‘Incredible Shrinking Presidency’? I Wish!

My Washington Examiner column this week looks at the eternal recurrence of a media myth, “the Incredible Shrinking Presidency.” We go through a cycle of media hand-wringing about a weakened presidency virtually every time a president runs into trouble in the polls. The most recent example is the Politico’s September 7 cover story on “The Incredible Shrinking President,” examining “a once muscular presidency’s dramatic downsizing.”  (Richard Cohen actually beat them to the punch, a year to the day before the Politico story ran, with “Obama’s Shrinking Presidency.”)

As I write in the Examiner, “it’s a peculiar office, the presidency. Apparently, it keeps shrinking, but – with an executive branch of some 2.1 million civilian employees and counting – it never gets any smaller.” I take a look at the “shrinking presidency” meme during the Bush years:

A little over 10 years ago, the Wall Street Journal ran a column by then-Washington editor Al Hunt with the same title, “The Incredible Shrinking President.”

President Bush was “on the defensive,” Hunt insisted – increasingly weak and irrelevant. Three days later, al Qaeda toppled the twin towers, and, in short order, America had embarked on a seemingly permanent war, with permanently enlarged powers for the commander in chief.

But the shrinking-CINC meme somehow refused to die. After Bush’s Republicans lost the House and Senate in the 2006 midterms, the Economist led with a story on, yes, “The Incredible Shrinking Presidency.” The magazine’s cover featured a caricature of a dwarfish Bush, his head peeking above the top of a cowboy boot.

During the Clinton administration, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who coined the phrase “Imperial Presidency,” could be found announcing the institution’s demise—-and sounding almost despondent about it. In an August 1998 New York Times op-ed, “So Much for the Imperial Presidency,” Schlesinger complained that independent counsel Ken Starr had left the executive branch ‘‘harried and enfeebled.’’ Not too long after, the ‘‘harried and enfeebled’’ president carried out a 78-day air war over Kosovo despite Congress’s refusal to authorize it.

This silly meme is, it seems, as resilient as the modern presidency itself. But the truth is, as Yale’s Jack Balkin wrote on the eve of Obama’s inauguration, “in terms of the possibilities of power, the Presidency has never had more tools at its disposal….This trend in Presidential power building poses enormous risks for liberty whoever occupies the White House.” The presidency isn’t “shrinking”–but it should.