A Dose of Law and Realism for Presidential Studies

By Fisher, Louis | Presidential Studies Quarterly, December 2002 | Go to article overview

A Dose of Law and Realism for Presidential Studies


Fisher, Louis, Presidential Studies Quarterly


Three decades ago, Thomas Cronin (1974) urged us to understand the presidency as it is and not through the lens of what he called the "textbook presidency." Nonetheless, there is still too much glorification of presidential power in the classrooms and public debate. We remain trapped in the mind-set of wanting to find in the president such heroic qualities as being the strategic catalyst of the American political system, the central figure in world politics, and the nation's moral leader (p. 60). Students come out of school with the impression that the president represents the national interest, is uniquely gifted with expertise and wisdom, and is a reliable guardian of the purse.

More troubling, the president seems to have a license to ignore constitutional and legal constraints in order to do what is "right." Particularly is this so with regard to the conduct of foreign affairs and the exercise of the war power. Calling the president the "sole organ" in external affairs is an extraordinary misconception, but the phrase is bandied about as though it is written into the Constitution. Little effort is made to go behind those two words to see what they actually mean. President Harry Truman's commitment of troops to Korea began the first of many presidential wars, with no checks from the judiciary (other than the Steel Seizure Case of 1952) and hardly any restraints from Congress. On matters of war, we have what the framers thought they had put behind them: a monarchy. Checks and balances? Try to find them (Fisher 2000b).

Although the celebrated qualities of the president do not survive scrutiny, they persist and thrive. Myths about the presidency have important consequences. Efforts to enshrine the president raise expectations that cannot be met, creating disillusion in the citizenry and frustration in whoever occupies the White House. Presidential leadership will always remain important, but only when understood and exercised within the context of constitutional constraints and the entire political system. Once a president becomes detached from Congress and public support, operating only on what aides find to be within his "prerogatives," misfortune is around the corner. It is in the interest of everyone to view (and teach) the presidency in constitutional and realistic terms.

A Constitutional Context

From World War II to the present, political science lost much of the edge it used to have in understanding issues within a constitutional framework. As studies in judicial process became more popular, the discipline of constitutional law gradually shifted to attorneys and law professors. The same transfer of responsibility occurred within the field of history. Nonlawyers like Edward S. Corwin were dominant players in constitutional debates, and historians and political scientists testified regularly before Congress on a broad range of constitutional issues. Few do so today. Are such issues as executive privilege, the war power, impeachment, and Bush v. Gore of such marginal interest?

How can we teach the presidency divorced from the idea of constitutional limits? What happens when public law is downgraded and we focus on how well the president can dominate policy making even if the results violate or do damage to the Constitution? On such occasions, it is not enough to report the results of roll call analysis in Congress. While presidential policy making, politics, and elections are worthy of study, they ought not to be pursued at the expense of constitutional considerations. The presidency is a creature of the Constitution, which was and remains the source of its powers and defines its limitations.

Granted, constitutional study is difficult and rent with conflicting schools of thought. But the same is true of other subjects tackled in political science classrooms: abortion, affirmative action, congressional procedures, electoral reform, and other topics. …

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