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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

A Declining Presidency

Less Imperial, More Reactive

Robert Dallek is one of the best of the current crop of presidential historians. He’s fair-minded and a scholar, but also possesses a keen ability to link the present to the historic. It was no accident that when President Obama, not once but twice, had a small group of historians to the White House for dinner, Bob Dallek was on the guest list along with Robert Caro, Doris Kearns Goodwin and a half dozen others.

He’s also discreet. When I visited with him a few weeks ago, Dallek was carefully respecting his own ground rules for the White House salon. He said he’d gladly talk about what he had told the President, but wouldn’t attempt to interpret Obama’s response or reaction. Others in attendance, at least at the first dinner, haven’t been so careful. The brilliant and provocative Garry Wills wrote a while back about his advice to Obama and his disappointment with the president. Perhaps not surprisingly, Wills didn’t get invited back. Wills has argued that Obama is making a Kennedy/Johnson-like mistake by pursuing the path he is on in Afghanistan.

In a nutshell, Dallek said he also warned Obama about the historical quagmire that Afghanistan has been and looks like has become again.

Bob Dallek’s books about JFK and LBJ are important and enduring works and give him a perspective on Obama’s challenges that is worth attention. Dallek is on to something with his observation to the New York Times’ Matt Bai this past weekend that we are seeing “the diminished power, the diminished authority, the diminished capacity to shape events” of the Obama presidency.

Since at least 1933, when Franklin Roosevelt put his hands on the levers of presidential power, each succeeding president has attempted – many have succeeded – in expanding the authority of what the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. once famously called “the imperial presidency.” We may be seeing the decline of that all powerful, too powerful perhaps, presidency.

It is, Bob Dallek says, “the presidency in eclipse.”

I tend to the historical view that the presidency has, since FDR’s day, become too powerful and that Congress has lost its way in checking that power, particularly when Congress acquiesces to foreign policy adventures cooked up by presidents of both parties. So, a pulling in of presidential power is not an altogether unwelcome turn of event, whatever the cause.

Still, there is a problem. Is it conceivable the current Congress – on both sides of the aisle – is capable of exercising more responsible authority? Can the Congress rise, while the presidency is in eclipse? Don’t hold your breath.

The days when a J. William Fulbright, a Frank Church, a Howard Baker or an Everett Dirksen could speak with moral and political authority – and often in opposition to a president – on a national or international issue seem like a distant memory. The Founders envisioned a separation of powers in the national government with each one of the three branches purposely structured to check the influence and power of the others.

If it is correct, for a variety of reasons, that Barack Obama is presiding over a shrinking presidency, then the leadership of Congress must step up their game. The balance envisioned by the Founders has to work and the responsibly for ensuring that it does is both diffused and shared.

(Note: Bob Dallek’s latest book – The Lost Peace – a history of the immediate post-war period, will be out in October.)

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