Study Notes

Imperial Presidency

AQA, Edexcel, OCR, IB

Last updated 22 Mar 2021

American historian Arthur Schlesinger wrote a book in 1973 titled the Imperial Presidency based upon two concerns he had with the Office of the President. First, that the Office of the President was out of control and second, that the Office had breeched the limits set by the Constitution.

Schlesinger outlined a number of areas that defined an imperial presidency and these can be directly applied to the modern Presidency.

  • The amount of staff within the Office has increased, and as many are appointed by the President they lack accountability to the agencies created by the Constitution through the Checks and Balances.
  • New executive agencies that have been created alongside the main Cabinet Departments can imply the declining influence of Cabinet and the rise of a Presidential court, whereby the President is increasingly reliant on advisors in areas where he has Cabinet Departments
  • Many appointments to the Executive Office are not subject to confirmation from the Senate, thus removing a key area of accountability in the Office.
  • The powers that the President possesses over Foreign Policy is huge, and as a result has often been questioned. Commentators point to the lack of a constitutional basis for such powers.
  • The severe lack of accountability in a Presidency. Presidents are only ever accountable at election time or through impeachment. This can be referred to as a plebiscitary Presidency.

The most extreme example of an Imperial Presidency is the Nixon Administration, especially with reference to the Watergate Scandal. In a similar fashion to reliance of Ronald Reagan on advisors can also be considered a court, especially when looking at the Iran Contra Affair.

Criticisms of the Theory

Ever since Schlesinger published his theory in 1973, criticisms of an Imperial Presidency have arisen. The main arguments are that

  • The Executive Office by comparison with the rest of the Federal Bureaucracy is relatively small
  • As the members of the Executive Office change with each administration there is no institutional continuity that is found in the Federal Agencies.
  • The huge amount of executive controls that have been introduced post Nixon including the Government Accountability Office and the Congressional Budget Office.

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