The President in Chains

Author: Gary Hart

White House GateIt has been powerfully argued that the national security state, inaugurated in 1947 and greatly expanded ever since, created a more powerful national executive than our Founders anticipated and that this power structure now both handcuffs the president and compels him to become a virtual monomaniacal figure. [“Entangled Giant,” New York Review of Books, October 8, 2009, Gary Wills]

The National Security Act of 1947 was the statutory basis for defining America’s role in the world post-World War II and for conducting the Cold War.  It established a new Department of Defense, the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Council, and the United States Air Force as a new military service.  For more than six decades, it has also been the source of authority for the president as commander-in-chief.

Despite the fact that our Constitution, Article I, section 8, gives Congress solely the power to “provide for the common defense” and “declare War,” it is not accidental that no declaration of war has been authorized since 1941, even while we waged war in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and dozens of other venues.  Presidents now decide when and where we will wage war.

Gary Wills bolsters his provocative argument by listing all of the George W. Bush “security” measures quietly adopted and approved by the new Obama administration.  His argument is not that President Obama was a closet neo-conservative who managed to fool the voters.  Rather, he says, the national security state has become a kind of powerful prison with the president as warden.  He has authority over it, but he cannot escape it.

This helps explain the demented insistence on the part of the Bush administration to create, or perhaps merely ratify, the “unitary executive,” a notion based on the premise that all executive power resides in the president and Congress has no authority to question his actions as they relate to national security.  In this context “national security” is so broadly defined as to include virtually everything.

All the Bush advisors were trying to do was formalize a six decade trend, the concentration of power in the commander-in-chief.

All this might make some plausible sense, but only if two things were true: one, that we are now locked into a kind of semi-permanent era of conflict and danger; and two that James Madison and his colleagues had not gone to considerable pains to create a genius system of checked-and-balanced government where power is concentrated in no single branch.

We should be concerned less about whether Bush officials are now happy with the concentrated power they have passed on to their successors and more about what James Madison would think about all this.

 Gary Hart

13 Responses to “The President in Chains”

  1. Amy Pond Says:

    The War Powers Resolution of 1973 was passed – over a presidential veto – to prevent just this type of Executive overreach. Unfortunately, it has been repeatedly overlooked. The resolution mandated that the president only deploy troops into action, or “hostilities,” abroad if he had authorization from Congress or if the “United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces” were under attack.

    Clearly many presidents have ignored this legislation, arguing that it is unconstitutional, as the Constitution names the president commander-in-chief of the armed services. However, the Constitution also grants Congress the power to declare war. It seems the shared power resulted from a compromise that was aimed at allowing the president flexibility if the nation was attacked, while checking his power with Congressional oversight.

    Without a clear decision from the Supreme Court, it is impossible to determine legally when and how presidents overstep their boundaries, although the intent of the founding fathers seems clear. As James Madison wrote to Thomas Jefferson, “The constitution supposes, what the History of all Governments demonstrates, that the Executive is the branch of power most interested in war, and most prone to it. It has accordingly with studied care vested the question of war in the Legislature.”

  2. Gary Hart: The President in Chains | Obama Biden White House Says:

    […] Posted from Senator Hart’s new blog at Matters of Principle. […]

  3. Gary Hart Says:

    Right you are, Ms. Pond, and I should have noted the War Powers Act in my blog (though Gary Wills did not in his essay from which mine was written).
    I’m afraid too many in successive Congresses did not want to take the responsibility for exercising their obligations under the Constitution where warfare is concerned.

  4. A. Friend Says:

    Please spell Garry Wills name correctly (it is “rr”)and do get rid of this white on black/blue background if you want regular readers.

    A. Friend

  5. Kristie Mansfield Says:

    Ah, Yes, poor lil’ Barack…
    He had a choice when he chose his war cabinet. Now they are making him do things he doesn’t want to do?
    No one told him or us it was going to be easy, but we didn’t expect him to just roll over for them.

