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The online edition of the magazine published by The Johns Hopkins University, Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts and Sciences


Pondering the Power of the Presidency

downsizing democracy book coverThough they disagree on politics and a title for their new book, Krieger School professors Matthew Crenson and Benjamin Ginsberg concur on at least one thing: The power of the U.S. presidency is greater than ever, and growing still.

In 2002, the political scientists collaborated on Downsizing Democracy, a book that examined the decline in civic involvement in the political process. They took their research and discussions further this past year to explore the effects of that decline; the result is an upcoming, as-yet-untitled book about the most powerful office in the world.

Today, American presidents are people of uncommon ambition and drive; often they have pondered the presidency-and planned for it-much of their lives. That is in sharp contrast to the presidency of early America. The office in those days was often held by an unknown politician, "someone who got plucked out of the rear ranks of their party and elevated suddenly at the convention," Crenson says. "They tended to be men of rather little ambition."

It was during the latter part of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Administration that the power of the office began to grow significantly. After Congress-including his own party leaders-dismissed some of his ideas and proposals, Roosevelt changed his approach and started using executive orders to make policy changes.

The relative independence he established has increased to the point where one man can create an entire set of rules without widespread support, Ginsberg and Crenson say. In recent memory, Bill Clinton took advantage of that authority.

"He couldn't get anything through Congress in his second term," Ginsberg says. "They were trying to impeach him; it was a Republican Congress. He had an entire environmental agenda that was virtually DOA. So he had his whole agenda essentially enacted into law through regulation-virtually all of it."

Crenson, chairman of the Political Science Department, and Ginsberg, director of the Washington Center for the Study of American Government and the David H. Bernstein Professor of Political Science, liken the organizational chart of the presidency to a sovereignty and say it is a mistake to attribute that power to the individual occupying the White House. It is the executive office that is powerful, not the person.

Now in his second term, President George W. Bush will continue to wield this power, backed by a support staff unlike any other.

"There are hundreds of thousands of people connected to the office of the president, all there advancing the interests of the institution," Crenson says. "So the institution will just grind on, protecting its turf."

And while greater voter participation or minority representation in government could work to swing the power pendulum back, Crenson and Ginsberg are skeptical. Though all politicians advocate greater voter turnout, party leaders are more interested in maintaining the committed voters they already have. There is always a chance, the professors say, that new voters will support the competition.

"It's fun to preach to the choir," Crenson says. "You don't have to do much courting."

-Christine A. Rowett



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