Power and the Presidency, From Kennedy to Obama

For the past 50 years, the commander in chief has steadily expanded presidential power, particularly in foreign policy

John F. Kennedy, right, with his brother Robert, during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. (AP Photo)
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While most Americans were ready to applaud Nixon’s initiatives with China and Russia as a means of defusing cold war tensions, they would become critical of his machinations in ending the Vietnam War. During his 1968 presidential campaign, he had secretly advised South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu to resist peace overtures until after the U.S. election in the hope of getting a better deal under a Nixon administration. Nixon’s action did not become public until 1980, when Anna Chennault, a principal figure in the behind-the-scenes maneuvers, revealed them, but Johnson learned of Nixon’s machinations during the 1968 campaign; he contended that Nixon’s delay of peace talks violated the Logan Act, which forbids private citizens from interfering in official negotiations. Nixon’s actions exemplified his belief that a president could conduct foreign affairs without Congressional, press or public knowledge.

Nixon’s affinity for what Arthur Schlesinger would later describe as the “imperial presidency” was reflected in his decisions to bomb Cambodia secretly in 1969 to disrupt North Vietnam’s principal supply route to insurgents in South Vietnam and to invade Cambodia in 1970 to target the supply route and to prevent Communist control of the country. Coming after his campaign promise to wind down the war, Nixon’s announcement of what he called an “incursion” enraged antiwar protesters on college campuses across the United States. In the ensuing unrest, four students at Kent State University in Ohio and two at Jackson State University in Mississippi were fatally shot by National Guard troops and police, respectively.

Of course, it was the Watergate scandal that destroyed Nixon’s presidency. The revelations that he had deceived the public and Congress as the scandal unfolded also undermined presidential power. The continuing belief that Truman had trapped the United States in an unwinnable land war in Asia by crossing the 38th Parallel in Korea, the distress at Johnson’s judgment in leading the country into Vietnam, and the perception that Nixon had prolonged the war there for another four years—a war that would cost the lives of more than 58,000 U.S. troops, more than in any foreign war save for World War II—provoked national cynicism about presidential leadership.

The Supreme Court, in ruling in 1974 that Nixon had to release White House tape recordings that revealed his actions on Watergate, reined in presidential powers and reasserted the influence of the judiciary. And in response to Nixon’s conduct of the war in Southeast Asia, Congress, in 1973, passed the War Powers Resolution over his veto in an attempt to rebalance its constitutional power to declare war. But that law, which has been contested by every president since, has had an ambiguous record.

Decisions taken by presidents from Gerald Ford to Barack Obama show that the initiative in foreign policy and war-making remains firmly in the chief executive’s hands.

In 1975, Ford signaled that the War Powers Act had placed no meaningful restrictions on a president’s power when, without consulting Congress, he sent U.S. commandos to liberate American seamen seized from the cargo ship Mayaguez by the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia’s Communist government. When the operation cost 41 military lives to rescue 39 sailors, he suffered in the court of public opinion. And yet the result of Ford’s action did not keep Jimmy Carter, his successor, from sending a secret military mission into Iran in 1980 to free American hostages held at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Carter could justify the secrecy as essential to the mission, but after sandstorms and a helicopter crash aborted it, confidence in independent executive action waned. Ronald Reagan informed Congress of his decisions to commit U.S. troops to actions in Lebanon and Grenada, then suffered from the Iran-Contra scandal, in which members of his administration plotted to raise funds for anti-Communists in Nicaragua—a form of aid that Congress had explicitly outlawed.

George H.W. Bush won a Congressional resolution supporting his decision to oust Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991. At the same time, he unilaterally chose not to expand the conflict into Iraq, but even that assertion of power was seen as a bow to Congressional and public opposition to a wider war. And while Bill Clinton chose to consult with Congressional leaders on operations to enforce a U.N. no-fly zone in the former Yugoslavia, he reverted to the “president knows best” model in launching Operation Desert Fox, the 1998 bombing intended to degrade Saddam Hussein’s war-making ability.

After the terrorist attacks of September 2001, George W. Bush won Congressional resolutions backing the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, but both were substantial military actions that under any traditional reading of the Constitution required declarations of war. The unresolved problems attached to these conflicts have once again raised concerns about the wisdom of fighting wars without more definitive support. At the end of Bush’s term, his approval ratings, like Truman’s, fell into the twenties.


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