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Essay/Term paper: Imperial presidency: overview

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Imperial Presidency: Overview

In his book, The Imperial Presidency, Arthur Schlesinger recounts the
rise of the presidency as it grew into the imperial, powerful position that it
is today. His writing reflects a belief that the presidency is becoming too
powerful and that very few people are making a real effort to stop it. He
analyzes the back and forth struggle for power between Congress and the
Presidency. Schlesinger breaks up the first half of the book chronologically. He
begins by discussing the areas concerning the presidency where the founding
fathers agreed and also the areas where they disagreed. He then goes on to
analyze the rise of the imperial presidency through war and recovery, with
emphasis on the events of the twentieth century. After the war in Vietnam,
Schlesinger divides the book based on the specific nature of the events that had
an impact on presidential power. He divides it based on domestic policy, foreign
policy, and the affairs that go on in secrecy.
Schlesinger provides an incredible amount of evidence to recount the ups
and downs of the imperial presidency. He provides a base for his argument with
an in-depth view of what the framers intended and how they set the stage for
development over the next two centuries. An issue that Schlesinger focuses on is
the presidents ability to make war. The decisions of the founders in this area
would have a huge impact on the power contained in the office of the president.
The consensus amongst the framers was that the president, as Commander in Chief,
had the ability to defend the United States and its interests, but the ability
to declare war was vested in the Congress. This decision set the stage for the
struggles between the president and congress. He also discussed the debate over
the power institutionalized in the presidency. At the time, there were two
schools of thought on the subject. Hamilton supported an active president, while
Jefferson argued in favor of a passive president. The final draft included a
compromise of the two theories. There was also some debate over the power of the
president versus the power of congress. Additionally, there was a compromise
made over this issue when writing the final draft. The spirit of compromise
amongst the founders was what provided a viable and secure base for the future
of the presidency.
After his discussion of the founders, Schlesinger shifts to the
president's powers of war. He analyzes every war, excluding the Revolution, that
the United States has participated in up to and including the war in Vietnam. He
discusses the specifics of each scenario and the way in which the president
handles it. Schlesinger develops the slowly growing power of the presidency by
recounting the actions that the president carried out on his own as well as
those that required the consent of Congress to be accomplished. As time
progressed, Schlesinger made note of all the major events that increased and
decreased the power of the presidency. For example, he discusses the almost
dictatorial power of Lincoln during the Civil War and then the impeachment of
Andrew Johnson shortly thereafter. These are two events that are indicative of
the seesaw struggle between the presidency and Congress. Schlesinger goes on to
discuss additional examples of conflict between the presidency and Congress such
as the dominance of Congress during the late 1800's, the annexation of Texas,
the Great Depression, W.W.II, the Korean War, and the war in Vietnam.
Schlesinger focuses a great deal of attention on the events of the
twentieth century, because, in part, this was when the power of the presidency
vaulted to the level that it currently maintains. The reason for this, in
addition to what the early presidents had done, was that the government was
growing fast and the role of the government was increasing. There were many gray
areas in which the president could extend his power. The power of the president
to make war as Commander in Chief is an example of a gray area where the
presidency was able to gain much power. Schlesinger discusses how the president
was able to gain power through the clause in the Constitution that gives the
president the power to mobilize the military, without the consent of Congress,
in the name of national defense. This clause allowed the president to deploy
forces around the world. The grayness of this area comes from the fact that what
one man may consider an act of defense, another man may consider to be an act of
aggression, and vice versa. Because of this, the presidency was able to gain a
leg up on Congress.
Schlesinger also discusses the actions taken within the inner sanctum of
the White House. His focus is on the presidents from FDR through Nixon. Many of
these men made many controversial decisions while in the oval office.
Schlesinger goes over these actions with a microscope. For instance, he
discusses the extreme secrecy and deception that Nixon practiced while in office.
He analyzes the specific actions of the administration, the reasons for the
actions, and the result of the actions. According to Schlesinger, the result of
Nixon's extreme secrecy led him to be withdrawn from the rest of the country. He
eventually created his own reality within the White House. It was a self-
perceived reality where he could do whatever he wanted, right or wrong. This led
to a somber, macabre mood throughout the White House, and eventually led to
Nixon's downfall. He goes over the administrations of the modern presidents with
a fine-toothed comb. He reviews their actions in reference to their specific
nature (i.e., internal policy and foreign policy). Schlesinger also spends a
chapter discussing the classified actions that only the officials in Washington
knew about. He reviews the covert actions throughout the history of the
presidency, not merely the twentieth century. Although, as is the case with most
other topic areas, he focuses on the modern presidents. The majority of these
secret actions involved either the CIA or the military. Even though we are
unaware that these actions are occurring, they have a big impact on both our
lives and the imperial power of the office of the presidency.

