Presidential Power: A Rescuer, Not a Nemesis

Conservative voices are railing against excessive presidential power in this Obama era of government by executive order to advance a destructive leftist political agenda. Their criticism is “spot-on,” but they need to consider that the strong exertion of presidential power may be the best way after Obama to restore liberty and begin to mend the social fabric whose erosion has accelerated during his administration.

In an article I published in 1995 in The Wanderer, later reprinted in my book The Public Order and the Sacred Order, I argued how the sweeping exercise of executive power was perhaps the most certain way to begin to check the forces of cultural decay, protect the erosion of traditional citizen rights, and resist the overreaching power of the judiciary (which by that time had legalized abortion and since then has made sodomy a constitutional right, nudged us toward a right of same-sex “marriage,” and given the national government the power to tax economic inactivity and control American health care). Not only have genuine rights eroded much more since 1995—we now see the greatest threats to religious liberty in America since colonial times—but it’s increasingly clear that they will be sacrificed on the altar of ersatz ones like abortion and same-sex “marriage.”

In that earlier article I pointed to the history and tradition justifying sweeping executive power. In ancient Greece and Rome, in times of great internal turmoil or external threat, there was provision for giving almost absolute power to an eminent man to get them out of the mess. So, when the Athenians got into trouble they turned to the great ethical poet Solon and gave him near complete power. He made sweeping but wise reforms that ameliorated the tensions among classes that were threatening to break out into civil war. After the crisis passed, he stepped down and went into self-imposed exile. The senate in early republican Rome twice made the statesman Cincinnatus dictator, once to battle enemy tribes that were about to swarm over the city and later to defeat an internal conspiracy. He assumed power just long enough to do his job, and then returned to the plow on his farm. Both men were notable examples of self-limited power to our Founding Fathers. George Washington was sometimes called the “American Cincinnatus.”

Both Aristotle and John Locke said that in times of a breakdown in sound culture and the rule of law—both advancing in our time—executive power assumes greater importance. While Locke was the great promoter of parliamentary power against kingly absolutism, he nevertheless endorsed “prerogative power.” This gave the political executive the discretion to act for the public good “without the prescription of law and sometimes even against it.” Actually, what’s needed right now in America is not really for the president to act outside the law, but to exert extraordinary power to uphold our fundamental law, the Constitution, and the principles of our tradition and the natural law that stand behind it. Edward S. Corwin, perhaps the greatest American constitutional scholar of the first half of the twentieth century, said that our Founders believed that “a broad range of autonomous executive power or ‘prerogative’” was lodged in the presidency. He also emphasized that such power was not limited to wartime or even to situations of great urgency, but could be exercised so long as needed for the “public good.” Theodore Roosevelt’s “stewardship” theory of the presidency embraced such a perspective. In his book, Constitutional Dictatorship, the famous conservative historian Clinton Rossiter showed how contemporary constitutional regimes have found it necessary in times of crisis to grant extraordinary power to government, especially executives, which for a time may even alter the character of the regime.

What is needed now is not necessarily the extra-constitutional means that Lincoln used to save the Constitution, but rather the utilization of powers that presidents possess but have seldom exercised or exercised to the degree necessary. While we are not witnessing wholesale disorder of the nature of, say, widespread violence in the streets—though we see massive amounts of more specific violence, as in abortion—we are certainly facing a deeper, cultural disorder that becomes more intense each passing year.

A new American Cincinnatus—a president who would exercise executive power to perhaps an unprecedented degree—could certainly act forcefully and decisively to protect traditional citizen liberties when the courts do not or when they themselves thwart them. In truly serious situations, he could refuse to enforce court decisions and even resist them when necessary. He could act to insure that true American constitutional principles will be upheld. Rebuilding a sound culture is not something one man can do alone, but he could take dramatic initiatives—even if resisted by the other branches—that could decisively set the country in that direction. In the long or even sometimes the short run people will fall in line and accept a new course that a leader insistently sets them on, even if they resist it at the start. This would especially be so if he revived the educative function of politics, persistently making his case to the public in an understandable way while always remaining on the rhetorical offensive against his opposition and not allowing himself to be outflanked by it.

