The Presidency’s role in war, national security, and policy both foreign and domestic has only increased ever since the founding of the nation. Congress never approved any of these exercises of presidential power.
Presidents have deliberately sparked war, seeking congressional approval only later, as when James Polk ordered Zachary Taylor to move against Mexican forces on the Texas border in 1848, an act that made the United States the dominant power in North America. All these actions were based on legal precedents dating back to Abraham Lincoln, who himself, in the Civil War, ordered the detention of enemy combatants without criminal charges or access to civilian court.
According to Stephen Skowronek, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt were the most transformative American presidents, and, according to Marc Landy and Sidney Milkis, the “greatest” for their profound effect on American politics.
In fact, historians almost always judge to be “great” those presidents who have wielded presidential power the most boldly and expansively.
Dramatic action can turn public opinion against a chief executive who might have been popular just a few years before.
Unless Congress and the judiciary agree, or at least acquiesce, it is a given that Presidents cannot pursue their policies over the long term, under the American constitutional system.
These powers have only become all the more encompassing with the growth of America’s economic and military standing, and the complexity of its society.
But it is FDR, Lincoln, and Washington, who confronted the nation’s greatest crises, who are considered great by most historians.Congress by contrast usually finds itself unable to provide this particular sort of leadership.Its committee nature, and its bias toward the status quo, or factional dissention, pulls against change.Almost all modern presidents have moved to expand their power.So it is an even bet that given the foreign policy challenges of Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, and North Korea—not to mention the disruptions to the domestic economy of the credit crisis—Barack Obama will soon be drawing on the well of executive power every bit as deeply as his predecessors have.As Theodore Roosevelt observed, “if Lincoln had lived in times of peace, no one would have known his name now.” James Buchanan, Lincoln’s predecessor, or Herbert Hoover, struck by the Great Depression, and even Calvin Coolidge, whose laconic inaction has nevertheless been admired for its discreet charm, are generally not accounted great presidents.Still, the fact is that Presidents draw upon a deep well of constitutional authority and historical precedent to act, should they so choose.But critics have recently insisted that it is unconstitutional for a President to make war policy without consulting Congress first, despite the Commander in Chief role assigned to that office by the Constitution.Others, critical of what they believe to be excessive secrecy, suggest that military and intelligence agencies ought to report jointly to Congress, not just to the President, as they do today.Aggressive executive action, wise or unwise, can energize political parties to rise up in opposition.Andrew Jackson’s vigorous assertions of presidential authority divided the Democratic party and sparked the founding of the Whigs.