The Two Biggest Powers of the American President, and Their Limits

1Joseph G. Peschek is the Chair of the Department of Political Science at Hamline University. His latest book (co-authored with William F. Grover), The Unsustainable Presidency: Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Beyond, argues that the the modern American president’s power largely exists within a narrow context: to produce unlimited economic growth and national security through the expansion of empire. WhoWhatWhy recently interviewed him:

Do you believe America now has an “imperial presidency,” as John Boehner has charged, in which President Obama is exercising power beyond constitutional limits?

That ‘imperial presidency’ charge is short-term politics. In the context of some of the things that Obama has done on immigration, in particular maybe relations with Cuba and a few other things, there’s nothing new about that. I would say that we do have an imperial presidency, but it’s not because presidents issue executive orders from time to time that upset the other side of the aisle. We have an imperial presidency because America is an imperial power.

Just to refer to Obama’s State of the Union address, he did talk about the troops coming home and so forth, but at the same time he asked for authorization to attack ISIS, and those sorts of operations will continue. And that’s part and parcel with a modern imperial presidency. America’s a global superpower with military and undercover operations all over the world, and that’s probably going to continue. And there’s very little debate about that, because both sides are pretty much committed to that approach—whatever differences they might have about relations with Cuba, for example, the show goes on.

You have said: “The ‘presidency’ is unsustainable.”  What do you mean?

The American presidency is unsustainable in the sense that, as it currently functions, it is incapable of resolving the most pressing problems of our time: economic inequality, an economy that doesn’t work that well for a lot of people, endless foreign wars… not to mention the threat of catastrophic global climate change hanging over all of us.

The problems that we’re facing aren’t just the result of bad choices by bad presidents, although that has obviously happened. And the solution isn’t just good presidents with good ideas — it has to go deeper than that. It has to be accompanied by broader social, political, and economic change.

You’ve also observed that policies championed by the president are highly influenced by the “corporate community.”

Obama ran on a mantra of “change,” and he excited the hopes of a lot of progressives who thought that he was cut from a different cloth as the other candidates and would advance a progressive agenda. For example, it’s often said that he had a lot of small campaign contributors. But if you really look into that, that’s not really the case. He had a lot of financial support from Wall Street interests as well.

If you look at things like the connections of some of his key appointees, they come from think tanks and other policy organizations that have been advocating the financialization of the economy.

In terms of Obama’s approach, the basic economic issues, it’s often said that he was a community organizer in Chicago, and that this is very telling.

But then he went to law school, and when he came back to Chicago he worked with corporate-oriented clients, and then he developed a base among power players and developers and so on.

Looking at those sorts of indicators: appointees, political campaign contributions, connections to the corporate community; in some ways those are more revealing than some of the other approaches social scientists use.

So, in effect, you’re saying it would take more than the election of a Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren to shake up the system.

Really, I think presidents do have power — they are consequential. But to move the government in a different direction, I think they’d have to come into office on the basis of a strong social movement. They would have to have allies in the movement, as well as allies elected to government. That would provide a basis for support and a way of handling the opposition.

There would have to be a mobilization for any kind of substantive change, but right now the corporate sector and the right is a lot better organized than the other sectors. That would have to change.

 
 
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