There are many specific things that he should do: reverse Obama’s executive orders; sweepingly abrogate federal regulatory law in many areas—starting with the HHS mandate, EPA overreaches, and a whole host of repressive IRS regulations—and simultaneously act vigorously to get the kind of control over the federal bureaucracy that presidents are supposed to have; put the federal government on a firm course of gradual disengagement from many programmatic areas by refusing to seek reauthorizations and progressively, but sharply, cutting down the federal budget (while at the same time making sure the human needs in question are addressed by actively working to build up civil society); interpose federal power to protect churches and defend religious and personal liberty against the encroachments of state agencies, such as when human relations commissions force Christians to violate their consciences by providing services for same-sex “weddings” and states subvert parents’ rights to make choices about medical care for their children (seen with reparative therapy for same-sex inclined children and the current outrageous Justina Pelletier case); even more critically, intervene with federal power—irrespective of what the courts say—to protect the Terri Schiavos of the future; outright refuse to carry out unconstitutional Supreme Court decisions such as U.S. v. Windsor, which mandated that federal benefits be given to same-sex “spouses”; take an aggressive stance against the UN and EU as they try to subvert authentic human rights in favor of the homosexualist and sexual libertine agenda; and, perhaps most dramatically, finally engineer a constitutional confrontation against the Court on abortion.

If, say, a state governor rounded up every member of a certain ethnic group and put them in a concentration camp would anyone seriously say that the president has no power to stop it if a federal court refused to? It is no different with abortion: a whole class of American citizens is summarily being deprived of a right even more fundamental than their liberty, their life. So, would a president truly be acting tyrannically by simply shutting down the abortion clinics? If rebuking the Supreme Court seems extreme or unthinkable, we should recall: Federalist 78, which says that only the executive has the sword (that is, the enforcement power); Andrew Jackson’s refusal to carry out the Court’s mandate in the Cherokee Indian Cases (which rendered it null); and Lincoln’s insistence that a Supreme Court decision, such as Dred Scott, did not bind the political branches for all time. If it’s true that the president—and Congress, for that matter—may not resist the most blatantly unconstitutional decisions by the courts, we have become what the great conservative scholar Russell Kirk called an “archonocracy” instead of a democratic republic.

Executive power used in even an unprecedented way does not mean despotism. Rather, when exercised by a virtuous, capable man with a strong sense of self-limitation and an understanding that it is only temporary, it can be used to stop the slide to despotism. Building up a healthy culture and political order take much time, but if we don’t check—more, start to reverse—the advanced state of decay of our traditional liberties and constitutional principles we may not get the chance. In ordinary times, we can accept the interminable deliberation, plodding, excessive compromising, and willy-nilly decision-making of legislative bodies. It is different in times of crisis, where a civilization hangs in the balance and time is short—and, in any event, we can’t even seem to forge legislative majorities that will uphold our traditions and moral truth.

The question is: How do we find the new American Cincinnatus and get him elected?

Editor’s note: The statue above depicts George Washington as Cincinnatus. Congress commissioned Horatio Greenough to sculpt the marble statue to commemorate the centennial of Washington’s birth in 1832. It is on display at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

Stephen M. Krason


Stephen M. Krason's "Neither Left nor Right, but Catholic" column appears monthly (sometimes bi-monthly) in Crisis Magazine. He is Professor of Political Science and Legal Studies and associate director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is also co-founder and president of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists. He is the author, most recently, of The Transformation of the American Democratic Republic (Transaction Publishers, 2012), and editor of three volumes: Child Abuse, Family Rights, and the Child Protective System (Scarecrow Press, 2013) and The Crisis of Religious Liberty (Rowman and Littlefield, 2014); and most recently, Challenging the Secular Culture: A Call to Christians (Franciscan University Press). His latest book is Catholicism and American Political Ideologies (Hamilton Books). He is also the author of a new novel, American Cincinnatus.

  • Ita Scripta Est

    I applaud the thesis of this article though I think the correct reasoning found here would not be welcome in today’s increasingly libertarian republican party. To be sure though American presidents like Jefferson, Jackson and FDR have use their executive prerogative though sadly not always for the most conservative of ends. Perhaps it is time to learn something from history.

