Guest Post: The Imperial Presidency

Tyler Durden's picture

Submitted by Charles Hugh-Smith of OfTwoMinds blog,

What we need is not a new president but a new presidency.

There are few practical limits on presidential power. This is a key dynamic in the failed presidencies of G.W. Bush and Barack Obama.

If you're not familiar with the term The Imperial Presidency, here is an introduction:


Through various means, Presidents subsequently acquired powers beyond the limits of the Constitution. The daily accountability of the President to the Congress, the courts, the press and the people has been replaced by an accountability of once each four years during an election. These changes have occurred slowly over the centuries so that that which appears normal differs greatly from what was the original state of America.

Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. popularized the term with his book The Imperial Presidency (Kindle edition), originally issued in 1973 but updated in 2004 to include a discussion of the G.W. Bush presidency. Schlesinger summarized the "World War II and beyond" expansion of presidential powers thusly:


“The weight of messianic globalism was indeed proving too much for the American Constitution. If this policy were vital to American survival, then a way would have to be found to make it constitutional; perhaps the Constitution itself would have to be revised. In fact, the policy of indiscriminate global intervention, far from strengthening American security, seemed rather to weaken it by involving the United States in remote, costly and mysterious wars, fought in ways that shamed the nation before the world.

When the grandiose policy did not promote national security and could not succeed in its own terms, would it not be better to pursue policies that did not deform and disable the Constitution?"

In general, the Constitution grants the Executive Branch few outright powers. The president is given extraordinary powers in wartime as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, and he is given broad leeway to pursue foreign policy. Presidents have long "mixed and matched" the two, sending U.S. troops and Naval forces to intervene in other nations to suit U.S. policy objectives.

President Lincoln exceeded constitutionally granted powers during the Civil War but claimed the integrity of the nation was higher priority than obeying the Constitution.

The expansion of "war powers" to times when war had not been declared by Congress began in earnest with President Franklin Roosevelt, who invoked "emergency powers" before war was declared in December, 1941.

After World War II, presidents engaged the nation in full-blown wars in Korea and Vietnam without Congressional declarations of war. A "green light" of congressional approval for whatever actions the president deems necessary was put in place after the Watergate scandal. Events since then (such as the invasion of Iraq in 2003) have revealed how far an Imperial President could go with broadly granted war powers, "presidential immunity," "signing statements" (declaring which congressionally approved statutes he would ignore or refuse to enforce) and the increasingly popular "executive orders" which enable everything from imprisoning entire ethnic populations (E.O. 9066) to claiming extra-legal powers over the entire U.S. economy.

Presidents before G.W. Bush and Obama managed to perform their duties with a handful of Executive Orders--five per term seemed about average. President Bush issued 160 in his first term while President Obama has so far issued 139. Both of our most recent presidents also made heavy use of Executive privileges such as "signing statements" and other "work-arounds" to feeble limits on presidential powers: Obama’s Executive Orders (

Imperial Presidency 101 - Unitary Executive Theory and the Imperial Presidency

Candidates Agree: Imperial Presidency Is A-OK

The implicit claim by defenders of essentially unlimited presidential power is that these broad powers are needed to run the American Empire. No Establishment figure would dare openly state that the U.S. operates a military, diplomatic, financial and commercial Empire, but that is nonetheless the case being made to justify the Imperial Presidency: an Empire requires an Imperial President with broad powers to act not just in the domestic economy and society but anywhere in the world.

What we need is not a new president but a new presidency. Unfortunately neither candidate has expressed any interest in limiting the powers of the Imperial Presidency. If the history of the past two (failed) presidencies is any guide, Imperial powers will only expand as crises offer new opportunities for extra-legal power grabs.

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
redpill's picture

Ming the Merciless 2016

CH1's picture

Can't we just stipulate that we live in a police state, and stop blowing all our time and energy on the details?

redpill's picture

On this election day, I think it's appropriate to take a step back and make a fair and optimistic evaluation of our only two (one) political parties.

On one hand, the Republicans are really fair.  They've never let the plight of the poor at home get in the way of fully funding the military industrial complex to ensure those living in the smouldering remnants of the foreign nations we obliterate have no chance of rising out of destitution as well.  Poverty at home, poverty abroad.  Fair AND consistent.

