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Imperial Presidency

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The Imperial Presidency is a term which has been used from the 1960s to describe the presidency of the United States and the President's aides. It was based on a number of observations.

  • As late as the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt the Executive Branch of the president of the United States had few staff, most of them based in the Capitol, where a president traditionally has an office (it is no longer used except for ceremonial occasions, but nineteenth and early twentieth century presidents were based there with their small staff on a day to day basis). However the modern day president has ten times as many Executive staff, many cramped in crowded conditions in the West Wing, in the basement of the White House or in the Old Executive Office Building beside the White House that used to house the Departments of Defense and State. Such is the modern overcrowding in the West Wing that President Richard Nixon had the former presidential swimming pool covered over and converted into a press room;

  • As staff numbers grew, many people were appointed who held personal loyalty to the person holding the office of president, and who were not subject to outside approval or control;

  • The office of White House Chief of Staff has evolved into what is in many (though not all) administrations a dominant executive position, turning the office into a virtual 'prime minister' on the occasions when it was held by a strong-willed dominant figure and the presidency was held by a hands off president who left day to day governance to his cabinet and his Chief of Staff. Donald Regan as Chief of Staff and Ronald Reagan as president was seen as an example of this presidential-quasi prime ministerial relationship.

  • A range of new advisory bodies developed around the presidency, many of whom complemented (critics suggest rivalled) the main cabinet departments, with the cabinet declining in influence.

Critics suggested that the range of new bodies, the importance of the Chief of Staff and in particular the large number of people, created a virtual 'royal court' around the President, members of which were not answerable to anyone but the President and on occasions allegedly acted independent of him also.

Critics of the Imperial Presidency theory counteract by arguing that

  • the Executive Office of the President makes up only a very small part of the federal bureaucracy and the President has very little influence as to the appointment of most members of the federal bureaucracy;

  • the number of people within the EOP is small and there is no institutional continuity at all;

  • the organization and functioning of most of the Federal government is determined by federal law and the President has little power to reorganize most of the federal government.

The presidencies of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan were particularly described as surrounded by 'courts', where junior staffers acted on occasions in contravention of executive orders or Acts of Congress. The activities of some Nixon staffers during the Watergate affair are often held up as an example. Under Reagan (1981-1989) the role of Colonel Oliver North in the facilitation of funding to the Contras in Nicaragua, in explicit contravention of a United States Congressional ban, has been highlighted as an example of a "junior courtier's" ability to act, based on his position as a member of a large White House staff. Howard Baker[?], who served as Reagan's last Chief of Staff, was critical of the growth, complexity and apparent unanswerability of the presidential 'court'.



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