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The Constitutional Presidency

The Constitutional Presidency edited by Joseph M. Bessette and Jeffrey K. Tulis. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009, 384 pp.

Since the time of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, the role of the US president has been studied, debated, and litigated. Yet, Joseph M. Bessette’s and Jeffrey K. Tulis’ latest work, The Constitutional Presidency, adds new insight and research to this body of knowledge. In this follow-on and updated version of The Presidency in the Constitutional Order, published more than three decades ago, Bessette and Tulis do more than just continue their study of the presidency and the constitution—they bring the debate into modern context by examining such topics as the Bush v. Gore election dispute, Bush and the war on terrorism, military tribunals, and executive privilege. They also clarify the ongoing debate surrounding presidential roles and power, a debate older that the nation itself, by examining both the political and the legal aspects (p. viii).

The Constitutional Presidency is a collection of essays that focuses on different elements and subjects that relate to the role of the president within a constitutional framework. Bessette and Tulis excel in unifying disparate themes into a book that flows easily from topic to topic and chapter to chapter.

The first four essays establish a solid foundation for the study of the role of the president. The first, “On the Constitution, Politics, and the Presidency,” begins with an overview of presidential scholarship and points out that “our system was designed for deadlock and inaction” (p 3). The main theme is that Congress will not willingly allow the president to usurp its power and that presidents, even weak ones, will work to “preserve the independence and integrity of the executive branch” (p. 26). The ultimate restriction on the power of the president is the “attachment of the people to constitutional principle” (p. 26).

The next essay illuminates “the logic and meaning of Article II” (p. 28). Article II provides for executive powers and duties, however, the framers of the constitution appeared to have had no particular “rhyme or reason to its content and structure, that its particular authorizes were vague and were assembled more or less randomly” (p. 52). The authors assert that Article II allows for enough power for the president to function and at the same time is vague enough as not to handicap future chief executives.

Essays three and four offer a historical case study of Pres. George Washington’s Proclamation of Neutrality in 1793 that kept the country out of a war between France and Great Britain. The authors also compare the responses of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. Both case studies reinforce the practical examples of how Congress and presidents resolve disagreement in times of crisis and how Roosevelt and Taft transformed the presidency into the modern office of today. Roosevelt accomplished this feat seeing his duties as unbounded unless specifically restricted by the constitution. Taft achieved much the same by working strictly within the guidelines set forth by the constitution (p. 76).

The remaining essays provide insight into the presidency framed by more contemporary issues. Jeffery Tulis contributes an essay, “Impeachment in the Constitutional Order,” which demonstrates that impeachment “is a vital attribute of the theoretical architecture of a well-functioning separation of powers regime” (p. 245). This essay surveys three presidential impeachment proceedings, or near proceedings: Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton. Tulis makes a cogent argument that “pretense” is the basis for impeachment and that since this is “an inherently unstable form of political design, we need to recognize ourselves as democracy mature enough to rectify the imbalances of overlegalization in some ears and overpoliticization in others” (p. 246).

The book ends with James W. Ceaser’s excellent essay, “Demagoguery, Statesmanship, and Presidential Politics.” Ceasar contends that “the notable characteristic of the modern presidency direct and intimate connection that exists—or that many believe should exist—between the president and the public” (p. 247). The author makes a compelling argument that no true demagogues have served as president, but the structures that have prevented demagoguery in the White House have been weakened and vigilance is in order. He briefly mentions the candidacy of Barack Obama, indicating that he falls into the category of “orator” and that “his candidacy could only have emerged under the institutional arrangements that opened to the rhetorical politics envisaged by Woodrow Wilson” (p. 288). Ceasar indirectly established potential transition to future volumes that could include the presidency of Barack Obama.

This excellent collection of essays provides a rare look into the constitutional foundation of American presidential power and function. The primary deficiency is its limited scope, its focus on specific topics, and its limited use of case studies. One could only hope for a subsequent, more complete review of US presidents from Washington to Bush.

This timely book appeared within the first year of the historic presidency of Barack Obama, a presidency that is already challenging the established norms of presidential conduct and power. This scholarly effort is a must read for all political scientists, professional military officers, and anyone else who is interested in the American presidency.

Prof. Gene C. Kamena

Air War College

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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