Imperial Presidency = Bad for Civil Liberties

Gene Healy has been one of the more prominent and consistent critics of presidential power going back to the Clinton administration. (Disclosure: Healy is a friend and a former colleague.) In 2000 Healy, vice president of the libertarian Cato Institute, authored the study “Arrogance of Power Reborn: The Imperial Presidency and Foreign Policy in the Clinton Years.” In 2006, Healy and fellow Cato scholar Tim Lynch set their sights on President Bush with Power Surge: The Constitutional Record of George W. Bush.

In 2008, Healy took a broader, more historical look at at the issue with his book The Cult of the Presidency: America’s Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power. The book looked at the evolution of the office of president from George Washington through George W. Bush, and was praised across the ideological spectrum, including from Ezra Klein and George Will at the Washington Post, the Economist, and Glenn Greenwald at The Guardian. Healy has now published an ebook update to the book, False Idol: Barack Obama and the Continuing Cult of the Presidency.

In terms of civil liberties, who was the worst American president in U.S. history?

I’m going to go with Woodrow Wilson: the pointless carnage of WWI, conscription, Espionage Act prosecutions on a scale much greater than the Alien and Sedition Acts, military surveillance, racial segregation of federal employees, and the Palmer Raids. Wilson wasn’t just a monstrous president in terms of civil liberties he was an absolutely pivotal figure in the presidency’s transformation from a limited “chief magistrate” to an extraconstitutional monstrosity that promises everything and guarantees nothing, except public frustration and the steady growth of federal power.
. . .
The imperial presidency is a bipartisan monstrosity, birthed by progressives, brought to maturity by conservative “unitarians.”

Obama, Civil Liberties, And The Presidency: An Interview With Gene Healy

The late American historian John Morton Blum begins his book The Progressive Presidents by describing a political gathering on a hilltop in Ascutney, Vermont, in 1967. The people assembled there are not radicals, but liberals: “good burghers … respectable suburbanites.” And they have come to oppose not merely the Vietnam War, but the toxin that lies beneath it: excessive presidential power.

Blum spends the rest of his book teasing out the irony: that once upon a time, to be an American liberal was to support “a strong presidency,” the kind of presidency created by Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson, the “progressive presidents” Blum admires.

Had Blum revisited his subject in 2007, he would have marveled at how well his thesis fared. By the late Bush years, people like the good liberals of Ascutney—now clutching lattes—were denouncing not merely the war in Iraq, but the new “imperial presidency” hatched in Dick Cheney’s basement: the signing statements that altered the meaning of laws, the secret torture sites, the spying on Americans, the efforts to destroy critics of the war, the brazen lies. “George W. Bush has quipped several times during his political career that it would be so much easier to govern in a dictatorship,” editorialized The New York Times in 2005. “Apparently he never told his vice president that this was a joke.”

But today, the liberal admiration for presidential power that Blum memorialized is back. President Obama has claimed the right to kill American citizens involved in terrorism, and resisted subjecting his decisions to either congressional or judicial review. He’s given recess appointments to nominees the Senate would not confirm even when the Senate was not technically in recess. He employed an exotic legislative maneuver to pass his health-care law and has used executive orders to institute many of the policy changes Congress would not enact. And he’s become so resistant to media scrutiny that longtime ABC News White House reporter Ann Compton recently called “the president’s [lack of] availability to the press … a disgrace.”

Through all this, mainstream liberal Democrats have mostly yawned. Liberals may not be thrilled about the drone program, but they trust Obama’s judgment in a way they never trusted Bush’s. And like progressives a century ago, they want a president strong enough to impose his will on a Congress that they consider reactionary, corrupt, and dismissive of the public will. During the Bush years, movies such as Syriana and the Bourne trilogy portrayed America’s leaders as deceitful warmongers. But in the Obama era, Hollywood has rediscovered its faith in the Oval Office. Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is an ends-justify-the-means tale of a president who shades the truth and violates the letter of the law in order to achieve the greater good of outlawing slavery. The contemporary message is clear: Do what you have to do, President Obama. We trust you.

Follow the Leader

The President is not my “boss” nor my king nor my God.

Imperial Presidents include Ds and Rs: Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama.

Pakistan has a nominal per capita GDP of about $1,200, with North Korea’s barely detectable. By comparison Sweden’s is about $58,000 and the Netherlands’ about $50,000. But North Korea is a nuclear power and the Netherlands isn’t, and has no plans to become one, and any party so minded to propose otherwise would soon find itself out of power. The assumption that developed nations will get richer under Washington’s defense welfare has been the central tenet of the American era. So now the wealthiest countries in history cannot defend their own borders, while economic basket cases of one degree of derangement or another are nuclear powers.

Perhaps this improbable division will hold. Perhaps the Axis of Crazy will be content just to jostle among itself leaving the Axis of Torpor to fret about lowering the retirement age to 48 and mandatory transgendered bathrooms and other pressing public-policy priorities. But, even under such an inherently unstable truce, the American position and the wider global economy would deteriorate.

As the CPAC crowd suggested, there are takers on the right for the Rand Paul position. There are many on the left for Obama’s drone-alone definition of great power. But there are ever fewer takers for a money-no-object global hegemon that spends 46 percent of the world’s military budget and can’t impress its will on a bunch of inbred goatherds. A broker America needs to learn to do more with less, and to rediscover the cold calculation of national interest rather than waging war as the world’s largest NGO. In dismissing Paul as a “wacko bird,” John McCain and Lindsey Graham assume that the too-big-to-fail status quo is forever. It’s not; it’s already over.

The Axis of Torpor

The Cult of the Presidency: America’s Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power (Google eBook)

Civil libertarians, human rights advocates and peace advocates should insist on a renewed congressional assertion of its power under the Constitution, Article 1, Section 8, to take part in declaring war. Among the many reasons for this reassertion is that social movements typically have greater influence over elected congressional representatives than over the more remote and secretive executive branch.

Historically, American presidents have “encroached on Congress’s war making responsibilities, leaving the legislative branch increasingly irrelevent,” according to an analysis by Bennett Ramberg, a former State Department analyst in the first Bush administration.

The Threat of an Imperial Presidency


Unfortunately, it seems that the future Aldous Huxley predicted in 1932, in Brave New World, is arriving early. Mockery, truculence, and minimalist living are best, then enjoy the decline. However, we do need a Revolving Door Tax (RDT) and to prosecute politicians and staff and their “family and friends” who profit from insider trading.

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