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Executive Power and the Contemporary Presidency

Every presidency begins against the backdrop of current events. In the decades prior to Ronald Reagan’s inauguration, the country had experienced the expansion of presidential powers during the administrations of Lyndon Johnson (1963–1969) and Richard Nixon (1969–1974), and then the contraction of presidential influence under the presidencies of Gerald Ford (1974–1977) and Jimmy Carter (1977–1981).

During the 1960s and 1970s, policymaking centered in the executive branch resulted in concerns that the power of the presidency had grown too large and that certain actions of the presidents were unconstitutional. A prime example of presidential strength was the direction of the war in Vietnam, which has been described as a “presidential war,” over which Congress had little influence. The term imperial presidency has been used to describe an office that some felt had expanded or grown too powerful. The Watergate scandal of Richard Nixon’s presidency reaffirmed this belief.

Upon the resignation of President Nixon, his vice president, Gerald Ford, assumed the office of president. Congress, in reaction to recent events, was committed to asserting its constitutional power in relationship to the powers of the president. When Jimmy Carter was elected president in 1976, Congress asserted itself further. Some scholars have referred to the administrations of Presidents Ford and Carter as the imperiled presidency. The Constitution’s lack of a detailed explication of the formal powers of the presidency had enabled Presidents Johnson and Nixon to expand their powers. That same lack of specificity enabled Congress to attempt to restrict the powers of the presidency during the administrations of Presidents Ford and Carter.

In his first inaugural address, President Reagan expressed his optimistic view that the problems of the nation could be overcome with conservative policies. At the heart of his economic plan was the concept that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” He explained this by saying,

We are a nation that has a government—not the other way around. And this makes us special among the nations of the Earth. Our government has no power except that granted it by the people. It is time to check and reverse the growth of government, which shows signs of having grown beyond the consent of the governed. It is my intention to curb the size and influence of the Federal establishment and to demand recognition of the distinction between the powers granted to the Federal Government and those reserved to the States or to the people.

Although it is difficult to select a few isolated actions to be representative, presidential dealings can be divided into war powers, domestic politics, and foreign relations. We will examine Ronald Reagan’s use of presidential power during his administration as it relates to each of these categories.

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