    • tom

      We are a lot like the Weimar Republic. Maybe the dictator we crave will actually be good.

  • Vinnie

    “While we are not witnessing wholesale disorder of the nature of, say, widespread violence in the streets…………..we are certainly facing a deeper, cultural disorder….”
    A beneficent dictator, addressing the cultural disorder, would cause the violence in the streets. Cultures throughout history have waxed and waned, come and gone. Ours is rapidly waning but, if you have faith, there will either be the second coming or a new culture that survives this satanic influence and thrives……..for a time.

    • Not more than a century ago, murderous dictators were firstly lauded in the first years of their power pretty much after the tone of this article: Churchill praised Mussolini, FDR admired Hitler, the American elites were fond of Stalin, etc. It took a river of blood to start flowing for many myopic men to realize that such dictators were monsters enabled by the power they either took or were granted.

  • Disturbed

    To hell with subsidiarity and all those petty things the Church teaches…heil Hitler.

    • Augustus

      Instead of an emotional response, why don’t you explain how subsidiarity and other unnamed teachings–which have not worked up to this point–will somehow turn things around without a strong, sympathetic executive.

      • Howard

        If we had a strong, sympathetic Congress that did not unconstitutionally cede all its authority to the executive, it would be a start. We won’t get that strong, sympathetic Congress, but we won’t get a strong, sympathetic exectutive, either.

  • John O’Neill

    With all due respect Mr. Krason, “preserving our religious liberties, restoring our rights” et al. I am sorry but that train has left the station and is not coming back. The American State is the new Roman Empire which Augustine warned us against in the City of God. Survival is the real issue, not some vain hope of a returning Republic, by the second century A.D. most Republican Romans had seen the writing on the wall and the impending collapse.

  • This is a culture addicted to death; our prosperity is tied to a million murders a year. Exactly why should we preserve it?

  • Art Deco

    I am somewhat flummoxed by your endorsement of executive power. The social ills you refer to can be addressed with ordinary legislation, congressional resoulutions, and appropriations. That does require co-operation between the President and Congress (which have only been of the same party for 12 of the last 45 years) and the balls to make use of ordinary legislation to put the federal courts out of business. The real problem is confused signals from the electorate and the utter ineffectuality and systemic corruption of the federal legislature.

  • Giauz Ragnarock

    Forgive an ex-protestant atheist for intruding on Catholic theological thought, but this article sounds like a “good” argument for bringing to power an “anti-Christ”. Hand over all of your theology and earthly power to one man, and he becomes the only one with control over it. I mean look, I may side with some of the issues Obama does (treating LGBT people with no less respect and protection of the law than we afford ourselves, not penalizing the women who cannot go through with a pregnancy, securing money that sits around and collects or otherwise goes to luxury for people whose lives are struggles to gain necessity, etc), but I do not deny there are a lot of valid criticisms of how he holds too much power. That is why I find it dreadful that anyone would want another person in the USA with such or even more power.

    Also, what doctrine is it that says “help the poor, be a blessing to your persecutors, and love your neighbor” are not really all that important when you could be using government power to command people and punish dissenters like a god unto oneself? For all the claims of persecution, Christians have not done much blessing in response (instead I am shown an example of Christianity in this article. The article sounds like it could be part of a ‘Left Behind’ -style novel).

    • tom

      For this rotten egg of a country to stop rolling downhill, we’ll have to smash it and start aqain.

      • Giauz Ragnarock

        The “killing makes me feel alive!” spirit, right? Seriously, you think so badly of people that you want to smash them?

      • Howard

        No, **WE** don’t have to smash it. We have to try to prevent it from being smashed. We may have little hope in succeeding, but we have to try. If it is smashed, we need to be able to show that it happened not because we smashed it, but because it smashed itself.

  • TheAbaum

    “If, say, a state governor rounded up every member of a certain ethnic group and put them in a concentration camp”.

    Interestingly perverse idea, because this has already happened. It wasn’t a governor who did it, it was Franklin Delano Roosevelt who did it with Executive Order 9066 and the Supreme Court affirmed it as Constitutional by telling Fred Korematsu that his rights could be summarily vacated by the President and his appointees.

