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Dissertation "The growth of presidential power and the risks of caesarism"

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When the Founding Fathers drafted the Constitution, they had "a government of laws and not of men" in mind. They wanted to avoid the concentration of powers and made sure that each branch of the government (legislative, executive and judicial) could make decisions on its own but could also control the other two branches and in turn be controlled by the other two. This system of checks and balances aimed at avoiding abuse and tyranny. Since George Washington, presidential power has greatly evolved. If there was a mistrust of the executive at the beginning, it gradually disappeared. At the beginning of the twentieth century Theodore Roosevelt opened the era of a new presidency, but it was the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt that started the modern presidency. The term "caesarism" refers to the Roman emperor Caesar and in the context of the American presidency, it corresponds to what A. Schlesinger called "the Imperial Presidency". Caesar ruled his empire and was obeyed diligently. In a system of checks and balances, we can wonder whether the term "caesarism" is relevant. We can also wonder why and how presidential power grew so much to deserve the term "imperial". We will first analyze the impact of the major crises, both in domestic and foreign affairs, on the growth of power. We will then address the issue of the personalization of the presidency and we will see how the president came to be at the center of the decision-making process. Eventually, we will see how the opposition forces such as Congress and the Supreme Court, but also the media reacted and limited the growth of presidential power.

The Great Depression which started in 1929 with the stock market crash was the worst economic crisis the United States had ever had : in 1932, thirteen million people were unemployed and there was widespread poverty. Roosevelt was elected in 1932, and people expected him to solve the crisis. His New Deal program consisted in a series of fifteen reforms (such as the Agricultural Adjustment Act, the National Recovery Act, the Banking Act...) which he passed through Congress without difficulty. Indeed the president had just been elected, he had a mandate and answered people's expectations : "The Nation asks for action, and action now!". The New Deal coalition allowed Roosevelt to pass his laws, however, the intervention of the State was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1935 (Schechter Decision). Two years later, under deep popular pressure and after Roosevelt's anger (he tried to pass the Court-Packing Bill but failed in Congress), the Supreme Court reversed its decision and declared the New Deal reforms constitutional. This was a major success for Roosevelt. He also contributed to the growth of presidential power by the institutionalization of the presidency: with the Administrative Reorganization Act (1939), the White House staff increased hugely, and new offices such as the Executive Office of the President were created. The growth of the Cabinet and other offices meant that the President could have advisors, and needed less and less the support of his party. The Second World War was the other crisis Roosevelt had to deal with. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 triggered the declaration of war. The nation was at risk, and in 1942 [plutôt 1936], the Supreme Court ruled in the case US v. Curtiss-Wright Export Corp. It was a very important decision because it made the President's powers "plenary and exclusive". The President was the "sole organ" in foreign affairs. This decision was widely used by the following presidents to justify their interventions in foreign countries. Indeed after the Second World War, the Cold War started and the enemy was communism. If the president is the Commander-in-chief of the armed forces, it is Congress which is the only one allowed to declare war. However, following the doctrine of "emergency prerogative", several wars were waged without Congressional approval : President Truman waged war in Korea, Johnson in Vietnam, Nixon in Cambodia, Bush Sr in Panama, Clinton in Serbia… the examples are numerous and illustrate the growth of presidential power. In Vietnam, Congress even gave Johnson a blank check with the Tonkin Resolution (in August 1964) which allowed the president to use armed forces in the conflict. The recent terrorist attacks on 9 September 2001 were another example of presidential intervention : the Patriot Act was passed in October 2001, and for the first time in American history since Lincoln, Habeas Corpus was suspended. This decision severely restricted civil liberties. In November 2001, an executive order created military tribunals for "unlawful combatants". Anyone considered as an enemy or suspected of being a terrorist, in the United States or in a foreign country, could be arrested and sent to Guantanamo prison without fair trial. This could be used as an illustration of "caesarism". Congress easily bowed to the President's wishes, because the impact of the terrorist attacks on the whole society was so deep that no one dared oppose what was a severe restriction of civil liberties at the time. In times of crisis or war, national interest comes first and the intervention of the President himself is considered as truly justified. His personality is an important aspect which plays a crucial part in the growth of presidential power.

