Presidents Gone Wild: Can They Be Tamed? No Way, Say JHU Profs in New Book
By Amy Lunday
The American presidency is out of control, and in the interminable run-up to one of the most
hyped presidential elections in history, there's little hope of restoring the traditional balance of
power in Washington, according to Matthew Crenson and Benjamin Ginsberg, Johns Hopkins University
political scientists and authors of Presidential Power: Unchecked and Unbalanced (W.W. Norton & Co.,
April 2007, $27.95).
"We can't think of anything that would fix it," said Ginsberg, the David Bernstein Professor of
Political Science and director of the Center for the Study of American Government at Johns Hopkins.
"It's not a problem that could be easily solved."
Added Crenson, "It would take a mobilization like the nation's response to the Vietnam War, but
it's not going to happen."
Picking up where Crenson and Ginsberg's first co-authored book, Downsizing Democracy, left
off, Presidential Power: Unchecked and Unbalanced explains the exponential growth of the White
House's authority since the mid 20th century. Writing for a general audience, they approach their
subject as they would a murder mystery, looking at the motives, means and opportunities leading to
the aggrandizement of the commander in chief.
How did the world's most powerful democracy wind up delegating so much power and influence
to just one person, despite our system of checks and balances? Crenson and Ginsberg point to a
convergence of factors, including fractured political parties, a weak Congress and the return of
national security issues and foreign policy matters to the center of American politics.
The American people also are responsible for strengthening the executive branch, thanks to
waning citizen activism and a general lack of participation in politics, they say. All this fuels
presidential candidates who are pathologically ambitious, making the modern approach to electing a
president much more cynical and calculated than in the past. Today, the authors say, a president is
borne on the shoulders of an inner circle of handlers and image makers who fashion the candidate into
an electable figure. Gone are the days when the candidate's political party shaped a candidate's
character, or the groundswell of a popular vote mattered. Crenson and Ginsberg call this
"Because of the way elections are orchestrated today, we have people running who are
'monsters,' to quote Mike Kelly of The Washington Post," Crenson said. "They spend their whole lives
running for office. The party they belong to is irrelevant."
Though the George W. Bush administration has capitalized on this situation, Crenson and
Ginsberg are quick to note that it didn't create it. Presidential Power traces more than 200 years of
political and presidential history, outlining how past presidents were chosen, elected and ultimately
exercised their power. The book examines presidents from George Washington, who was elected more
for his character than his talents, to George W. Bush, whose 2000 victory came in the Supreme Court.
Crenson and Ginsberg outline how they feel the presidents of the past 100 years--and in particular,
the past three decades--have exploited the power of the office.
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