Methodology & Evidence: Imperial Presidency

Schlesinger proves his thesis by following American politics from the
founding fathers up through the Nixon administration. He recounts the major
political actions taken by the presidents over the first two-hundred years of
the United States. He shows how the presidency grew in power and stature by
reviewing the specifics of the actions of the individual presidents. Through
these actions, Schlesinger shows how the presidency gradually accumulated power.
He shows how the presidents wrestled power away from Congress bit by bit over
time. The reactions of Congress are analyzed as well as the rest of Washington,
and the general public. Schlesinger describes how the president gradually, over
time, began to make more and more decisions on his own, leaving Congress in the
dark. His incredible historical knowledge allows him to justify all his
arguments. He provides more than sufficient specific information on what was
really going on in Washington and the White House. It seems as though
Schlesinger knew the specifics and background of every major presidential
decision and treaty every made.
As he moves into the twentieth century, Schlesinger expresses the
opinion that the presidency is gaining too much power and that Congress has not
taken the necessary measures to prevent this. Schlesinger expresses disapproval
of the secrecy that presidents have been exercising and their practice of
circumventing Congress. He directs the most disapproval towards the Nixon
administration. He speaks of Nixon as the most secretive and the most
independent from Congress. The Nixon administration was characterized by the
sneakiness that Schlesinger most strongly disapproved of. Schlesinger does not
express his opinions outright, but infers them through the tone of his writing.

Presidential Power
In his book, Richard Neustadt discusses the quest for power and
influence that has become necessary for a modern president to be effective. He
believes that the constitution provides only for the president to be a clerk.
This is why it is necessary for a president to be thirsty for power to be
effective. There is very little power provided for the constitution. He has to
have the initiative to make things happen. The key to power, he believes, is
the ability to persuade people. Neustadt contends that the power of the
President is constantly in jeopardy, and that the ability to persuade is
necessary for the president not only to gain power, but to also maintain his
power. Also, Neustadt believes the president's ability to influence people is
necessary to move the three branches of government into action. He says that
there are several necessary qualities that a president must have in order to
exert this influence. The president must be tenacious while also understanding
of others. If he wants to get anything done, he must be persistent, but it is
necessary that he listen to the opinions of others and use their suggestions. As
an aspect of his persistence, a president must be able to rebound from adversity.
Then, he will have the respect and confidence of the people.
Neustadt writes the book from the perspective of the general public
looking in from the outside. He shows much understanding of the presidency and
an awareness of the position the president is placed in. His great knowledge of
the presidency and his first hand experience with the institution provide him
with the basis for his argument. He contends that the presidency is not as
powerful as we think it is. In fact, he believes that an increase in
presidential power would be good for the country and is not to be feared. In
essence, he contends that presidents should strive for power and strive for it
on their own.

Schlesinger and Neustadt both have an incredible knowledge of the
history of American politics, and both have had first hand experience as counsel
to the president. Although, in their respective books, Schlesinger and Neustadt
express distinctly different opinions. Schlesinger is more wary of presidential
power than Neustadt. Neustadt believes that presidents should try to accumulate
as much power as possible for the good of the country. Schlesinger, on the other
hand, believes that the presidency has accumulated more than enough power, and
the other branches of government should take action to check the trend. Neustadt
believes that presidents gain power through good, hard work and persuasion.
Schlesinger writes that power is the result of sneakiness and boldness. In short,
Neustadt thought that an increase power would be positive, and Schlesinger
thought it would be a detriment.
Each author supported his argument by personifying it in a specific
president. Neustadt used FDR, while Schlesinger used Nixon. Neustadt felt that
FDR exemplified all the qualities necessary for an effective presidency. He was
vigorous, experienced, confident, and a sincere person. He was willing to do
what it took to get things done in the best interest of the country, and he did
it ethically. According to Schlesinger, Nixon was also willing to do whatever it
took to make things happen, but ethics were of little importance to him.
Schlesinger discussed how he gained his power by keeping Congress, the media,
and the public ignorant of his actions, legal and illegal. His sneaky,
underhanded ways were what led to his downfall. He had become too powerful. He
felt he could get away with anything.
Neither man is wrong. They just maintain different views. Neustadt
focused on the good things that have come from presidential power (FDR), while
Schlesinger pointed out the negative (Nixon). Although, each man's argument is
not completely right. Neustadt displays a bit too much optimism. He does not
take in to account the abuses of power that are likely to happen if a president
becomes too powerful. He doesn't consider the fact that not all presidents are
completely ethical. Schlesinger expresses a bit too much pessimism. This is a
result of the Johnson and Nixon administration. Schlesinger may have been
reacting to all the negative things that were coming out as a result of Vietnam
and Watergate. The Imperial Presidency was written at a time when political
efficacy was very low. Had Schlesinger written the book at any other time, he
probably wouldn't have been that wary of an overly powerful president. If I had
to make a recommendation, I would endorse both. The seem to compliment each
other. Neustadt discusses how presidential power can improve the presidency and
the government, and enumerates the traits necessary to achieve it. Schlesinger
helps to warn us of the problems that can arise from too much power. Together,
they provide us with both sides of the argument.


Imperial Presidency
Arthur Schlesinger
Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston 1973
copyright © 1973 by Arthur Schlesinger
505 pp.

Presidental Power
Richard Neustadt
Simon & Schuster
copyright © 1986 by Macmillan College
Publishing Company, Inc


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