The President is the only man who is elected by the whole nation : it gives him a legitimacy that no other member of the government has. The mandate given to him allows him to act and take radical decisions such as the ones Roosevelt took to establish the basis of the Welfare State. Roosevelt's charisma and strategy allowed him to be elected four times. His regular addresses to the nation on the radio, his "fireside chats" gave people confidence. One of his famous sentences is "The only thing you have to fear is fear itself". The popular support he had probably played an important part in the change of mind of the Supreme Court concerning the New Deal. Other presidents used public image and charisma for different purposes : to be elected or reelected, but the ultimate goal was to have public opinion's support. Kennedy and Reagan epitomize the personalization of the presidency. Kennedy's assassination traumatized America, and even if his legacy (as far as reforms are concerned) is limited, it benefitted Johnson who could pass many laws concerning civil rights and his "Great Society" program. Reagan also used this strategy (called "Go Public") which involved : regular addresses to the nation, use of television and other media, and also a lot of trips inside the country and abroad. But Reagan, who was nicknamed "the Great Communicator", did not have a big experience in politics. He let his staff do a lot of work. Bud McFarlane, one of his advisors, said about him "He knows so little, yet he accomplishes so much". In foreign affairs, his second mandate can be considered as a failure with the Iran-Contra scandal which can be considered as one of the "risks of caesarism". Because Congress refused to fund the war against the Nicaraguan Government, Reagan allowed, or at least let some of the National Security Council advisors break the law (the Boland Amendment) and fund the anti-Marxist guerilla via the illegal sales of arms to Iran. This scandal which broke out at the end of Reagan's second term should have led to the impeachment of the President . However, because of his old age and the timing (the end of the second term), Reagan was not impeached. Another scandal which discredited the presidency was the Watergate. Nixon was obsessed with his re-election (what Lewis Gould called the "continuing campaign") and he broke the law : he used wiretapping to spy on his political oponents but also citizens and journalists. Then when the affair was revealed in 1972, he tried to conceal evidence, refused to hand over the subpoenaed tapes to the Supreme Court and invoked the "executive privilege" of the President. In US v. Nixon, the Supreme Court refused Nixon's argument, and the impeachment process was started on three accusations obstruction of justice, concealment of evidence [my mistake, in fact : abuse of powers] and contempt of Congress. The wiretappings were only one of the many illegal deeds. Nixon resigned to avoid certain impeachment, but still denied wrongdoings. In an interview, he declared later "If the President does it, it means that is is not illegal". So the risk of caesarism can also be illustrated by Nixon's presidency, and the consequences of the plebiscitary presidency proved to be disastrous : it discredited the Presidency and put the following president in a difficult position. Even though Ford said "Our long national nightmare is over", he could not do much during his three years at the head of the government, as Congress strongly reasserted its rights.

Congress reasserted its rights after the Watergate scandal, but it was not the only time it tried to stop the President from abusing of his power. In 1973 with the War Powers Act, Congress tried to put an end to the Presidents' use of war powers. The Act forced the President to consult Congress before sending troops. In the context of the Vietnam War, public opinion was deceived, Johnson isolated himself and abused of his power, sending more and more troops without Congressional approval. Under Nixon who used an admnistrative strategy (the impoundment of funds) to frustrate Congress, the Budget and Impoundment Control Act was passed. Congress tried many times to reassert its rights, and so did the Supreme Court who ruled against Truman in 1952 in the Steel Mill seizure case. Truman wanted to seize private property to support his war against Korea, but the Supreme Court forbade it. Its decision was justified by the fact that only Congress could do it. More recently after the terrorist attackes, the Supreme Court ruled against the President in two decisions : Hamdi v. Rumsfeld and Rasul v. Bush and declared military tribunals unconstitutional. The Supreme Court took a long time to make those decisions, and even with those rulings, the Court does not have many means to make sure its decisions are applied in reality. In the Buckley v. Valeo case, the Supreme Court decided that it was unconstitutional to limit the funding of the election campaign because it was against the idea of free speech granted by the Constitution. This decision was very important because it shows how sometimes the Court contributed to the growth of presidential power, even if it was unvoluntarily. Money is a crucial aspect of the presidential campaign : the candidates must raise huge funds in order to promote their campaigns. Lobbying plays a role that cannot be neglected : the support of big organizations such as the National Rifle Association to the Republican Party allows to raise money, but in return, such lobbies expect to have favours. The president can therefore raise a lot of money but also be under a lot of pressure in the decision-making process and will not do something that will not please millions of voters. Or he may try to pass a law in order to please them, and more money will definitely mean more power. The media can also be determining in either highlighting or tarnishing the president's reputation : during the Vietnam War, journalists covered the war and showed images that did not do any good to President Johnson's popularity. There was already a credibility gap because public opinion felt it was not told the whole truth. With the Pentagon Papers, the press revealed that the war had been started on false grounds, and the public was deeply against the war, pushing Johnson not to run for his reelection.

Opposition forces do exist, but they tend to disappear when the president has the support of public opinion. "The risks of caesarism" can be illustrated by the President's abuse of power, and the different strategies used to expand presidential power. Everytime presidential power grew, it was mostly because the system of checks and balances proved inefficient and submitted to the President's will. However, a strong presidency also had positive impacts on society : the New Deal and Johnson's Great Society are two examples that show that the growth of presidential power can be positive. The term "caesarism" can also be applied and the consequences in society were not so happy, with scandals and restrictions of liberties. Ultimately, it is the people who is the ultimate judge, as it can choose whether or not to reelect the president.

Note obtenue : 14 Comme quoi, même avec quelques erreurs dans les dates ou dans les faits (sans parler du style!), on peut quand même réussir! Bon courage à tous ceux qui passent les épreuves sur ce programme de civi américaine tellement intéressant, mais tellement vaste!

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