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Professor's New Book Probes Limits of Presidential Power

Assistant Professor Chris Edelson

Assistant Professor Chris Edelson

The framers of the U.S. Constitution gave Congress the job of declaring war, but also gave the president the power to take emergency action independent of Congress if the country was suddenly attacked.

While intended to provide the Commander in Chief a way to swiftly respond to security threats, a new book by Chris Edelson, assistant professor of government in American University’s School of Public Affairs, shows through historic records that U.S. presidents have tested, pushed, and increasingly overstepped the limits of their emergency powers, particularly in the post-9/11 era. 

Edelson had the idea for the book, published this month by the University of Wisconsin Press, when he created his new class “The Constitution, National Security and the War on Terror,” and discovered no textbook existed on the topic. The resulting work, Emergency Presidential Power: From the Drafting of the Constitution to the War on Terror, draws from excerpts of the Constitution, Supreme Court opinions, Department of Justice memos, and other primary documents.

Edelson’s research has been an important contribution to the national dialogue on presidential power, with interviews and opinion pieces recently published in the Los Angeles Times and other notable news media outlets.

An Interest Sparked 

Edelson says the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks sparked his interest in wartime use of presidential power.

Book Talk

Edelson spoke about the new book at DC's Politics and Prose Bookstore in January 2014. Watch a video of the event »

“Living in New York City, I was personally affected by what happened that day, and concerned about how the government would respond,” says Edelson, who practiced law in New York City and Washington, D.C., and served as state legislative director for the Human Rights Campaign. “Like many people, I was worried about the safety of our country.”  

That concern eventually turned to skepticism, as Edelson saw the government invoke national security in questionable ways: waterboarding of terrorist suspects, torture at Guantánamo Bay, and the National Security Administration’s (NSA) mass phone and electronic surveillance. More recently, Edelson says President Obama’s military strikes against Libya and threats of force in Syria creep outside the Commander in Chief’s duties to protect the country.

Lincoln and Truman Did It

But Edelson says there is nothing new about pushing the limits of executive power. Abraham Lincoln, for example, suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War, but ultimately secured Congressional authorization to do so.

President Harry S. Truman ordered the Secretary of Commerce to seize and operate the country’s steel mills to produce weapons during the Korean War—a move the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional.

War on Terror Changed Everything

Congress in the post-9/11 era isn’t pushing back on executive power as much as it should, says Edelson, and presidents aren’t necessarily seeking approval from Congress when they decide to act. The War on Terror further complicates this as it has no clear end and no clear target, making it harder to define the parameters of the president’s emergency powers.

“After 9/11, Americans became afraid and have looked to the president to defend the nation,” Edelson says. “In this regard, a lot of people think it is actually dangerous to set limits on the president’s power.” 

In his next book, Grand Illusion: Presidential Power and the Rule of Law under President Obama, Edelson will probe President Obama’s use of power.