On the other hand, the Democrats are quite fair also.  Not only do they fully support the drone stikes and cruise missile attacks to kill babies abroad with reckless abandon, they always make sure no one stands in the way of killing babies at home too, to the point of, well, activitely promoting it.  Dead babies abroad, dead babies at home.  Fair AND consistent.

With these two models of fairness and consistency, it really is a hard decision.

francis_sawyer's picture

Pleased to meet you... Hope you guess my name...

redpill's picture

In closing, don't "waste your vote" by voting for anyone except Team Poverty or Team DeadBaby. If you don't vote for one of them and thereby endorse their agenda then you "don't have the right to complain."

Long live the republic!

Canadian Dirtlump's picture

I'll play the bearded galoot hawkman who screams DIEEEEEEEEEE!


With any luck we can get Queen to do the music (with a suitable replacmeent front man) on inauguration day.

Bobbyrib's picture

Ming the Merciless

Dr. Richard Head's picture

Mike Hunt for President 2016!

Dr. Richard Head's picture

I will promise to appoint a Secretary of Hotness in my cabinet.

kridkrid's picture

And there was a time in this country, a long time ago, when reading wasn't just for fags and neither was writing. People wrote books and movies, movies that had stories so you cared whose ass it was and why it was farting, and I believe that time can come again!

redpill's picture

Spalding you'll get nothing and like it!

kridkrid's picture

For those who grew up in Michigan in the 80's... "Dick Headley for Jobs" may sound familiar. He didn't win.

TruthInSunshine's picture

You bastard.

I had to DuckDuckGo that to see if it was true.

zapdude's picture

Yes, voted Gary Johnson this morning. 

Then voted NO!!! on flouridating our city water supply -- keep your industrial waste out of my drinking water!  If I wanted more flouride in my diet I would eat toothpaste - which has a poison label on it for ingesting more than a teaspoon!

Also voted against my Republicon Congressman who voted in favor of NDAA -- I picked the Libertarian candidate (whatshisname).

Sadly, we really are not given the choice of Liberty or Tyranny -- it's just Red Tyranny or Blue Tyranny.

dick cheneys ghost's picture

Fuck-wad Neo-Con Bill Kristol says we don't have an EMPIRE

blunderdog's picture

Man, if only Gary Johnson COULD kamikaze something in and blow our current political process dead. 

Inthemix96's picture

You can have nick "The Bollocks Missing" clegg.

We dont need him.  While we are on, you can also have dave "My Party Is A Bunch Of Pedophiles" cameron.  We dont need him either, good luck ........

evolutionx's picture

US Election Canceled


To the citizens of the United States of America from Her Sovereign Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

In light of your failure in recent years to nominate competent candidates for President of the USA and thus to govern yourselves, we hereby give notice of the revocation of your independence, effective immediately.

Spitzer's picture

Bush delivers

The Anchoress – Thank you, President Bush – UPDATED.

From Gateway Pundit:

President Bush Transformed Our Approach To Combating Terrorism After The 9/11 Attacks

President Bush: “As the years passed, most Americans were able to return to life much as it had been before 9/11. But I never did. Every morning, I received a briefing on the threats to our Nation. And I vowed to do everything in my power to keep us safe.”

** Consolidated 22 agencies and 180,000 employees under one agency, the Department of Homeland Security, to foster a comprehensive, coordinated approach to protecting our country.

** Provided our military with the tools, equipment, and resources to combat terrorism and other emerging threats and started moving American forces from Cold War garrisons in Europe and Asia so they can deploy more quickly to any region of the world.

** Established a unified, collaborative intelligence community, led by the DNI, to ensure information is shared among all intelligence and law enforcement professionals so they have the information they need to protect the American people.

** Combined the counterterrorism, counterintelligence, and intelligence elements of the FBI under the leadership of a senior FBI official.

** Advocated for and signed the Patriot Act, the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, and a modernization of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

** Arrested and convicted more than two dozen terrorists and their supporters in America since 9/11. Froze the financial assets in the United States of hundreds of individuals and entities linked to terrorism.

** Disrupted terrorist plots and built a coalition of more than 90 nations to fight terrorism. Partnered with nations in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and Latin America on intelligence sharing and law enforcement coordination to break up terrorist networks and bring terrorists to justice.

