Critical of Presidency, Prof. Ginsberg and Crenson unite

By ROSS LINKER | September 26, 2007

Matthew Crenson and Benjamin Ginsberg, professors of political science at Hopkins, recently collaborated on a book critisizing the changing role of the U.S. presidency.

Presidential Power: Unchecked and Unbalanced, is the second book the professors have written together. The goal of the book is to open the public's eye to the presidency's gradual deterioration, over the course of history, into an imperialistic power.

"Each president is worse than the one before," Ginsberg said.

Presidential Power: Unchecked and Unbalanced was written as a sequel to their first coauthored book, Downsizing Democracy: How America Sidelined Its Citizens and Privatized Its Public, in which Ginsberg and Crenson discussed the implications of reduced public participation in politics. However this new work takes their arguments one step further and paints for the reader a bleak picture in which presidents slowly but surely gain more and more power with both the public at large and other political institutions doing nothing to prevent it.

Crenson and Ginsberg decided to jointly write this new book not only because of the recent abuse of the executive office by the Bush administration but also because the recent trend of presidents gaining power needed to be brought to light.

"This has been building now for at least 50 years," Ginsberg said. What's more, the two felt that because they differ on many points, coauthoring this work would lead to a more balanced analysis.

"We don't expect to agree with one another," Crenson said.

"Because we disagree on things it helps us take a step back from our own beliefs," Ginsberg said.

Structured like a homicide case file with the motives, means and opportunities presidents have had to gain power, the two professors analyze recent presidencies with a desire to alert the public to the dangers that lie ahead.

"We want people to be warned," Ginsberg said.

The book begins with a thorough review of the actions that have led up to what Crenson and Ginsberg have labeled "presidential imperialism." The professors discuss the various opportunities that presidents of recent years have had to increase their power, including legislative neglect and the diminished role of political parties in creating presidents.

Most important, however, the two discuss the nature of presidents and presidential candidates, especially their ambition.

"It's not personal," said Crenson, "these powers - these drives - have been institutionalized."

According to Ginsberg and Crenson, presidential ambition, and by extension, disproportionate use of executive power, have become ingrained into what Americans expect the presidency to be like: People have come to accept that presidents may use their power to further their own ideals.

Although the two Hopkins professors enlighten us as to how the presidency has been empowered, the ultimate outcome, they admit, is rather bleak. Crenson and Ginsberg don't have a lot of hope when it comes to fixing the errors of the past.

According to the professors, the only people that really could implement change are those individuals in power - and they have no desire to alter the current situation.

Moreover, due to the decreased involvement of Americans in politics and the president's gradual separation from political parties, Congress has seemingly lost its ability to interfere and stop executive expansion.

Ginsberg calls the United States a presidential republic with the President staying at the center of American politics. However, Crenson and Ginsberg do have some faith in the future of the American Republic.

"I can't see much that's changed, but I do have hope," Crenson said. Specifically the two look to outside organizations to come in and bolster the American public into getting involved with political affairs, especially after their success in recent elections.

Crenson in particular is hoping that groups known as 527s - organizations that indirectly support candidates and work to get their candidate in office - can cause the American populace to regain interest in political participation.

"My hope for the future rests with the efforts of the 527s," Crenson said.

When asked about the largest criticism of their case, both Ginsberg and Crenson stated that the most frequent argument against them was simply that there are times when the United States needs a strong Commander-in-Chief.

The scholars who argue this point, whom Ginsberg labels as "presidentialists," have pointed out that oftentimes, there are situations which demand a strong executive office. However in response to this argument, Crenson and Ginsberg note that this only applies to emergencies, whereas the current president has used this authority to further his own beliefs in society. Presidential Power: Unchecked and Unbalanced was published in 2007 by W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

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