he used the fear of terrorism to gain support for the 2001 patriot act and other legislation, and went to war unconstitutional in 2001 in Afghanistan and in 2003 in Iraq.
Many people argued Clinton was imperial. This was due to two reasons. First, he wrote a letter that America would follow all parts of a treaty that lost in senate, and took part in military action in Bosnia, Serbia and Haiti and approved air strikes in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Sudan. Schlesinger however argued that he wasn’t because he was constrained by Congress. There have been, however, presidents that can be described as Imperil. Following the Watergate Scandal in 1972, Congress had finally had enough of the Imperial Presidents.
They believed that Nixon had made illegal use of the CIA for political purpose, and that the white house was overly secretive. They past three major acts over 2 years, which brought power, back to Capitol Hill. In 1972, the Case Act was passed which meant that the president was required to submit executive agreements to congress, which prevents secretive agreements. In 1973, the War Making Act was passed which clarified the war making power of the president, and in 1974, the Congressional Budget and Impoundments Control act was passed which increase Congresses power of the budget.
This led to Presidents Ford and Carter, being impotent in dealing with foreign policy issues such as the retaking of Vietnam by the communist backed North, which led to the South Vietnamese capital, Saigon, which included the US embassy being overrun. Ford argued the congress was now full of 535 commanders-in-chief and this isn’t what the forefathers intended and it didn’t work. He wrote that some people used to complain about what they called an ‘imperial presidency’ but now the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction.
George Bush Jnr Second Term could also been seen as an imperil presidency has he was constrained by the Supreme Court and Congress. Some people say that these terms aren’t useful and do not fully sum up a presidential term. Many people argue it all depends on the situations of the time, and due to America’s involvement in nearly every country in the world, and with one of the most complex foreign policies in the world, which the Algerian Hostage Situation showed can change course in a day, it is impossible to consult on congress on every development concerning its foreign policy.
It also cannot be used to describe every president. George Bush Snr was seen as a cooperative presidency as he asked Congress before sending troops to Kuwait, and seeked bipartisan support, but then took the role of commander in chief from there. Obama can be described as neither, as he seeked congressional approval for the START Treaty in 2010, but didn’t ask congress about the use of airstrikes in Libya. I believe that in the past 60 years, presidents have been more imperial than imperiled however, when it comes down to foreign policy.
Apart from the two failed presidency’s of Carter and Ford, each president has been allowed to control foreign policy effectively and without much congressional interference, but the control peaks and troughs, therefore depending on the time even within a term, a president can change between an imperial president to an imperil president and back again. The history of presidential power over the last 60 or so years tells us that power is a variable, and that presidential power is cyclical and unpredictable. It varies according to the personality of the president, the situations in which they are in office and how well congress supports them.
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