** Removed the Taliban from power and brought freedom to the people of Afghanistan. Supported the creation of an Afghan government that is elected by its people, respects the rule of law, and guarantees women the right to vote. More than six million children, approximately two million of whom are girls, are now in Afghan schools, compared to fewer than one million in 2001.

** Freed Iraqis from the rule of Saddam Hussein, a dictator who murdered his own people, invaded his neighbors, and repeatedly defied United Nations resolutions. Supported the creation of a democratic Iraqi government that is operating under one of the most progressive constitutions in the Arab world, and helped train and equip more than half a million Iraqi Army and police forces.

** Successfully negotiated a Strategic Framework Agreement and a Security Agreement with Iraq, which will further strengthen the relationship between our nations, provide the United States with vital protections and authorities to continue our mission to help stabilize Iraq, and establish a path for U.S. forces to reduce their presence in Iraq and return home on success.

President Bush Strengthened Support for Dissidents and Democracy Activists And Helped Millions Of People Around The World Through A New Approach To Development

** President Bush: “When people live in freedom, they do not willingly choose leaders who pursue campaigns of terror. When people have hope in the future, they will not cede their lives to violence and extremism. So around the world, America is promoting human liberty, human rights, and human dignity.”

** Met with activists from more than 35 countries and helped unify democracy advocates and boost the international standing of the opposition in countries run by totalitarian and oppressive regimes.

** Supported life-saving treatment for more than 2.1 million people and care for more than 10 million people (including more than four million orphans and vulnerable children) around the world through the President’s Emergency Plan.

** Committed $1.2 billion in funding through the President’s Malaria Initiative over a five-year period, which is on track to help reduce malaria deaths by 50 percent in 15 targeted countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.

President Bush’s Domestic Policy Achievements Built A More Hopeful America

** President Bush: “For eight years, we have also strived to expand opportunity and hope here at home.”

** Held public schools accountable, through the No Child Left Behind Act, for producing results for all students and required highly-qualified teachers in every classroom. Since No Child Left Behind took effect, test scores have risen, accountability has increased, and we have begun to close the achievement gap between white and minority students. Helped African-American and Hispanic students post all-time highs in several categories on national assessments.

** Provided more than 40 million Americans with better access to prescription drugs through the market-based Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit.

** Provided tax relief to every American who pays income taxes, which helped fuel six years of uninterrupted economic growth and 52 consecutive months of job growth. Reduced individual income tax rates, doubled the child tax credit, created a new 10 percent bracket rate, provided marriage penalty relief, eliminated income taxes for 13 million American taxpayers, and began a phase-out of the estate tax.

** Through the Faith-Based and Community Initiative, helped millions in need by expanding partnerships with nonprofits and leveling the playing field for faith-based and community organizations. These partnerships helped provide care for more than ten million people affected by HIV/AIDS, supported the recovery of more than 260,000 addicts, and matched mentors with more than 100,000 children of prisoners.

** Outlawed partial birth abortion, ensured that every infant born alive is protected [Scott: Unlike Obama], established consequences for violence toward unborn children, and took steps to protect the rights of health care providers to act according to their conscience. Provided government funding for stem cell research while refusing to sanction the destruction of human life.

** Increased total funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs more than 98 percent since 2001 and helped millions of veterans receive expedited and improved care.

** Instituted policies that helped reduce air pollution by 12 percent from 2001 to 2007 and adopted new policies that will produce even deeper reductions. Improved and protected the health of more than 27 million acres of Federal forest and grasslands and protected, restored, and improved more than three million acres of wetlands. Provided the highest recognition and protection to nearly 335,000 square miles as marine national monuments, the largest marine area in history.

** Appointed Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, Associate Justice Samuel Alito, and more than one-third of all active Federal judges, who will not legislate from the bench.

** Addressed the weakness in the economy early in 2008 by leading the bipartisan passage of an economic growth package that boosted consumer spending and encouraged businesses to expand. Responded with bold action when the financial crisis intensified by leading the passage and implementation of a rescue plan that helped address the root of the financial crisis, protected the deposits of individuals and small businesses, and helped ensure credit would remain available to individuals and families. Had the President not acted, the toll would be far worse on hardworking American families.


And more:

His administration rid the world and a nation of Sadaam Hussein, a despot whose sordid, tortuous crimes against humanity are well documented.

