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Defining the Power of the President

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Defining the Power of the President


Defining the Power of the President

Defining the Power of the President

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Historian Sean Wilentz talks with Steve Inskeep about how American presidents have defined the powers of the office. Wilentz is a professor at Princeton University and author of The Rise of American Democracy.


This long war revived one of the oldest accusations in American politics. Some of President Bush's critics on the left and right say he acts like a king. They focus on the government's treatment of detainees, or eavesdropping without court approval.

Historian Sean Wilentz says this is not the first president to be called a monarchist.

Professor SEAN WILENTZ (Historian): The Wig Party called Andrew Jackson King Andrew I, because they thought he'd overstepped his bounds. People thought that Lincoln had overstepped his bounds, the accused him of being a king. Monarchism in America is a constant charge, because we were founded as a nation against monarchy.

INSKEEP: Wilentz chronicles these battles in a book called "The Rise of American Democracy." President John Adams curtailed civil liberties in the 1790s because he feared an enemy within. His critic, Thomas Jefferson, forced Adams out of office, then expanded presidential power himself. Yet, in all these debates, Sean Wilentz has trouble finding an exact parallel for today.

Professor WILENTZ: I wish I did have an example to give you, but I think we are in an unprecedented situation. I'm not sure that a constitutional conflict, perhaps even a constitutional crisis, doesn't loom over how this danger to American security, in the form of al-Qaeda or Islamic terrorism, should be fought.

What we're seeing now is that the executive powers given to the president enable him to do things without any congressional check whatsoever, or any judicial check whatsoever. This, I've never seen. I mean, go back into American history to some of the more controversial actions by American presidents. The case of Abraham Lincoln comes to mind, when he suspended Habeas Corpus in certain parts of the country...

INSKEEP: Well, that was stopping the operation of the courts. And I should mention that this is an example of history that defenders of the president will bring up. Abraham Lincoln, one of the greatest Presidents of all, stepped, in some people's views, across the bounds and grabbed more power, because it was a dire situation.

Professor WILENTZ: And it was a dire situation. But, he got the approval of Congress. So, Lincoln, when he had to curtail American liberties in the name of fighting the Union cause, nevertheless, in the end, found himself having to obey the basic principles of the separation of powers. We're in a different world today on this, and I think that the idea that's been brewed is really a very dangerous one. Certainly, it is a very new one. We've not seen this before.

INSKEEP: Is part of the complexity here just the question of time? When past Presidents have stepped over what we're seeing as their constitutional boundaries, it was assumed that whatever they did would be temporary, and now we don't know that anything can be temporary at all.

Professor WILENTZ: Well, that's right. I mean, when you've got a, we have a war that's not been truly declared yet. I mean, the congress has the power to declare war, and the congress passed a series of resolutions giving the president certain powers to do certain things, but now we seem to be in a situation where we have war without end, amen.

And, under that situation, under a permanent, or what seems to be permanent wartime footing, then things get much trickier, because then comes the question of what would be the constitutionally correct separation of powers in that kind of situation?

INSKEEP: What are the circumstances in which Congress, historically, has gained greater power, as opposed to the executive taking greater power?

Professor WILENTZ: Well, it's only been since 1945. With the exception of the Indian Wars in the 19th Century, that the nation has engaged in these kinds of large-scale military conflicts without congressional approval.

Since then, the world has changed in ways in which the executive branch has grown tremendously. And, either with the accretion of new instruments, National Security Council, all of the rest of it, but also now, with the absorption of powers, that you have this standoff occurring. So, it's really a post-1945 problem.

The War Powers Act was one showdown. We're in another showdown right now, I think. And the White House has been quite defiant, really, about its powers as it understands it, and we'll see if the congress fights back.

INSKEEP: Sean Wilentz is author of The Rights of American Democracy. Thanks very much.

Professor WILENTZ: Well thanks, thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: And tomorrow, we'll meet a former White House lawyer who's opinions backed up an expansive view of the President's power.

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