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The Imperial Presidency Embodies Political and Economic Hubris

Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger coined the term “imperial presidency” in the 1960s. It was meant to indicate that the role of the president of the United States had dramatically grown in the 20th century from being an important but fairly limited position of implementing the laws of the land as specified in the Constitution and congressional legislation to being the national chief executive wielding wide discretionary powers over both domestic and foreign affairs.

Most presidents from Woodrow Wilson to Barack Obama have relished having and extending such powers. Wilson believed the traditional Constitution, with its division of powers not only between the three branches of the federal government but between Washington, D.C,. and the individual states, was out of date, an anachronism of an earlier time that needed to be superseded by a concentration of authority and control in the central government.

Franklin D. Roosevelt presided over a new and vast growth in federal power with the New Deal agenda during the Great Depression of the 1930s and then during the war years of the 1940s. An alphabet soup of government agencies, bureaus, and departments swarmed over the country, extending the tentacles of Washington’s control over nearly every facet of social and economic life, including in the early years of the New Deal a comprehensive fascist-like central planning over industry and agriculture. Government spending and taxing also had never been so large, coming along with a new era of budget deficits creating a massive (for that time) national debt.

Presidential Powers at Home and Abroad

In the post–World War II era, another dimension to presidential power was added in the form of foreign wars and major military actions without congressional approval through official declarations of war. President Harry Truman initiated America’s participation in the Korean War through declaring it a “police action” approved by the Security Council of the United Nations.

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