He paved the way for democracy in Iraq and other countries. It is still too early to tell if democracy will stick in any of those places, but people who have never voted are voting and, among others, women have new found rights to education and liberation.

If we begin to expect that any chief executive of anything — be it a country or a Fortune 500 company — cannot make a mistake or two among the hundreds, perhaps, thousands of decisions they make, then our standards have reached the point of ridiculousness.

Looking at Lincoln and Churchill and how they were viewed both in and out of office indicates how difficult it is to pre-judge history’s final assessment of a leader.

Both men were criticized for making quick and sometimes impulsive decisions against the advice of advisers. At times both were pilloried for decisions regarding war.

Lincoln bore the brunt of criticism for war casualties. More soldiers died at the Civil War battle at Antietam in one day — more than 7,000 — than the number American soldiers who have been killed in the war in Iraq. That number is about 4,500, which is not to imply those deaths are inconsequential or without great heartaches to their families.

Lincoln was criticized, as Bush has been, for running afoul of the Constitution and civil liberties. He suspended the writ of habeas corpus, which allows imprisoned persons to challenge the legality of their arrests and there were over 10,000 “arbitrary arrests” while Lincoln was in office.

We know there has not been a foreign attack on our land since 9/11. Is it because of Bush’s policies?

If it is proven he kept our nation safe, we will begin to see him differently as leader.

And Iraqis killed:

Solely in terms of numbers: Roughly one million Iraqis died under Saddam’s reign, averaging 50,000 deaths a year.

Under the American ‘oppressors’ (Bush’s troops), only an average of 6800 deaths occured a year – and the rate decreases daily.

And may I remind you that under the Bill Clinton-era embargo, the United Nations reported that more than one million Iraqis had died from nine years of deprivation (more than 100,000 a year) – with 567,000 of them children under the age of five.

George W. Bush is a hero who has protected America from all terrorist attacks for 7 years, killed 23,000+ terrorists and brought REAL peace to Iraq.


Bush also actually stabilized the Middle East:

When President Bush took over the Oval Office, he found Washington’s Middle Eastern policy locked in an unsustainable position: double containment of Iraq and Iran, with Islamic radicalism in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere festering in the background. The situation in Iraq was unfinished and untenable. Neither the no-fly zones in the Kurdish north and the Shi’ite south of the country nor the UN-imposed sanctions could be upheld much longer. Large contingents of US troops were tied up in neighboring Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Washington found itself in a fix: Those troops could not stay forever, but withdrawing them would be tantamount to handing triumph to Saddam Hussein on a silver platter.

Double containment of Iraq and Iran was unsustainable, but had to be sustained all the same. For eight long years president Clinton had not known what to do about Iraq and had opted for the easiest way out: doing nothing. After 9/11 that was not an option. Bush had to act and make an attempt at bringing a modicum of stability to the world’s most unstable region.

EIGHT YEARS on, the US position in the Gulf looks much more manageable: Strenuous double containment of Iraq and Iran has given way to difficult but doable containment of Iran. Today, Iraq looks like the most promising country in the entire region.

The war, which tragically cost the lives of so many valorous US servicemen and women, put al-Qaida on the run. By bleeding the ranks of foreign terrorists from Morocco, Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries, it took internal pressure off those very countries.

TruthInSunshine's picture

His /sarc key broke.

He must be using a physically made in the U.S. PC, Tablet, Smart Phone or Apple iGadget.



Spitzer's picture


Im just providing an alternative view. And I believe Bush was a good president.

Bush's debt was about the same as Italy's.

Bay of Pigs's picture

What are you doing at ZH then? The Yahoo boards would be more your speed.


Harbanger's picture

Don't get me started dick wad, all the statists reading ZH is the real mystery.

Vince Clortho's picture


You are buried deep in some foul, dark, mental underworld.

Get a shovel and keep digging up until you see daylight.

Good luck.

cdude's picture

@ Spitzer

I know you're not into the whole "brevity thing" but GMAFB. Maybe you should consider your own blog. You could always link to it. Just sayin'

fuu's picture

You make MDB look serious.

malikai's picture

He's pretty good. A bit long winded, but good. MDB's slacking lately.. Maybe its time we had our own election here.

marcusfenix's picture

you know the comment section really isn't designed for posting novels, it's not very conducive to discussion. It's more of a make your point in your own words ( preferably less than 5000 of them) and then link to supporting documents if you so desire.

not trying to be snarky, just thought I would float that out there.

the grateful unemployed's picture

okay Laura, you made your point, now shut up

StychoKiller's picture

"It's just a phantasy, it's not the real thing!

