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Power and the Presidency:
Required: Pragmatic Idealism

- Abstract

The powers and prerogatives that President Eisenhower now invokes as a matter of course would, if foreseen back in 1930, have shocked the Franklin Roosevelt and the Harry Truman no less than the Herbert Hoover of those days. There has been a general increase in the demands made on government in our country, but those now made on the President’s office have established it as the chief focus of power within government as well as the chief focus of national political life outside it. Yet traditional American attitudes to political power and to the state still put enormous difficulties in the way of the man who tries to make the Presidency what Clinton Rossiter has described as “a clear beacon of national purpose.”

Our prejudices against the power of “big government” have been so strong that they prevented one President, Herbert Hoover, who happened to share them, from accepting the full responsibilities and enlarging the inherent powers of his office in a time of bitter crisis. To be constantly in action, innovating, directing, planning, investigating (as the state must in a modern society) may even strike the head of the state himself—it still does most Americans—as fundamentally unnatural. America’s success is credited to the efforts of the “free individual” rather than to those of the state; the conventional judgment of historians and political scientists that an American state has hardly existed seems to confirm this belief. Our history is seen as a providential escape from politics. In contrast, Europe, a complex and tightly organized civilization with a long continuous history, has for centuries found the supreme role of the state an inescapable necessity, and European politicians view the state as the most natural fact of political life.

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