Editor's note: David Adler will speak on this topic tonight at 7 at the Coeur d'Alene Public Library. Admission is free.
Any assessment of the state of the American presidency - its powers, limitations and responsibilities - has the duty to acknowledge that it remains the symbol of the nation's hopes and aspirations, and the inevitable target of criticism and blame when things go wrong. The Presidency, it may be said, is All Broadway, all the time.
Yet the singular focus on the chief executive - to the exclusion of Congress - as a source of solutions to everything that ails the nation, has generated a cult of the Presidency, clothing the Office of the President with a popular mystique that has led ineluctably to the Imperial Presidency. When the citizenry looks to the President as the nation's problem solver, you can bet that the President will assume powers - constitutional or not - sufficient to meet Americans' expectations.
No modern president has refused the opportunity to aggrandize power that will facilitate achievement of goals, in either domestic or foreign relations. Politics, at the local or national level, is about power, and presidents are not immune to the temptations to abuse power for the sake of their political agendas.
The concentration of power in the executive, particularly when it comes to matters of war and national security, represents a distortion of the constitutional design and poses a grave threat to republican values. When the Framers of the Constitution invented the Presidency, they were scrupulous in sharply limiting the powers of that office. Their reading of history and their own experience under King George III had instilled in them a deep-seated concern about executive power. They studiously avoided the creation of an embryonic monarchy and the stench of the prerogative power that had been wielded against their liberties.
When it came to the most awesome governmental power, the authority to send troops into battle and to take the nation to war on behalf of the American people, the Framers granted the war power, not the president, but to Congress. To a man, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention were opposed to unilateral executive war-making. As explained by James Wilson of Pennsylvania, second in importance only to James Madison as an architect of the Constitution, "the system was designed to prevent one man from hurrying us into war."
Yet, over the past half-century, presidents of both parties, Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, have defied the Constitution and plunged America into wars and military hostilities without congressional authorization. For the Framers, who were committed to executive subordination to the rule of law and fashioned impeachment as a means of remedying executive abuse of power, presidential usurpation of the war power represented the most dangerous threat to constitutional principles and republican values.
In the modern era, we have witnessed repeated violations of the Constitution by the executive. The restoration of a constitutional presidency is a matter of great moment. There is an urgent need for the citizenry to equip itself with the information and knowledge necessary to remedy this state of affairs. Are citizens listening and ready to act?
David Adler is the Cecil D. Andrus Professor of Public Affairs at Boise State University, where he serves as Director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy. He has lectured nationally and internationally on the Constitution, the Presidency and the Bill of Rights.