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This essay is meant to explore the nature of executive power as the American Constitution conceived it, and the historic pattern of the growth of that power over the past 220 years.
Today’s debates are echoed in those which attended the nation’s first chief executive, George Washington.
Presidents, they say, should generally refrain from acting unless they have obtained the express permission of Congress and the courts.
American history and law provides little support for this view. Bill Clinton launched a unilateral air war in Kosovo. Bush terminated the ABM treaty and withdrew from the International Criminal Court.
Unless Congress and the judiciary agree, or at least acquiesce, it is a given that Presidents cannot pursue their policies over the long term, under the American constitutional system.As Theodore Roosevelt observed, “if Lincoln had lived in times of peace, no one would have known his name now.” James Buchanan, Lincoln’s predecessor, or Herbert Hoover, struck by the Great Depression, and even Calvin Coolidge, whose laconic inaction has nevertheless been admired for its discreet charm, are generally not accounted great presidents.Still, the fact is that Presidents draw upon a deep well of constitutional authority and historical precedent to act, should they so choose.Almost all modern presidents have moved to expand their power.So it is an even bet that given the foreign policy challenges of Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, and North Korea—not to mention the disruptions to the domestic economy of the credit crisis—Barack Obama will soon be drawing on the well of executive power every bit as deeply as his predecessors have.