A Project of the Hamburg Institute for Social Research in Cooperation with the Einstein Forum, Potsdam

Berliner Colloquien zur Zeitgeschichte

Berliner Colloquienzur Zeitgeschichte

»Imperial Presidency«—Issues and ArgumentsHosted by Bernd Greiner and Susan Neiman

19 and 20 March 2010

In discussions about the presidency of George W. Bush, a term resurfaced that Arthur Schlesinger Jr. coined—as the title of his 1973 book—in the wake of the Watergate scandal and that seemed to have fallen into disuse in the interim: the »imperial presidency«.

The term imperial presidency highlights issues that transcend the question of how individual presidents administer their office. Who reaches decisions about war and peace? What is the scope of executive power? When is legislative approval for presidential policies essential? What is the role of the judiciary in these debates and decision-making processes?

Obviously, these issues are pertinent to the core of American politics. Equally obvious are their impacts on the democratic political system, that is, on the separation of powers between the three branches of government; on control of the institutions that wield power and those that are authorized to use force; on the primacy of politics over the military; and on public participation in decisions that pertain to the most important individual and public good: to life and the inviolability of physical and mental integrity.

Moreover, these are questions that preoccupy not only the U.S.A. but also other democracies and will continue to do so for some time to come.

In the United States, the rise of the imperial presidency in the twentieth century marks a political turning point. Until World War II, the extended executive powers, more generally, and presidential powers, more specifically, that were by-products of American involvement in wars were al ways curtailed in times of peace. But in the post-1945 era, such efforts failed again and again, as the permanent state of emergency created by the Cold War and nuclear armament took their toll on the balance of power.

Reconstructing the history of failed attempts at correcting this imbalance calls for more than careful scrutiny of the presidential will to assert and exercise power. The success of the imperial presidency is unthinkable without a legislative branch of government that voluntarily forfeited its right and duty to control the executive and thus deprived itself of power. Last but not least, the concept of the imperial presidency points to the American public’s tendency to rally behind strong presidents as well as its willingness to tolerate even extreme claims to power and mobilize support for the country’s commander-in-chief proactively in times of crisis.

The damage to democracy resulting from these developments—damage which is both institutional and normative in nature—has become all too clear in the wake of 9/11. The following catchwords might serve as guidelines in surveying the history of the imperial presidency: political paranoia or »the paranoid style in American politics«; fantasies about conspiracies; security concepts and notions of insecurity; visions of inside and outside. In a nutshell: any analysis of the imperial presidency that is not rooted in an understanding of the »politics of emotion« will fall short of the mark.

Discussing the imperial presidency offers an opportunity to employ historical analysis as a tool for promoting our understanding of contemporary political developments, both in the United States and elsewhere.

At the workshop, we discussed the following issues with a small group of invited scholars. Rather than presenting formal papers, we asked all participants to be prepared to contribute their perspectives on these topics to our discussions:

First: With what means and in what ways did U.S. presidents extend their powers of office before and during wars and states of emergency, to the detriment of other constitutional organs?

Second: How successful were the efforts undertaken by the legislative to regain lost ground? When and under what circumstances could the legislative assert its claims to power? When did attempts to revoke presidential powers fail? In other words, how realistic were hopes that the political system would correct itself?

Third: What was the role of the political sphere in these controversies? How did it participate in these debates, and what was the result?

Conference language was English.



Interview with Bernd Greiner

Tim B. Müller and Christopher H. Pyle in Mittelweg 36 (in German)