Eric Posner Discusses "The Executive Unbound"

The inevitability of the imperial presidency

President Bush asserted his executive power in managing the war on terror. President Obama showed the muscle of the White House in managing the financial crisis. Since the Republic’s early days a subtle balancing act has negotiated power between the president, Congress and the courts. But by the 20th century,  power had tipped in favor of the president and has continued to grow. In their book “The Executive Unbound: After the Madisonian Republic,” recently released by Oxford University Press, Eric A. Posner and Adrian Vermeule explore the inevitability of the “imperial presidency” and argue that it must be accepted and is nothing to fear. Posner is a law professor at the University of Chicago Law School, while Vermeule is a law professor at Harvard Law School. Here, Posner takes us through the evolution and impact of an assertive executive branch.


It is common ground among historians that the presidency has grown and accumulated powers. At the founding, some people expected the presidency to be a ministerial office that would simply put into effect policy chosen by Congress.

George Washington had different ideas, however, and helped set precedents that future presidents would take advantage of. Through most of the 19th century, there were some powerful presidents (notably the early Virginia Dynasty presidents, Jackson, Polk, and Lincoln) but most were junior partners with Congress.

All of this changed in the 20th century. Starting with Theodore Roosevelt, presidents increasingly asserted their right to make and execute policy, especially in the area of foreign affairs and during times of crisis. Franklin Delano Roosevelt enjoyed quasi-dictatorial authority over both the economy during the Great Depression and foreign relations during World War II.

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