If We Want to Rein in the Imperial Presidency We Have to Grade Presidents Differently


Ms. Brown, Ph.D., earned her doctorate in political science from UCLA in 2001. She teaches at California State University, Channel Islands, and can be reached at larambrown@aol.com.

It’s partly our fault.1 Presidents want and work to be imperial because of us – scholars. As often as we argue that presidents go beyond the boundaries of the Constitution because of historical precedents, constitutional paradoxes, strategic calculations, and irresistible calls of character, we neglect our own role in urging presidents toward imperial actions. It’s time we take responsibility for our normative judgments and engage in corrective measures from within the walls of the academy. If we want presidents to respect separation of powers and defer to Congress, then we need to reconsider our definitions of presidential leadership and greatness.

Many presidential studies describe a select few men who asserted imperial authority while in office as “great” and “strong” presidents who exhibited “courageous leadership.” Marc Landy and Sidney Milkis remind us that “a recent poll of thirty-two eminent historians and political scientists singled out Lincoln as the greatest president in history.” They go on to explain that “like the other contenders for presidential greatness in American history—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln—Franklin Delano Roosevelt left more than a record of achievement; he left a constitutional legacy.” Hence, scholars lionize imperial presidents like Lincoln and Roosevelt as men who saw what needed to be done and took action to redefine the constitutional relationships to work as they saw fit, not as the framers had originally intended.

Collectively, we praise these presidents for their energy, vision, and initiative. We justify—rather than admonish—these presidents’ extra-constitutional actions as necessary expansions of executive power during extraordinary times. Few studies acknowledge that there may have been other, more constitutionally appropriate options available to these presidents or that there have been unintended consequences from their legacies.2

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s The Imperial Presidency (1973), which first sounded the alarm about the growth of the executive, excuses presidents like FDR and JFK because their extra-constitutional actions were done for normatively good reasons. Even if we grant that Lincoln and Roosevelt acted appropriately, they died before they had an opportunity to initiate a contraction of executive power. As a result, we don’t know whether or not they would have. We assume they would have (after the crises had passed) because we assume that they expanded executive power for good reasons. There is, however, no evidence for this other than their words.

Upon close examination, the literature reveals that these presidents are great not because their extra-constitutional actions were necessarily justified, but because they convinced us that they were legitimate—good, right, legal, and moral. Stephen Skowronek tells us that “successful political leaders do not necessarily do more than other leaders; successful leaders control the political definition of their actions, the terms in which their places in history are understood.” In essence, we accept their vision and we repeat it in our studies.

How did they get us to accept it? Landy and Milkis explain: “Great presidents were not apart from democratic politics; they mastered it.” Their mastery was in persuading us that they fought for democratic principles and that they worked to secure liberty for all. Their ends appeared to justify their means. Hence, we minimize their transgressions.

A few have seen through this strategy. Alexander Hamilton wrote to Edward Carrington in 1792: “If I were disposed to promote Monarchy & overthrow State Governments, I would mount the hobby horse of popularity—I would cry out usurpation—danger to liberty &c, &c—I would endeavor to prostrate the National Government—raise a ferment—and then ride the Whirlwind and direct the Storm.”

But most of us aren’t as discerning as Hamilton. And this is why we’re partly responsible for sitting presidents attempting extra-constitutional actions coupled with rhetorical justifications. Presidents want to leave an institutional legacy, to restructure the constitutional relationships between the branches, and to be remembered by us as great, strong, courageous leaders.

Can you blame them? Perhaps, they are ruled by what Hamilton knew would animate the men who quested for the presidential chair—“the love of fame, the ruling passion of the noblest minds” (Federalist 72)?

While we cannot simply downgrade presidents like Lincoln and Roosevelt because they were imperial, there are a few corrective measures we can employ immediately to develop a more differentiated understanding of greatness and leadership. Presidential leadership has come to mean dominating the other branches of government, while keeping the public enamored and attached to one’s presidency. This has got to change, if we want presidents to respect constitutional boundaries and defer to Congress.

