Imperial Presidency

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Imperial Presidency is a term some use to describe the modern presidency of the United States that became popular in the 1960s and served as the title of a 1973 volume by historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., who wrote The Imperial Presidency out of two concerns: the presidency was uncontrollable and that it had exceeded the constitutional limits.[1]


Up until the 1930s, the president had few staff, most of them based in the U.S. Capitol, where the President has always maintained an office (the President's Room). The office is no longer used aside from ceremonial occasions, but in the 19th and early 20th centuries, presidents would regularly operate out of the Capitol Hill office along with his small staff. However, Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidency(in office 1933–1945) during the Great Depression and World War II would alter the previous importance of the location. His leadership in the new age of electronic media, the growth of executive agencies under the New Deal, his Brain Trust advisors, and the creation of the Executive Office of the President in 1939 all marked the beginning of a consistent growth of the traditionally small presidential staff.

The president has a large executive staff most often crowded in the West Wing (redesigned in 1934), the basement of the White House, or in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, which is beside the White House and used by the Departments of Defense and State. Progressive overcrowding in the West Wing led President Richard Nixon to convert the former presidential swimming pool into a press room.

Arguments for its existence[edit]

  • As staff numbers increased, many people were appointed who held personal loyalty to the person holding the office of president and were not subject to outside approval or control.
  • A range of new advisory bodies developed around the presidency, many of which complemented the main cabinet departments, and the cabinet declined in influence. The National Security Council and the Office of Management and Budget are prime examples.
  • The Senate does not "advise and consent to" appointments to the Executive Office of the President (with only a handful of exceptions), as it does with cabinet appointments. A corollary is that EOP personnel may act independently of, without regard for, and without accountability to Congress.
  • The presidency relies on powers that exceed the Constitution. The extent of foreign policy and war powers of the presidency are questioned. Also, the extent of presidential secrecy is questioned. See The Imperial Presidency.
  • The plebiscitary presidency is a presidency that is accountable only during elections or impeachment, rather than daily to the Congress, the press, and the public.

The presidencies of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan were particularly described as surrounded by "courts" in which junior staffers acted occasionally in contravention of executive orders or Acts of Congress. The activities of some Nixon staffers during the Watergate affair are often held up as an example.[who?] Under Reagan (1981–1989), the role of Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, USMC, in the facilitation of funding to the Contras in Nicaragua, in explicit contravention of a congressional ban, has been highlighted as an example of the ability to act by a "junior courtier" based on his position as a member of a large White House staff. Howard Baker, who served as Reagan's last Chief of Staff, was critical of the growth, complexity, and apparent unanswerability of the presidential "court".

Historian Zachary Karabell argued that executive power grew further in the 21st century, due in part to congressional inaction. Citing both the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama as examples, he wrote: "9/11 saw the beginning of the current move toward an imperial presidency, as George W. Bush keyed off the crisis to expand executive authority in national security and domestic surveillance. In that, his administration had the legal but classified support of Congress, and for a time, a considerable portion of the public." Karabell said that this trend continued under Obama, and that "stonewalling" from Congress "provoked the Obama administration into finding innovative ways to exercise power," making Obama "one of the most powerful presidents ever." He wrote that this trend could potentially set precedent for even greater executive influence in the future.[2] Karabell later argued that the presidency of Donald Trump had the possibly unintended effect of eroding executive power, citing the rescission of the DACA immigration policy and the Trump administration's threat to use its position to withdraw from NAFTA as instances which have led to some power being returned to Congress at the executive branch's expense.[3]

Princeton University historians Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer have argued that aspects of the imperial presidency are apparent in the Trump administration.[4]

Criticisms of the theory[edit]

  • The Executive Office of the President makes up only a very small part of the federal bureaucracy, with no institutional continuity, and the president has very little influence as to the appointment of most members of the federal bureaucracy
  • The organization and functioning of most of the federal government is determined by law, and the president has thus little power to reorganize most of the federal government.

It has also been argued[5] that the concept of the imperial presidency neglects several important changes in the context of governance over the last three decades, all of which tend to restrict the president's actual power:

  • The growth in the size and the complexity of the federal bureaucracy
  • A battery of post-Nixon controls on executive power, including transparency rules and "watchdog bureaucracies" such as the federal Inspectors General, a strengthened Government Accountability Office, and the Congressional Budget Office
  • The increased willingness of bureaucrats to protest or "blow the whistle" on policies with which they disagree, with stronger protection for whistleblowing
  • Changes in information and communication technologies that amplify the effect of official dissent and increase the capacity of opponents to mobilize against executive action
  • Declining public trust in and deference to federal authority
  • Declining executive discretion over the use of federal funds, which are increasingly committed to mandatory programs
  • Declining regulation of the private sector, as a consequence of the post-Reagan shift to neoliberal policies, economic globalization, and the growth of corporate lobbies

The "Imperiled Presidency" was a theory of former President Gerald Ford[6] in contrast to the theory of the Imperial Presidency. Ford argued that rather than being too powerful, the president does not have enough power to be effective. The growth in the size of the bureaucracy surrounding the President since the New Deal made the executive more difficult to control. Ford said that "a principal weakness in the presidency is the inability of the White House to maintain control over the large federal bureaucracy. There is nothing more frustrating for a President than to issue an order to a Cabinet officer, and then find that, when the order gets out in the field, it is totally mutilated."

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr. (1973). The Imperial Presidency. Frank and Virginia Williams Collection of Lincolniana (Mississippi State University. Libraries). Boston: Houghton Mifflin. pp. x. ISBN 0395177138. OCLC 704887.
  2. ^ Karabell, Zachary (April 14, 2016). "How the GOP Made Obama One of America's Most Powerful Presidents". POLITICO Magazine. Retrieved October 25, 2017.
  3. ^ Karabell, Zachary (October 24, 2017). "How Trump Throws Away His Own Power". POLITICO Magazine. Retrieved October 25, 2017.
  4. ^ Kruse, Kevin M.; Zelizer, Julian E. (January 9, 2019). "Opinion | Have We Had Enough of the Imperial Presidency Yet?". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved January 10, 2019.
  5. ^ Alasdair Roberts. The Collapse of Fortress Bush: The Crisis of Authority in American Government. New York: New York University Press, 2008. Chapter 9, "Beyond the Imperial Presidency."
  6. ^ Ford, Gerald R.; Nixon, Richard (November 10, 1980). "Nation: Two Ex-Presidents Assess the Job". Time. ISSN 0040-781X. Retrieved April 1, 2019.