    Chris Floyd:
    “At some point earlier this month, Barack Obama took a moment out of his busy day to sign an “execute order.” That is, he ordered American agents to kill a man without any legal procedure whatsoever: no arrest, no trial, no formal presentation – and disputation – of evidence, no defense…and no warning. They killed him on the open road, in a sneak attack; he was not engaged in combat, he was not posing an imminent threat to anyone at the time, he had not been charged with any crime. This kind of thing is ordinarily regarded as murder. Certainly, if you or I killed someone in this way – or paid someone to do it – then we would find ourselves in the dock, facing life imprisonment or our own execution. But then, you and I are subject to the law; our leaders are not.

    Turn out the lights.. the party’s over…

  6. Chris Kerr Says:


    Although I find your original article expectedly partisan, I do agree with your comments back to Ms. Pond. If war becomes necessary, it must be waged by a single leader…not a body of some 400-500 separate individuals. The wording of the constitution is the key here: The Congress will “provide for the common defense” and “declare War”. Once declared, the Congress needs to step aside and let the Commander in Chief wage that war.

    Your statement about mondern Congresses not having the stomach to declare war is a true one. Their cowardly behavior does have a benefit for them (alone), though. It allows them to quickly turn on their President when war takes the unpredictable path it always does. Once again…Congress watches out for its own rear end while the Preseident takes all the risk. Thank God so few Congressmen ever become President…

  7. C. Kasey Kitterman Says:

    The prisons we inhabit, are many times of our own design. To expect an 18th century document to meet the reality of 21st century threats, is both fanciful and dangerous. Post WWII euphoria has been used to drive everything from retail growth to witch hunts. To compete with post war geo politics, the U. S. postured a “cloak of invincibility”. America would serve as World Cop, to repulse the intruder and punish the wrongdoer. The execution of those goals seem dependent on fear of American retribution. Due in part to bluster, endless funding of weapons manufacture and MADD politics, the Invincible have stumbled through the last century. Somewhere along the way, an “Ownership Class” began to believe their own propaganda. Cut to current day; a laundry list of neglected issues now confronts us. Apparently elements of the Middle East, intend to redeem, then destroy the West. Our policies are so befuddled with concepts, of what is just, unfair, Constitutional, threatening, worthy of mass destruction, Right, Left, etc; we have become prisoners of our own conceit. The old way of thinking (about our power and our enemies) will turn our “prisons” into crypts. The Cold War mentality, at least superficially, promised a quick ” hit back” at an assailant Nation State. The Executive Powers are a reflection of the desire, for pay back, towards anyone, with the temerity to challenge the U. S. The President as Warlord, is an inadequate and belated response to neglected threats. Terrorist ground troops are using a different playbook. A willingness for war without end, a Death Cult mentality, and the most extreme religious fanaticism, are not to be overcome by concentrating power in our President. We are changed, the World is changed by the present challenge. In question to our continued survival, we may find the Constitution the most confining prison of all.

  8. Chris Kerr Says:

    C. Kasey – What are you smokin’? Have you ever read the Constitution? If you have, and still feel this way…please move to the EU. You will be much happier their.

  9. Gary Hart Says:

    As to partisanship, I would take the same position regarding excessive executive powers if a Democratic administration had sought to promote a scheme like the “unitary executive” for which there is not only no precedent in the U.S.Constitution but also every bulwark against it. See The Federalist.
    As to Congress, every member is elected by a majority of citizens in his or her district or State.
    And I don’t believe I argued against a commander-in-chief, as the Constitution designates, once Congress has declared war.

  10. Mike Says:

    The author’s name is Garry Wills (with two “r”s).

  11. Gary Hart Says:

    Thanks to Mike and others for the Garry Wills correction.
    Be patient, we’re operating a start-up here. We’ll try to avoid as many typos etc as possible.

  12. Joan D. Ark Says:

    Senator Hart,

    Former Congressman Mickey Edwards, a conservative, has also voiced concern about the breakdown in the Constitutional division of power in his book “Reclaiming Conservatism: How a Great American Political Movement Got Lost–And How It Can Find Its Way Back.” While his book makes many other points, I am simply noting that it somewhat reassuring that these developments worry thinking people on both sides of the aisle.

  13. Gary Hart Says:

    Ms. Ark, a point very well taken. It seems to me a struggle is going on both within conservatism and the Republican party for ownership, not only of power but also of language and meaning. Those of us on the sidelines can only wish the best side wins in both cases.

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