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The Imperial Presidency is a term which has been used from the 1960s to
describe the presidency of the United States and the President's aides. It
was based on a number of observations.
* As late as the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt the Executive Branch
of the president of the United States had few staff, most of them based
in the Capitol, where a president traditionally has an office (it is no
longer used except for ceremonial occasions, but nineteenth and early
twentieth century presidents were based there with their small staff on
a day to day basis). However the modern day president has ten times as
many Executive staff, many cramped in crowded conditions in the West
Wing, in the basement of the White House or in the Old Executive Office
Building beside the White House that used to house the Departments of
Defense and State. Such is the modern overcrowding in the West Wing
that President Richard Nixon had the former presidential swimming pool
covered over and converted into a press room;
* As staff numbers grew, many people were appointed who held personal
loyalty to the person holding the office of president, and who were not
subject to outside approval or control;
* The office of White House Chief of Staff has evolved into what is in
many (though not all) administrations a dominant executive position,
turning the office into a virtual 'prime minister' on the occasions
when it was held by a strong-willed dominant figure and the presidency
was held by a hands off president who left day to day governance to his
cabinet and his Chief of Staff. Donald Regan as Chief of Staff and
Ronald Reagan as president was seen as an example of this
presidential-quasi prime ministerial relationship.
* A range of new advisory bodies developed around the presidency, many of
whom complemented (critics suggest rivalled) the main cabinet
departments, with the cabinet declining in influence.
Critics suggested that the range of new bodies, the importance of the Chief
of Staff and in particular the large number of people, created a virtual
'royal court' around the President, members of which were not answerable to
anyone but the President and on occasions allegedly acted independent of him also.
Critics of the Imperial Presidency theory counteract by arguing that
* the Executive Office of the President makes up only a very small part
of the federal bureaucracy and the President has very little influence
as to the appointment of most members of the federal bureaucracy;
* the number of people within the EOP is small and there is no
institutional continuity at all;
* the organization and functioning of most of the Federal government is
determined by federal law and the President has little power to
reorganize most of the federal government.
The presidencies of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan were particularly
described as surrounded by 'courts', where junior staffers acted on
occasions in contravention of executive orders or Acts of Congress. The
activities of some Nixon staffers during the Watergate affair are often held
up as an example. Under Reagan (1981-1989) the role of Colonel Oliver North
in the facilitation of funding to the Contras in Nicaragua, in explicit
contravention of a United States Congressional ban, has been highlighted as
an example of a "junior courtier's" ability to act, based on his position as
a member of a large White House staff. Howard Baker, who served as Reagan's
last Chief of Staff, was critical of the growth, complexity and apparent
unanswerability of the presidential 'court'.