If we take separation of powers seriously, then we’ll stop expecting presidents to win when they engage in a battle with another branch of government. Their success rates should be around 50 percent because presidents have limited powers over other branches. Presidents are not “weak” just because they cannot pass legislation. If they had wanted to pass legislation, they would have tried to become Speaker of the House, rather than president of the United States. Similarly, if they had wanted to set legal precedents, they would have followed a career path that would have led them to the Supreme Court, rather than the White House. What we should be doing is looking at how presidents fulfill their constitutional duty, how they “faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and…preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States,” rather than how they dominate the other branches with their agendas.

If we take the Constitution seriously, then we’ll stop using the president’s national approval rating to measure public support. The selection method for the president is the Electoral College, which means that an aggregate number is a poor reflection of his electoral and/or public support. Scholars curious about presidential approval should be looking at how a president is either expanding or diminishing his party’s electoral coalition. How his administration is playing in the states that he won? These are better measures of pubic attachment than a Gallup poll.

Lastly, we need to redefine presidential greatness away from simply imperial actions during extraordinary times. It’s important to recognize other political achievements. A simple library search will bring up many more scholarly books and articles on Abraham Lincoln than on Grover Cleveland, despite the fact that Grover Cleveland is the only person to have won the office twice—in nonconsecutive terms.3 This was no small achievement.

If we want different presidents, then we must measure greatness and leadership differently. We’re impacting both politics and history, whether we want to recognize it or not. If we don’t change, it’s unlikely that the presidents will.

1 I use the first person in this essay because I am as much apart of this tradition as anyone in presidential studies. The book manuscript (Presidents, Parties, and the Politics of Survival, forthcoming 2006, Lynne Reiner Publishers) that I recently completed focused on the “great” presidents before they won office in an attempt to understand the strategies of successful presidential aspirants.

2 One notable exception to the majority of presidential studies is a forthcoming book (July 2006, SUNY Press) edited by Christopher S. Kelly, Executing the Constitution: Putting the President Back into the Constitution.

3 A Library of Congress keyword search of “Abraham Lincoln” revealed 3580 entries, while a search of “Grover Cleveland” brought up 368 entries.


Freeman, Joanne. 2001. Alexander Hamilton: Writings. New York: The Library of America.

Landy, Marc and Sidney M. Milkis. 2000. Presidential Greatness. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.

Skowronek, Stephen. 1993. The Politics Presidents Make: Leadership From John Adams to George Bush. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

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More Comments:

Patrick M. Ebbitt - 9/24/2006

Dear Frederick,

Still forgot about GHW Bush & the Willie Horton 'race' card deal so you're correct and being committed is righteous punishment for anyone who could forget that fairness in voting tactic.

It is amazing that a screwball can write, "it is interesting how Reagan, Bush I and Bush II have deflected that prejudice then revered it at the ballot box" totally oblivious to not only history but, reality and it is the questioner that is deemed certifiable.

Especially, in the case of good 'ol Dutch, as contradictory to even a dye-in-the-wool Republican, such as you, as any traitor to his party can be. God rest his wicked senile little soul. Dealing with the hated enemy Iran, handing them advanced arms which have/will be turned against our own troops, funneling drugs into the US, extending the stay of the hostages at the Tehran Hilton for a few extra hours and subsequently laying the ground work for Central America death squads. The latter, being the only positive, in that it killed a few dozen or so of those loud mouth, potentially pedophiliac scum Catholic Priests and no good, rabble rousing slut nuns.

Seriously, if you have any Young Pioneer badges please forward as they make great coasters or can be cut out in the shape of little Stars of David for those of us to be lined up for room reservations at Halliburton's new domestic detention centers.

See you there...

Patrick M. Ebbitt - 9/24/2006

Yeah, that's right said Fred...

A left leaning MSM... MYTH!!!

No October Surprise from Reagan... NOT!!!

GHW Bush trading arms and dope to the enemy Iran... NO WAY, YOU DON'T SAY!!!

GHW Bush being so removed from how the rest of us really live he is blown out by a bubba from sticksville... SAY IT AIN'T SO!!!

GW Bush, his brother and the brothers mistress fix the 2000 vote in Florida... CAN'T BE!!!

