About the Book

The Bush years have given rise to fears of a resurgent Imperial Presidency. Those fears are justified, but Americans are wrong to suppose that the problem can be solved simply by bringing a new administration to power. In his provocative new book, The Cult of the Presidency, Gene Healy argues that the fault lies not in our leaders but in ourselves. When American scholars lionize presidents who break free from constitutional restraints, when our columnists and talking heads repeatedly call upon the “commander in chief” to dream great dreams and seek the power to achieve them—when voters look to the president for salvation from all problems great and small—it’s the sheerest hypocrisy for Americans to complain that the presidency has grown too big, too powerful, and too menacing.

Amid all the bitterness of contemporary politics, it’s easy to miss the fact that at bottom, conservatives and liberals agree on the boundless nature of presidential responsibility. For both camps, it is the president’s job to “grow the economy,” teach our children well, provide seamless protection from terrorist threats, and rescue Americans from spiritual “malaise.” Very few Americans seem to think it’s odd when candidates talk as if they’re running for a job that’s a combination of guardian angel, shaman, and supreme warlord of the earth.

That unconfined conception of presidential responsibility is the source of much of our political woe and some of the gravest threats to our liberties. If the public expects the president to heal everything that ails us, the president is going to demand—or seize—the power necessary to handle that responsibility.

Interweaving historical scholarship, legal analysis, and cultural commentary, Cult traces America’s decades-long drift from the Framers’ vision for the presidency: a constitutionally constrained chief magistrate charged with faithful execution of the laws. Restoring that vision will require a Congress and a Court willing to check executive power, but in the end, there is no simple legislative or judicial “fix” to the problems of the presidency. Unless Americans change what we ask of the office—no longer demanding what we should not want and cannot have—we’ll get what, in a sense, we deserve.

Praise for Cult of the Presidency

“This splendid book provides the best account yet of how the Imperial Presidency, abetted by Democrats and Republicans alike, came to pose a clear and present danger to our republic.”

—Andrew J. Bacevich
Author of The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War

“Gene Healy’s well-researched, lucidly written historical overview of the American presidency could not be timelier with Americans about to elect a new president. This study provides a reality check for where we should not want future presidents to go.”

—John W. Dean
Former Nixon White House Counsel, author of Broken Government: How Republican Rule Destroyed the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial Branches

“Popular perceptions often thoughtlessly equate activist presidents with great ones. Gene Healy makes a compelling case that the opposite proposition lies closer to the truth. Boring presidents like Taft and Harding keep this nation out of trouble. Aggressive presidents like Teddy Roosevelt often lead the nation astray. The issue not one of partisan politics, for Healy is equally merciless in his criticism of both Bill Clinton and George Bush. In his thorough historical analysis, Healy lays bare the deeper risks of an expansionist view of the Presidency. Defenders of limited government learn from Healy that the Congress is not the only branch of government that continually seeks to expand its powers beyond their proper constitutional limits.”

—Richard A. Epstein
James Parker Hall Distinguished Service Professor of Law,
University of Chicago Law School

Cult is precisely the word, because the President’s omnibus job description requires above all that he serve as high priest in America’s civil religion. Healy’s argument for restoring the presidency to its constitutional limits is as persuasive as his argument for why we, the people, will probably never permit it.”

—Walter A. McDougall
University of Pennsylvania, Pulitzer Prize winning historian,
author of Throes of Democracy: the American Civil War Era 1829-1877

“Where did the ‘Imperial Presidency’ come from? The Founders intended for the American president to be deferential to Congress, which is why they put the legislative branch ahead of the executive branch in the Constitution. So what happened? As the first attorney general, Edmund Randolph, observed at the Constitutional Convention, the presidency always contained the ‘foetus of monarchy’. And now Gene Healy explains that growing-up process in this erudite survey, stretching over 250 fascinating years of U.S. history.”

—James P. Pinkerton
Assistant to George H.W. Bush and columnist for Newsday

“Gene Healy provides an important public service by puncturing the inflated hopes and dreams of an all-wise, informed, and well-intentioned President. This fundamentally flawed conception of executive power makes us less safe, less free, and less constitutional.”

—Louis Fisher
Author of Presidential War Power