Imperial Presidency

Imagine a leader that embodies more power than the constitution itself. In order for the president’s power to be greater than that of the United States Constitution our founding fathers created the foundation and catalyst for an Imperial Presidency. An Imperial Presidency demonstrates excessive secrecy, lack of transparency, lack of consultation, centralized consultation, disregard or refusal to abide by the Constitution, and acts as its own judge and legislator. Thomas Jefferson once said, " One man with courage is a majority" (Johnson 1). This begs the question, when is too much courage dangerous to the welfare of its society? A President’s limitations can be described as a pendulum of power, when in a time of war, strength shifts to the president, enabling robust power. At a time of peace, the power shifts back to congress, distributing checks and balances for Presidential Constraint.


With this in mind, where does this political phenomena originate? The essence of an Imperial Presidency dates back to the 1800s and still exists in modern time. Thomas Jefferson, “a fierce opponent of unilateral presidential war power… authorized military expeditions against Barbary Coast nations in the Mediterranean without congressional authorization” (Goldsmith 23). Jefferson wasn’t the only one “to assume the office of presidency as a critic of executive power then switch his position while on the job” (Goldsmith 23). During Abraham Lincoln’s time in office “he opposed the broad presidential war powers that James K. Polk exercised” (Goldsmith 23). During the Civil War however, Abraham Lincoln “would assert broader war powers than any President before or since” (Goldsmith 23). Along with the presidents before him, Woodrow Wilson illustrated beliefs in a strong yet transparent form of government. When World War 1 came, “ Wilson supported unprecedented secrecy restrictions” (Goldsmith 23). During Dwight D. Eisenhower’s term, he was orientated to “rein in the early Cold War presidency; instead he presided over the buildup of the modern secrecy system and the rise of covert action and executive privilege” (Goldsmith 23). Richard Nixon was also one to reassess matters once he was in office. Post presidential administrations are not the only ones who have conveyed attitudes and characteristics of an Imperial Presidency. The Bush Administration and the Obama Administration adopted increased zones of secrecy, disregard for the Constitution, and acted as their own legislator. All of these examples illustrate former presidents increase in secrecy, lack of transparency, lack of consultation and ultimately a growth into Imperial Presidency.


Furthermore, with the presidential terms of the 21st century, the position Commander and Chief now must deal with terrorist threats, which seem endless. These enemies use guerilla warfare and are largely faceless, meaning they blend into their surroundings and are analogous with civilians. The paradox in this issue of terrorism, is that according to our society, the president needs to be, “decent, just, caring, and [a] compassionate [leader], yet… cunning, guileful, and, on occasions that warrant it, even a ruthless, manipulative president” (Cronin 4). This paradox puts the President in a huge dilemma of doing what is right and beneficial for the greater good of humanity. To what outgrowth of the demands for safety of society outweighs the fact that some acts are unconstitutional? When George W. Bush heard the words, “use all necessary and appropriate force” (Goldsmith 37), against the 9/11 affiliates, congress and the president agreed that the safety of the nation was more important, as did almost all of the previous Presidential Administrations before him as discussed before. The extent to the Imperial Presidency phenomenon isn’t defined as to if the proceedings are constitutional and legal or not, but if it is justifies for the society they vowed to protect. Such acts can be seen throughout American Politics. From when Thomas Jefferson lead a military expedition to the coasts of Barbary, to when Obama ordered drones to target specific targets in other countries overseeing the chance for collateral damage. All of these actions were taken in response to some sort of terrorism against the United States in protection of its society.


Simultaneously, these acts of protection for society can also threaten our democracy. By breaking the codes that our founding father set upon us, we break over 220 years of tradition. One example in history is the issue of the “Geneva Conventions [not] applying to al Qaeda and the Taliban, it ignored the law requiring a warrant for applying on suspected terrorists from a secret national security court” (Goldsmith 37). This illustrates that even though the law is there, the Imperial Presidency decides to act against it. Therefore we are a nation of tradition and cyclical principles in the way Presidents govern. By breaking our Constitution we are saying that it is not good enough anymore and does not apply. By doing so, we would have to reassess every State and Supreme Court ruling for the last 220 years. In essence breaking our Constitution would be breaking our democracy. Someone once said, “it is easier to ask for forgiveness than permission”, the same theory applies to presidential decisions’. Administrations have shown that sometimes it is easier to keep things behind an iron curtain rather than tell social media every small step they take. On the contrary, this breaks the fundamental rule of a democracy. A democracy is a government in which is “ruled by the people, for the people” as illustrated in our Constitution.


In essence, these two perspectives are not compatible because they create a paradox in our Government. We cannot have a leader who is “decent, just, caring, and compassionate president, yet we also admire, is cunning, guileful, and, on occasions that warrant it, even a ruthless, manipulative president” (Cronin 4). It is natural to always want what we cannot have, and in this theory it is true. Our characteristics of an ideal president become polar opposites as we go along. This paradox goes against human nature to have all these characteristics taken into consideration when making a decision with the Administration. Socrates once said, “True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing”. This illustrates that the vast amount ideologies that we as a society possess, whom all have a different path in they feel the country should take does not progress the situation. No matter how hard a president tries, it impossible to satisfy every corner of the chart.  


All in all, Imperial Presidencies have been around since our Constitution was fabricated. The importance of an Imperial President is that it completes the negative end of the presidential paradox. For one president to distribute “powerful, popular presidential leadership that solves the nation's problems, yet not be inherently suspicious of strong centralized leadership and the abuse of power” (Cronin 4). Establish being a "common person and simultaneously a leader who is uncommon, charismatic, heroic, and visionary” (Cronin 4). Demonstrate being a “decent, just, caring, and compassionate president, yet we also cunning, guileful, and, on occasions that warrant it, even a ruthless, manipulative president” (Cronin 4). Illustrate the ability to “unify diverse people and interests; however… taking firm stands, making unpopular or controversial decisions that necessarily upset and divide” (Cronin 4). Lastly society expects our presidents to convey bold, visionary, innovative, leadership, and simultaneously respond pragmatically to the voice of public opinion. On the contrary, “We expect presidents to lead and to follow, and to exercise democratic leadership" (Cronin 4). Adhering to all of these traits simultaneously is impossible yet our president must do so. For the United States to hold one person accountable for all of these characteristics, most of which are polar opposites, is the true Imperial aspect of our society. As a Union we have to decide which polar opposite is better for our nation.

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