Taming the Imperial Presidency

Going back to the tumultuous reign of Abraham Lincoln, political scientists have long been fascinated with the “Imperial Presidency,” and this interest was heightened further by the executive overreachthat characterized the administration of Barack Obama. Some scholars contend that the modern presidency has morphed into a de facto monarchy, wielding power far in excess of what the Framers contemplated in Article II of the Constitution.

But that is only part of the problem. The republican form of government envisioned by the Founding Fathers rested on several essential principles that—unfortunately—became highly attenuated during the 20th century, including robust state sovereignty (federalism), the separation of powers, and the checks and balances inhering in each branch jealously guarding its power from “encroachments” by another. As James Madison memorably stated in Federalist 51, in order to keep the branches in check, “ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” It turns out that all three branches have been overly ambitious—some more than others.

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