Taking a Fresh Look at Presidential Power
Americans may be polarized today as never before in the past century. Battles over presidential power, however, are nothing new. Many Americans, not just in the South but also in the North, denounced Abraham Lincoln as a dictator wielding unconstitutional authority. Over the past forty years, Presidents Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, Barrack Obama, and Donald Trump stand out as lightning rods for claims of unconstitutional usurpation of power. Two Presidents during those four decades were impeached by the House of Representatives, though they both escaped conviction in the Senate.
My new book, Contested Ground, tries to explore these issues while sidestepping ideological divides as much as possible. Just like virtually everyone else in America, I have strong views about Trump and other recent Presidents. There’s a powerful temptation to celebrate presidential powers when exercised by the Presidents we admire, forgetting that those powers can also be used badly by other Presidents. I felt this temptation when writing a book about Lincoln and the Constitution. I constantly had to remind myself that other Presidents had used those same powers with less judgment and compassion, and sometimes toward bad ends. It may seem obvious, but it’s important to keep reminding ourselves of a basic principle: The rules must be the same for the Presidents we admire as for the Presidents we detest.
A corollary of that principle is that we have to constantly kee
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