PROFESSOR OF RELIGIOUS STUDIES
UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO AT BOULDER
THE IMPERIAL PRESIDENCY
The Bush administration is moving this nation to the right. The shift is not as big as many people think. If you lived in Sweden, or Holland, or Cuba, the difference between Bush policies and Clinton-Gore policies would look rather small. But compared to Clinton-Gore Democrats, W. Bush Republicans are making a dramatic lurch to the political starboard.
This is not what the voters ordered. 52% of them voted for either Gore or Nader. Many who voted for Bush told pollsters they prefer Democratic to Republican policies on specific issues. They showed it by putting the Democrats back into a virtual tie with Republicans in Congress.
The voters certainly did not order a massive tax giveaway to the super-rich. The only big winners in the Bush tax cut are a handful of multimillionaires, who will get an average tax break of $2 million per year. Every poll shows that most people who know what is happening oppose it.
How can a president with no mandate at all move the country so far, so fast? How can a president who won on a fluke, almost by pure chance, so easily defy the will of the people?
The people who wrote the Constitution did not intend to give the president anything like the influence he has today. For well over a century, the U.S. got along fine with a relatively weak president. His primary job was simply to carry out the laws and policies made by Congress. Presidential power only started to grow at the end of the 19th century, when the U.S. set out on its path to empire.
The quantum leap in the president's power came with Franklin D. Roosevelt. He ushered in what historian's call "the imperial presidency." But the years from 1933 to 1945 were no ordinary time. When FDR took office and declared the Great Depression a "national emergency," few would disagree. In his first inaugural address, he announced that he would treat the Depression like a war. If Congress did not approve his policies for fixing the economy, he would take the same powers that presidents had previously assumed only in wartime. By the 1940s, he was a presiding over a nation literally at war. His powers became even greater. The emergencies of his day allowed him to take all that power with the blessing of most Americans.
Roosevelt's successors used the cold war to justify continuing the imperial presidency. They all claimed that, as long as we were fighting communism, there was a permanent state of national emergency. They used their power to create a genuine American empire.
But what emergency do we have now? Yes, our natural environment is degrading rapidly. Nearly 20% of our children live in poverty. We build more prisons than schools. We still have thousands of nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert. There are emergencies aplenty. But the new Bush administration shows no interest in facing these emergencies; if anything, it wants to make them worse, as its tax cut clearly demonstrates. So it can not claim them as justification for maintaining imperial power.
The greatest emergency today is that we all accept the imperial presidency as an unchangeable fact of life. The president is our number one celebrity, the symbol of our national greatness. He dominates the news. Indeed, he virtually determines what is news. He sets the national agenda, decides what is or is not worth talking about, and largely defines the permissible limits of debate.
It need not be so. Presidents from FDR to W. have gained so much power largely because Congress gave it to them. If Congress would take back all the power the Constitution gives it, the fluke that put W. in office would be far less damaging to our future. This is not a plea for a smaller federal government. It may take a couple of million workers to implement the policies Congress enacts. But it should be Congress, not the president, who determines what those workers do for us.
Congress will not take back its rightful power until we, the voters, demand it. We should make it clear that we do not want an emperor. That means the U.S. must stop acting like an empire and start acting like the democracy it was designed to be. And we must decide that we want our political life based on ideas and values, not celebrities and media images. That may be the greatest challenge of all. But, hey, this is an emergency. Uncle Sam Wants You!
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