‘After’ the Imperial Presidency?

Jonathan Mahler has a smart, informative feature on executive power in this week’s New York Times Magazine. I object only to the title, “After the Imperial Presidency.” As Mahler’s piece makes clear, the title could have used a question mark, at the very least.

Mahler writes:

Come January, the current administration will pass on to its successor a vast infrastructure for electronic surveillance, secret sites for detention and interrogation and a sheaf of legal opinions empowering the executive to do whatever he feels necessary to protect the country. The new administration will also be the beneficiary of Congress’s recent history of complacency, which amounts to a tacit acceptance of the Bush administration’s expansive views of executive authority. For that matter, thanks to the recent economic bailout, Bush’s successor will inherit control over much of the banking industry. “The next president will enter office as the most powerful president who has ever sat in the White House,” Jack Balkin, a constitutional law professor at Yale and an influential legal blogger, told me a few weeks ago.

Some prominent commentators — Jack Goldsmith and Jeffrey Rosen among them — have noted the “irony” that an administration monomaniacally committed to the growth of presidential power has allegedly weakened the presidency with its unilateralism and contempt of Congress. Given the powers the office retains and continues to accrue, that’s an irony that’s hard to savor. As Mahler notes, “it’s worth keeping in mind that in the final year of Bush’s presidency — while facing a Democratic Congress and historically low approval ratings — he was able to push through a federal bailout bill that vested almost complete control over the economy in the Treasury secretary (who reports to the president), not to mention a major rewriting of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that will make it easier for the White House to spy on American citizens.”

Indeed, Mahler documents how political realities— and in Obama’s case, perhaps, the prospect of actually taking power — led both candidates to move away from their early criticisms of Bush-style “deciderism,” and flip flop on torture (McCain) and wiretapping (McCain and Obama).

In explaining the post-9/11 growth of executive power, Mahler properly focuses on the twin problems of congressional cowardice and poisonous partisanship. In the Bush years, all too many congressional Republicans put party unity over institutional responsibility. That’s a common vice under unified government, which may be why Mahler hardly sounds optimistic when he quotes Senator Levin: “When I asked Levin what needs to happen for Congress to take back the rest of the ground that it ceded to the executive branch during the Bush years, he replied predictably, ‘We need a Democrat in the White House.’”

For further reasons to doubt that the Imperial Presidency is behind us, check here and here.