Imperial Presidency

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Imperial Presidency is a term, used to describe the modern presidency of the United States, which 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: that the US presidency was out of control and that it had exceeded the constitutional limits.[1]

It was based on a number of observations. In the 1930s, the president had few staff, most of them based in the US Capitol, where the President has always had an office. The Oval Office is still used when the president is in the country and not traveling, but it is most often used for ceremonial occasions, but in the 19th and early 20th centuries, presidents were more regularly based there with a small staff. However, Franklin D. Roosevelt's leadership during the Great Depression and World War II changed the presidency. 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 led to a transformation of the presidency.

The president has a large executive staff most often crowded in the West Wing, 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

  • 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 (critics suggest rivaled) the main cabinet departments, with the cabinet declining 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 (book).
  • 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. That has been considered evidence of an Imperial Presidency.

Some have suggested that the range of new agencies, the importance of the Chief of Staff, and the large number of officials created a virtual 'royal court' around the president, with members not answerable to anyone but him and on occasions acting independently of him as well.

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. 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."

Criticisms of the theory

  • 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[2] 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

See also


  1. Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr., The Imperial Presidency, page x, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1973. [ISBN 0395177138]
  2. 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."