Sometimes a phantasy, is all you need!"  -- Billy Joel

Mercury's picture

There are no longer any practical limits to presidential power.

Remember when only congress could declare wars and make laws?


Can you imagine the country today actually going through the onerous process of amending the constitution?

Remember when everything under the sun wasn't just another flavor of "interstate commerce"?

A new federal agency here and a few presidential "acts" there and pretty soon little else matters.

NoDebt's picture

"There are no longer any practical limits to presidential power."

Only in it's duration.

I do not fear a second term under Obama.  It's his third term I worry about most.

kridkrid's picture

Whatever... This is like nixon's 12th term, or LBJ's 13th... I lose count. Circumstances will dictate who sheds the facade, not the person who holds the office.

Manthong's picture

We wouldn't be here if the 50 state's interests rather than special interests were represented in the Senate and the power of the executive and his agenda were checked according to the design in original Constitution. The beginning of the end was 1913 with the 17th Amendment and its sister acts of evil, the 16th Amendment (Income Tax) and the Federal Reserve (Bank) Act.

Mercury's picture

Pretty much. It's time to revert back to the original system where the states are strong and the federal government relatively weak (The national sovereign is called The United States of America not The United People of America for a reason).

The feds collect just enough taxes for things like a suitable military and that which (and only that which) can’t be better accomplished at the state (or more local level) and then they spend the rest of their time cutting ribbons and going to parties. If you want more redistribution of wealth, public nudity and free drugs you go live in one state, if you want minimal government with few obstacles to free enterprise you go live in another state. 50 choices is a lot of choices.

kridkrid's picture

I think you need to go whole hog. End the union completely.

Mercury's picture

No, the original set-up worked just fine (for those who were allowed to participate in it anyway). It is very adventageous for states to cede certain powers and authority to the federal government  - it's just that the list of those certain powers and authorities isn't nearly as long as we've been led to believe.

Special interests, 50 different interests or the interests of the 51% applied universally are not really workable at the 320 million person scale though.

kridkrid's picture

I think the question to ask is if the original setup created the path we are on. - I like this discussion. I think if we were to back things all of the way up, we were toast when the anti-federalists lost.

Mercury's picture

The Fourteenth Amendment, railroaded through congress in the wake of Lincoln’s assassination and Reconstruction,  was big turning point too.


Well, Doctor, what have we got? A republic or a monarchy? A republic…if you can keep it.

         -Ben Franklin leaving the Constitutional Convention, 1787 

Urban Redneck's picture

Don't let the Federal Government collect ANY tax, except tariffs on international trade.  The 50 states (with competing tax policies) could then give an allowance to the congress critters while competing amongst themselves to provide a desirable mix of taxes and services to attract and maintain people and jobs.

Ghordius's picture

is it even thinkable to reach this kind of goal without repealing the 17th first?


to the Imperial Presidency: IMHO it's not the Presidency that augmented it's powers in the 20th Century. It's Congress that allowed it.

Particularly the Senate failed to tap several presidents on their shoulders with the question: "did you ask us before starting this war?". I stopped counting in the 80's with 270 "interventions".

But to "fix" the Senate, you'd have to "fix" the 17th, too.

All roads point to the 17th, all roads point to 1913


In europe we had a looooong debate about this constitutional issue and we came with the current Council setup.

IMHO superior, but strangely and unexpectedly not easy to understand, hence the "unelected" rubbish meme from some media.

Urban Redneck's picture

In an ideal state, yes, but that ignores the current reality.  The individual state legislatures tend to be of, by, and for- the state political machines of the two parties.  The nominating process is controlled by the party machines and the corruption is at least as bad, if not worse than in the federal Senate.  Most voters in the US simply vote a party line at the state (and local) level, individual candidates can overcome the party identification impediment at the local level, but it is very rare at the state level.

kridkrid's picture

And from this, the most painless way out would be to dissolve the union.

Ghordius's picture

and the legions? and the fleets? call 'em back? in a few weeks? and what do you tell the returning warriors? and what do you think this would do to the trade balance? and the dollar? and the gas price at your local pump?