GW Bush, Ken Blackwell and Diebold fix the 2004 vote in Ohio... THE CAD'S!!!

If you are going to re-write history go do it at a site where other wing nut will not question your inane ramblings and buy into your bullshit hook-line and sinker.

William R. Everdell - 2/19/2006

Try asking your students for their list of "great" presidents. Then explain, as I do when asked, why Polk is at the bottom of my list and Van Buren is at the top.

-WR Everdell

William R. Everdell - 2/19/2006

Thought I'd chime in as a long-time schoolteacher. Thanks Prof. Brown. Scholars and journalists DO have a huge effect on us. I have fought long (and genially, I hope) with my president-worshipping colleagues to get away from the standard presentation of U.S. history in the form of presidential "reigns." After Watergate I even wrote a book about the history of "republics," defined as states which (like ours--so far) are ruled by more than one person at a time ("The End of Kings," 1983, pb 2000). There is an awful lot of spadework to do in scholarship and journalism before we can get back to an understanding of the presidency as the "fetus of monarchy" that Randolph called it in the 1787 Constitutional Convention, as opposed to the simple chairmanship of the legislature that it was for Presidents like John Hancock and John Hansen.

Perhaps the spadework might begin with the many dismayingly unhistorical doctors of Political Science who have learned their introductory analysis of the presidency from the wrong classics: Richard Neustadt, say, rather than Clinton Rossiter.

-WR Everdell

Michael Barnes Thomin - 2/10/2006

Dr. Brown,
I agree, it is interpreted as that. But I was always taught integrity meant exactly how I posted it. I should note, for whatever it's worth, that I was not the only person who was taught this- my friends in the military define integrity in the same way, and I for one think it is spot on. Besides, not being a hypocrite should be taken as a given quality for any given leader at any level, and need not be a special trait that we look for to set them aside from all the others.

Best regards,

Jason KEuter - 2/10/2006

I agree that scholars do praise Imperial Presidents, but I feel that this essay downplays to a large degree just how unpopular many of these great PResidents were. I do not mean universally unpopular, but more reviled and with greater intensity than Presidents with less impact. I say this because the author said greatness was rested in mastering democratic politics and being able to communicate successfully the normative good of their use of broadened executive powers. I agree, provided that by "mastery of democracy" we also recognize generally substantial minorities in opposition. It is only long after the crisis passes that a more universal acclaim for these Presidents comes into being, and even then, that acclaim is generally held by an even smaller group of people (history writers and their readers) than admired and supported those Presidents when they were alive.

Lara Michelle Brown - 2/9/2006

Good point.

Though it seems that integrity is often interpreted as there being a consistency between one's words and one's actions? Would you agree?

Michael Barnes Thomin - 2/9/2006

Dr. Brown,

"One of the points that I make with these responses is that none of the traits the students want are those that would necessarily make one believe that the president was going to respect constitutional limits. Prudent and thoughtful are more obvious traits that might lead one to believe that someone would respect the Constitution."

Perhaps the trait of having "integrity" falls in the the category of respecting "constitutional limits" (i.e. doing the "right thing" when no one is looking, in this case the "right thing" being following the law). Just a thought anyway.

Best regards,

Lara Michelle Brown - 2/9/2006

From whom (if not scholars and journalists) do you think presidents learn about Article II of the Constitution?

Were they born with an understanding of separation of powers and with a fully-formed conception Article II?

Did they never attend school? Or read a book? How exactly did they come to their constitutional interpretations, if not like the rest of us?

Lara Michelle Brown - 2/9/2006

Dr. Luke,
Thanks for the feedback.

Any thoughts on what values we should consider honoring?

Every semester, I do a survey of my students on the first day of class just to see how much they know about politics. One of the questions that I ask is an open-ended question, which states: "The three character traits that I would most like to see in a president are: (1), (2), (3)."

Interestingly enough, the responses follow a general pattern every time: about 60% of the class includes "honest or truthful" in their list; about 35% of the class includes "has integrity or does what he says he will do" in their list; 30% of the class includes "strong leader or decisive" in their list; and about 25% of the class includes "intelligent or wise or smart" in their list. The rest of the answers tend to be personal choices. Nonetheless, for an open-ended question, this is a fairly high degree of consensus.

