Barack Obama does not appear to have fully grasped the Truman lesson on the political risks of unilateral executive action in foreign affairs. His decision in late 2009 to expand the war in Afghanistan—albeit with withdrawal timelines—rekindled worries about an imperial presidency. Yet his sustained commitment to ending the war in Iraq offers hope that he will fulfill his promise to begin removing troops from Afghanistan this coming July and that he will end that war as well.
Perhaps the lesson to be taken from the presidents since Kennedy is one Arthur Schlesinger suggested almost 40 years ago, writing about Nixon: “The effective means of controlling the presidency lay less in law than in politics. For the American President ruled by influence; and the withdrawal of consent, by Congress, by the press, by public opinion, could bring any President down.” Schlesinger also quoted Theodore Roosevelt, who, as the first modern practitioner of expanded presidential power, was mindful of the dangers it posed for the country’s democratic traditions: “I think it [the presidency] should be a very powerful office,” TR said, “and I think the president should be a very strong man who uses without hesitation every power that the position yields; but because of this fact I believe that he should be closely watched by the people [and] held to a strict accountability by them.”
The issue of accountability is with us still.
Robert Dallek’s most recent book is The Lost Peace: Leadership in a Time of Horror and Hope, 1945-1953.