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The Deciders

When President George W. Bush responded on April 18, 2006, to a chorus of calls for him to fire Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, a new catch phrase was instantly etched into presidential history that promises to live long beside such notables as “The buck stops here,” and “I am not a crook”: “I hear the voices, and I read the front page, and I know the speculation. But I’m the decider, and I decide what is best.” Many Americans were taken aback by the president’s headstrong proclamation. Pundits pontificated, critics decried and supporters applauded as this interpretation of executive authority came to encompass the overall conduct of the ongoing war in Iraq—even in the face of widespread opposition among the president’s own supporters—that is increasingly unpopular and offers no good end in sight.

There is no more intense crucible for presidential leadership than wartime and, as commander in chief of the nation’s armed forces, in matters of war the president is clearly the ultimate decider in the chain of command. However, taking the nation into war is not an executive decision, but rather one apportioned to Congress by Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution. In spite of wars in Korea and Vietnam and major military actions elsewhere in the past half-century, Congress has not formally voted to declare war on any nation since June 5, 1942—against Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania at the request of President Franklin Roosevelt. This is the most obvious example of the expansion of presidential power at the expense of Congress.

With the current Congress now challenging the president on the Iraq War—some even calling for a reversal on the 2002 resolution giving the president authority to use force against Iraq—and the larger question of presidential war-making authority heating up, it’s important to note that we’ve been here before and to ask how we got here. As Matthew Crenson and Benjamin Ginsberg explore in this issue, the efforts of chief executives to usurp congressional authority is nothing new and, even during lackluster administrations, the power of the presidency has been progressively enhanced. The most recent showdown between Congress and the president, shifted into high gear by last fall’s decisive midterm election, serves to dramatize this long history of presidents of all parties and persuasions managing to carve out more power for the executive in a wide array of fields—most much more mundane than issues of war but still far-reaching in effect. However, when it comes down to it, this democracy’s ultimate deciders reside neither in the White House nor the Capitol. To paraphrase Walt Kelly’s wizened, swamp-dwelling comic character Pogo, “Yep son, we have met the deciders, and they is us.”


Originally published in the June 2007 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here