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Imperial Presidency

An imperial presidency is characterized by having greater powers than those clearly provided for in the U.S. Constitution, as it pertains to the executive branch.

Origin of “Imperial Presidency”

The historian Arthur Schlessinger popularized the term with a book, Imperial Presidency, published in 1973. Schlessinger’s book focused on what he saw as the abuses of the Nixon administration, and called on Congress to impeach the president for going so far beyond the bounds of his constitutional powers. 

Schlessinger argued that, with the end of World War I and the onset of the Cold War, the United States had turned into the most powerful nation on earth.

By extension, the US president had become a kind of elected world emperor. More specifically, Schlessinger complained that Nixon was abusing war powers which should have been reserved for Congress. 

Since 1973, the term “imperial presidency” has been applied pretty routinely to many administrations, both Republican and Democrat.

In 2001, for example, the Cato Institute summed up President Clinton’s tenure by calling him an imperial president.

The group argued that Clinton had been “Nixonian” in his foreign policy, and that he had completely bypassed Congress in his bombing of the Balkans and in his threats to invade Haiti:

As President Clinton’s tenure ends, pundits are trying to define the “Clinton Legacy.”

Many have focused on the Lewinsky scandal and impeachment, but Clinton may find his legacy in a less sordid but no less shameful aspect of his presidency: his abuse of executive authority in foreign affairs.

Undeclared wars and contempt for constitutional limits on presidential power mark Clinton’s foreign policy.

Future historians may well remember Clinton as the man who ensured that the “Imperial Presidency” would not vanish with the end of the Cold War.”

A few years later, the New York Times was applying roughly the same language to the George W. Bush administration:

The war is hardly the only area where the Bush administration is trying to expand its powers beyond all legal justification. But the danger of an imperial presidency is particularly great when a president takes the nation to war, something the founders understood well. In the looming showdown, the founders and the Constitution are firmly on Congress’s side.

President Obama’s critics also accused him of abusing executive powers, especially when it came to immigration, relations with Iran, and natural gas. (His critics on the left complained about his allegedly illegal use of drone strikes, too.)

As it happens, Donald Trump was the first president in recent memory to not face accusations of being “too strong.”

Still, Trump’s critics complain that, even when the president is in a weak position, he may be misusing the powers of the presidency.

At least, that’s what one op-ed in the New York Times suggested:

The president may seem weak, but the presidency remains strong. Mr. Trump has illustrated that even a feeble commander in chief can impose his will on the nation if he lacks any sense of restraint or respect for political norms and guardrails.

True, Mr. Trump has not been able to run roughshod over Congress or ignore the constraints of the federal courts. But he has been able to inflict extensive damage on our political institutions and public culture.

Use of “Imperial Presidency” in a sentence

  • Critics of the current administration have accused the President of creating an “imperial presidency” by concentrating too much power in the hands of the executive branch.
  • The concept of the “imperial presidency” has its roots in the expansion of executive authority that began during the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
  • Critics of the “imperial presidency” argue that it undermines the system of checks and balances established by the Constitution and can lead to abuses of power by the President.