About The Gazette Search Back Issues Contact Us    
The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University July 9, 2007 | Vol. 36 No. 39
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 "institutionalized ambition."

"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.


The Gazette | The Johns Hopkins University | Suite 540 | 901 S. Bond St. | Baltimore, MD 21231 | 443-287-9900 |