One of the points that I make with these responses is that none of the traits the students want are those that would necessarily make one believe that the president was going to respect constitutional limits. Prudent and thoughtful are more obvious traits that might lead one to believe that someone would respect the Constitution.

I sometimes wonder what would happen if we did the same kind of survey among scholars?

Anyway, just some more thoughts on the topic.

samuel D. Martin - 2/8/2006



Frederick Thomas - 2/8/2006

Mr. Ebbitt, I feel terrible that you are so out of sorts, and suggest that you seek appropriate psychiatric medication, from an MD, and commit yourself if that does not work. Your raving seems rather contrary to the rules of this site.

Meanwhile, I suggest you get yourself a life apart from Losers-Are-Us.ORG,
and two-time convicted felon Soros.

By the way, I can get you a Young Pioneers badge, slightly used, cheap!

Tony Luke - 2/7/2006

Dr. Brown,

I agree, this was a very thoughtful article. I'm not sure I agree with the thesis, but it is very thought-provoking and worthy of some debate and discussion as to what we as a society, and as historians, value as desirable qualities of our leaders in their reactions to or the shaping of the significant events of our times.

Lara Michelle Brown - 2/7/2006

Absolutely. I couldn't agree more.

And Professor Gil Troy's post on the POTUS blog even addresses some of these issues.

Max J. Skidmore - 2/7/2006

Although you are correct regarding the tendency of the media to quote scholars, it might be well also to recognize that not even scholars are immune to influence from the media, and from "conventional wisdom."

Lara Michelle Brown - 2/6/2006

I appreciate the comments on the post.

While I agree that the media play a huge role in shaping, framing, and changing our perceptions of people and the news, it is important to remember that the press relies on historians and political scientists for their stories about "presidential precedents" and "ranking or judging the presidents."

Reporters don't just pull their opinions out of thin air. Reporters in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, typically use our work to justify, bolster, and bring credibility to their reporting---especially, when the topic is "presidential greatness."

Do any content analysis of the news articles on this subject and you would be hard pressed to find more than a handful that did not reference at least one scholar. (For one recent example of a 1300 wd. article that referenced no less than 4 historians, see New York Times article, January 1, 2006, by David Sanger "The Bush Legacy: 2006 Is So Yesterday.")

Moreover, it was told to me in graduate school (ergo, it may just have been academic lore intended to inspire young scholars) that President John F. Kennedy kept a copy of Richard Neustadt's Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents on his desk in the Oval Office. If this is true, then I doubt that JFK could have been so completely unique in this regard. Most presidents, I would imagine like to read about other presidents (as well as about how history judges those who have come before them) because it is their best resource for trying to figure out how they should move ahead.

Even President George W. Bush, whom many like to believe doesn't read at all, has recently admitted that he has been reading about Lincoln (see ABC's Political Note from January 24, 2006). Whether this is true or not is another story.

Clinton had to have read about other presidents and where they stood in history. I am just now working on a paper and I have looked at the number of presidents that Clinton mentions in his speeches during his eight years in office and the only two that Clinton didn't mention were Polk and Buchanan. He actually found something to say about all the rest and by his words, it is pretty clear that he understood how scholars viewed them.

In short, I think we have more impact that "a flea" though I doubt we are a species capable of "having sex with an elephant."

Frederick Thomas - 2/6/2006

This is very thoughtful and well-written, not always so for this sort of article.

Mr. Tarver's comment is also appropriate. Certainly our current media oligopoly predominantly leans left. However, it is interesting how Reagan, Bush I and Bush II have deflected that prejuduce then revered it at the ballot box.

John Reed Tarver - 2/6/2006

Ms. Brown reminds me of the story of the flea climbing up the hind leg of an elephant with sex on its mind. The imperial presidency is a monument to the "Press," that tribe of "ink-stained wretches" who has grabbed control of the constitutional guarantee of freedom of the press. In this context academics do not rate. Get used to it or join the news "wretches."