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Defining the Power of the President

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Defining the Power of the President

Politics

Defining the Power of the President

Defining the Power of the President

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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.

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

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

SEAN WILENTZ: 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.

WILENTZ: 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.

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.

WILENTZ: 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?

WILENTZ: 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.

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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