Imperial Presidency

Imperial Presidency is a term that became popular in the 1960s and that served as the title of a 1973 volume by historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. to describe the modern presidency of the United States. The author wrote The Imperial Presidency out of two concerns; first that the US Presidency was out of control and second that the Presidency had exceeded the Constitutional limits.

It was based on a number of observations. In the 1930s the President of the United States had few staff, most of them based in the U.S. Capitol, where the president traditionally had an office. The office is no longer used except for ceremonial occasions, but in 19th and early 20th century, presidents were regularly based there with a small staff. However Franklin D. Roosevelt's leadership during the Great Depression and World War II changed the presidency. His leadership in the new age of electronic media, the growth of executive agencies under the New Deal, his Brain Trust advisors, and the creation of the Executive Office of the President in 1939 led to a transformation of the presidency.

The President has a large executive staff whom are most often crowded in the West Wing, basement of the White House, or in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, which is beside the White House and used by the Departments of Defense and State. Progressive overcrowding in the West Wing led President Richard Nixon to convert the former presidential swimming pool into a press room.


Arguments that the United States has an imperial presidency are:

  • As staff numbers increased, 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 White House Chief of Staff position has evolved into a powerful executive position when held by a strong-willed figure in an administration of 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 were seen as examples of this quasi-prime ministerial relationship.
  • A range of new advisory bodies developed around the presidency, many of which complemented (critics suggest rivaled) the main cabinet departments, with the cabinet declining in influence. The National Security Council and the Office of Management and Budget are prime examples.
  • The Senate does not "advise and consent" to appointments to the Executive Office of the President (with only a handful of exceptions), as it does with cabinet appointments. A corollary of this is that EOP personnel may act independent of, without regard for, and without accountability to Congress.

Some have suggested that the range of new agencies, the importance of the Chief of Staff, and the large number of officials created a virtual 'royal court' around the President, with members not answerable to anyone but the President and on occasions acting independent of him also.

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".


Those that believe the presidency is not imperial in nature argue 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 tiny 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.

It has also been argued that the concept of the imperial presidency neglects several important changes in the context of governance over the last three decades, all of which tend to restrict the actual power of the President. These include:

  • Growth in the size and complexity of the federal bureaucracy;
  • A battery of post-Nixon controls on executive power, including transparency rules and "watchdog bureaucracies" such as the federal Inspectors General, a strengthened Government Accountability Office, and the Congressional Budget Office;
  • The increased willingness of bureaucrats to protest or "blow the whistle" on policies with which they disagree, and stronger protection for such behavior;
  • Changes in information and communication technologies that amplify the effect of official dissent, and increase the capacity of opponents to mobilize against executive action;
  • Declining public trust in, and deference to, federal authority;
  • Declining executive discretion over the use of federal funds, which are increasingly committed to mandatory programs;
  • Declining capacity to regulate the private sector, as a consequence of the post-Reagan shift to neoliberal policies, economic globalization, and the growth of corporate lobbies.

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