Historically, the significance of the executive branch has increased during periods of war, crisis and economic turmoil, while the legislative branch has assumed greater responsibility during peaceful reprieves and ostensibly stable times. The relation between these two branches is complicated, but the increase of power and prestige of the president during crisis times must be approached in two ways: the president as a more efficient executive administrator of policy, and the president as symbolic leader.
The constitution provides the president with the certain powers that enhance his ability to perform in crisis situations, and, given the increased significance of the media in American politics of the last half-century, the president's role as a symbolic figure is more important than ever.
There is a generally perceived division between the executive and legislative branches: Congress is steeped in bureaucratic and intensely inefficient processes, while the president maintains the ability to act quickly. During wartime, this has proved true, but not solely as a result of that simple dichotomy. The president's ability to act is always bound to congressional approval. As stipulated in the Constitution, the president does serve as the Commander-in-Chief of both the army and navy of the United States, but the president may not declare war without congressional support. While the president may go ahead with military action regardless of a formal declaration of war, funding for the operations necessarily depend on Congress. (President's have, of course, long since learned how to skirt constitutional limits to their power: in Lincoln's first address to Congress, he announced that he had mobilized troops and engaged the South, but carefully avoided use of the word 'war.') The president has the power to make foreign treaties, but again, only provided that 2/3 of all senators agree. It would seem then that presupposition concerning the president's ability to act with unfettered resolve is more problematic than initially formulated. An inquisition into the public opinion and the 'rallying effect' will illuminate this topic.
Consider the overwhelming approval and support President Bush now receives. His entrance into the White House was mired in controversy and both his policy and authority were being challenged at every level. The attacks of September have consolidated a populist body so entirely in his favor that resisting his policies will certainly result in a sentence of death in the court of public opinion. Recall the American Council of Trustees and Alumni's recent McCarthy-esque interrogation of college professors and students demonstrating unpatriotic sentiment. Members of Congress, too, owe the continuation of their positions to the public, and when the electorate as a whole answers to one figure, it's political poison to resist this executive tide. The president then executes his power not in spite of congressional checks and balances, but with absolute congressional consent. The president's executive power derives from his symbolic authority. The burden now is to examine where and if the symbolic and political terrain can be differentiated.
In his seminal work The Rhetorical Presidency, Jeffrey Tulis dates the 'rallying effect' back to Woodrow Wilson. Wilson was the first President to believe that the chief executive had a duty to shape public opinion, not merely reflect it. The 'rallying effect' has a basic modus operandi: a disparate and conflicted body politic will be effectively united and directed if the multitude of political and cultural disorders can be consolidated into one symbolic threat or cause. This formula finds its basest realization in the pre-WWII Germany of Hitler. The burden of reparations from the Treaty of Versailles and WWI, along with a splintered infrastructure and poor economy, was shaped and refocused on the Jewish population. The 'rallying effect' is undeniable in this extreme, but it operates in more subtle ways as well. Inasmuch as the Soviet Empire posed a significant nuclear threat during the Cold War, its true importance was largely a symbolic one. For almost fifty years, the United States depended on the Evil Empire as the prime enemy, as necessary to the economy as the automobile industry or the Stock Exchange. The perennial threat of Soviet aggression endowed nine presidents with popular authority: stop the Soviet. The threat, however real or false, was symbolically used to enhance the political authority of the president. When Ronald Reagan moved into the White House of the winter of 1981, he knew that aircraft carriers could be employed as visual aids, simultaneously instantiating the reality of the enemy and the necessity of a greater military. The focus on defense spending allowed Reagan to further his economic policies of defect spending.
During the Great Depression, FDR was able to construct the most significant socialist political agenda in America's history. Under his liberal reforms, the unemployment rate dropped steadily, but the depression sill held the U.S. fully at the throat. There was more confidence in businesses to invest in development, but a general fear of relapsing into depression curtailed contributing liquid assets to investments, hindering full financial recovery. It was the declaration of war on December 8, 9141 that ended the depression for good. The war had the two-fold effect of converting industrial factories to unilaterally profitable military output, and furnishing FDR with the requisite symbolic potency to earn mass faith in his New Deal programs.
Similarly, President Bush has made sweeping domestic changes under the aegis of the 9/11 attack. The hastily enacted, little-debated Patriot Act has resulted in massive domestic upheaval, some of which, certain critics will suggest, is directly in opposition to the Constitution. Take, for instance, the roundup of potential suspects, many of whom remain in custody uncharged and incommunicado, the suspension of the right of habeas corpus, and the denial of requests for public information. Consider, moreover, that with little or no debate, in the last six months Bush has withdrawn from the 1972 ABM Treaty, deployed special-operations forces in at least six countries, and, recently, had made public its intention to invade Iraq. These are alarming developments, but subsumed within the greater threat outlined by a dogmatic and hyperbolic executive office, they are little noted.
Obviously well versed in the rhetoric of the "rallying effect," Bush clearly demarcates both international and domestic terrain into two camps: good and evil. More efficient than rallying behind contempt for Jewish usury or a communist ICBM, Bush enlist the populist as soldiers of good rallying against an evil enemy of freedom, democracy, and the American way of life. There is a supplemental bill presently being introduced to Congress which would, besides giving a massive $27 billion more for the war on terrorism, fundamentally change the laws currently governing U.S. foreign aid. The bill would channel millions of dollars in foreign aid through the Pentagon rather than the State Department. That means less congressional oversight of where the money goes and how it is spent: a direct example of use of the 'rallying effect' to advance domestic agenda, strengthen the role of the executive and circumvent congressional checks and balances.
There is an endless catalogue of examples of presidents advancing domestic policy during times of crisis: JFK was the start of the Vietnam War, possibly as a way to escalate the Cold War and advance his Public Service agenda (Peace Corps, etc.); George Bush Sr. used the Persian Gulf War against an almost non-existent enemy as a demonstration of the Pentagon's newest weaponry and a method to keep industry happy; Nixon used Vietnam to gain Conservative support and to avert attention from his growing scandals; LBJ rode the tidal crisis of JFK's assassination to advance his Civil Rights policies. This catalogue, however, is answered by an equal number of counterexamples; when a crisis begins to abate, the voice behind the 'rallying effect' begins to thin and, as the symbolic significance of the presidents fades, so does the ease with which he can forward his…