A Look at Eric Posner's Work on "Tyrannophobia" in University of Chicago Magazine

Jason Kelly
University of Chicago Magazine
September 12, 2012

Harry Truman felt sorry for Dwight Eisenhower. If Truman, merely a failed haberdasher, after all, bristled at the obstacles to his presidential authority, imagine how aggravated his successor, a former five-star general, would be. Tapping on his desk in the Oval Office, Truman remarked, “He’ll sit here and he’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen. Poor Ike—it won’t be a bit like the Army.”

A promotion to commander in chief, in Truman’s estimation, would limit Eisenhower’s power. His orders, delivered as an elected official, would lose the sir-yes-sir acceptance that they received in the military. To hear Truman tell it, the president could do little more than implore: “I sit here all day trying to persuade people to do the things they ought to have sense enough to do without my persuading them. ... That’s all the powers of the president amount to.”

Said the man who dropped the bomb, who desegregated the military by executive order, who sent troops into battle in Korea without a congressional declaration of war, who imposed wage and price controls on defense-related industries, and who authorized a federal takeover of steel mills.

Both in his displays of power and in his sense of weakness, Truman reflects the dichotomy of the modern presidency that the Law School’s Eric A. Posner, U-High’84, describes in The Executive Unbound: After the Madisonian Republic (Oxford University Press, 2011). Posner, the Kirkland and Ellis professor of law, and coauthor Adrian Vermeule of Harvard agree with a common view that the constitutional separation of powers, of which James Madison was a founding architect, has become a historical relic. Unlike critics of that development, they don’t have a problem with it, claiming that political considerations serve as de facto checks and balances every bit as strong as legal constraints.

Eric Posner