    How nice for FDR that he had appointed eight members of the Court, and six expressed their appreciation with their vote on this matter, with the majority opinion being written by the detestable Hugo Black.

    Now what?

    • Thomas

      FDR was brazen enough to attempt to pack the Supreme Court so he could get a liberal majority. The Obama apple does not fall far from the tree.

  • hombre111

    Let’s see,,,who was that great executlve in the 20th. century who seized great power in a time of dire emergency? Oh, yes. Adoph Hitler. Careful what you ask for.

    • tom

      Imagine a leader who spoke glowing of church, family life and children. Obama hates the Church, most women love Obama and we murder more children than anyone wants to admit. It’s like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”. Our democratic republic needs to be put to sleep.

      • TheAbaum

        No Church, and they have a different definition of “family”, but the great monsters all surrounded themselves with little ones.

  • bethannbee

    My first reaction to reading this article was Margaret Thatcher took a very firm position and turned England around for the time being anyway. I agree that its too late though. I think we will suffer for the sins against Life and Family.

    • TheAbaum

      It didn’t last. England is further down the porcelain whirlpool than us.

    • Howard

      Reviving the economy and retaining the Falklands did nothing to stop the spiritual rot.

      In our case, we face constitutional crises AND economic crises AND an educational crisis AND a spiritual crisis ALL COMING TO A HEAD AT THE SAME TIME, probably within the next 15 years. We’ve overcome such crises before, but I’m not sure we have ever faced so many at the same time.

  • Thomas

    The principle of limited government is dead. Very sad.

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  • BillinJax

    Our prayer must be a plea for fortitude and trust in our battle to save what is left of our republic and our religious freedom which are under attack on all sides by an evil administration. We are left with little but to acknowledge that we can not abandon our mission understanding God is in control of the results.
    Part of our mission is to walk into the culture,filled with the love of God, equipped with
    the splendor of truth, and continue the work entrusted to us as Catholic Christians in order to be his credible witnesses among our fellow man. Our job is to faithfully help BUILD his kingdom on earth in spite of the mounting opposition and we have to leave it to the prescriptions of our almighty and merciful God to preform any justified DESTRUCTION of Evil and its minions..

  • Cincinnatus1775

    No, no, no, a thousand times, NO! In times of cultural crisis such as these there’s always the temptation to grasp for the “man on horseback” solution. Examples of this approach turning out well are very few while examples of it turning out very, very badly are legion.

    That aside, there’s the practical matter that Mr. Kranson’s man on horseback would have to be elected by the same electorate that put Obama in office… and kept him there for a second term. And should the other side prevail among our sharply divided citizenry, in these times we are more likely to end up with someone just as wrong in the opposite direction than someone as virtuous as George Washington.

    The root of the problem lies not with the politicians, but with an electorate which over the past few generations has been mis-educated, misinformed and misled to the point where the majority of citizens know precious little history, less about how their form of government came to be and why and absolutely nothing about the responsibilities that go along with citizenship in our republic.

    This did not happen by accident, and it will not be reversed by wishful thinking. Nor will it be reversed in anything less than a generation or two (perhaps even three). The people who moved our country (and others — we are not alone) to this point did so by taking the long view and following a strategy that started with the mis-education of children. They have a 40 year head start on us but we must begin, keeping in mind that just as the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the next best time is now. The voters who will cast their first ballots in the 2016 presidential election are in high school right now. Those who will cast their first votes in 2020 are in grade school. We must start there.

    As for the defeatism evident in some of the posts here, banish it! It is part of and plays into the strategy of our adversaries. “Put on the whole armor of God,” (Eph 6:11) and remember that “Like a mighty army moves the Church of God.”

  • David

    This article scares me. Not because I disagree with everything in it but because what he advocates would open the door for a dictator. People complain about Obama, this would be Obama on amphetamines. Even if what was done was beneficial, what of the president that comes next? You can’t force people in this way.

  • If a role would be perfect for a saint, but terrible for a sinner, then such role should not exist or have its actions severely curtailed. It’s better to live without some good things be done than to live with some terrible things be done.

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  • Rob W

    You’ve got to be kidding me right?

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