The Imperial Presidency

Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. 1973.

Definition of Imperial Presidency: (208)

  • Foreign policy as a creation of doctrines and emotions
  • Aspiring to usurp power over [all] domestic policy.
  • Centralization in the presidency:   
    • War and peace decisions
    • Exclusion of institutions from Office of the President:
      • executive branch,
      • congress,
      • press,
      • public opinion.
    • Belief in permanent and universal crisis
    • Fear of communism [external threat]
    • Faith in the “duty” to interfere worldwide


  • Decline in power of political party (209-210)
    • Ticket-splitting
      • Independent voting (primarily among young voters)
      • Fluid affiliations
    • Party organization losing relevance
      • Waning immigration deprived city political machines
      • Rise of civil service cut patronage
    • Technology
      • Television connected people to politician
      • Computerized public opinion polls linked people to politician
    • Political emotion tied to President, not party
  • Economic changes (210-211)
    • Great depression engaged government into economic activity
      • New Deal and WWII
        • Constitution of Rights à Constitution of Powers
        • Restrained by “equity”
      • Keynesian: federal budget center for economic control
        • Deciding government outlays à deciding social priorities
        • Private ownership generated gross inequality
        • National control civilized industrial society
        • Organized for executive use
        • Possible favoritism, injustice, graft
  • Historical opportunity [for Nixon] to consolidate powers (219-223)
    • Power shift from the Cabinet to the White House
      • Nixon drastic increase in staff, assistants
      • Kissinger “more powerful” than Secretary of State or Defense
      • Haldeman decided if Nixon would see documents, etc.
      • Result was “enthronement of unreality”
        • President’s staff mimicked/mirrored President
          • Solipsistic (only the self exists) Presidency
  • Use of Media (223-232)
    • T.R. initiated White House press conference
    • F.D.R. transformed press conference into political instrument (twice a week)
      • FDR held 1011 press conferences in 12 years
    • Truman held press conferences once a week
    • Eisenhower issued transcripts at press conferences
    • Kennedy issued transcripts and was live on TV
    • Nixon: press conference and cabinet meetings “practically disappeared.”
      • 28 press conferences in first 4 years.
    • Nixon goes “primetime”
      • In his first 18 months, Nixon “primetime” more than Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson combined.
      • “enfeebled” press conference as institution
      • Distanced President from press and public opinion
    • Nixon scornful of dissidents, particularly in foreign affairs or the media
  • Psychology of the Imperial Presidency (232-277)
    • President may manipulate economy to make a boom for the elections
      • Price controls, tax relief, subsidies, tariffs, import quotas
        • Milk prices set
        • Deals with Society Union and MNCs
    • Make interests “dependant on government favor”
      • Reward sympathetic sectors, punish the unregenerate
      • Beneficiaries contribute to party/president
      • Cycle of [economic] favors to establish a durable pattern
        • Vote out Republicans-kiss your own job good-bye too
      • Nixon’s economic management was “notoriously incompetent”
    • Appropriation of the war-making power
    • Appointing power
    • Unilateral determination of social priorities
    • Unilateral abolition of statutory programs
    • Attack on legislative privilege
    • Enlargement of executive privilege
    • Theory of impoundment
    • Theory of pocket veto
    • Disparagement of cabinet
    • Calculated discrediting of press
    • White house management of federal management
    • Not power of the people, but, power of the presidency
    • Plebiscitary presidency
      • national self-determination by the president
      • shielded only by elections every four years
  • Runaway “revolutionary presidency” momentarily checked
    • Institutions
      • Independent judiciary
      • Free press
      • Investigative power of congress
    • Courageous individuals risk being “enemies”
      • John Sirica and judicial inquiry of burglary
      • Katherine Graham in the free press
      • Sam Ervin and congressional investigation
    • Loyalty to institutions over the person
      • FBI leaked truth to keep their integrity

2 thoughts on “The Imperial Presidency

  1. Pingback: 2012 Unitary Executive: Presidential Power and Agency « Political Pipeline

  2. Pingback: Review for American Politics Comp. Exams | Political Pipeline

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