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How The American President Changes The World

Author: Leslie H. Gelb, President Emeritus and Board Senior Fellow
October 12, 2008
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More than 200 years ago, the framers of the Constitution set up our government with a system of checks and balances so that no branch could ever dominate. As a result, the President has shared power with Congress on domestic, economic, and foreign-policy issues. Yet over time and without great debate, he has become the dominant decision-maker on war, peace, and foreign affairs.


That means voters have an ocean liner full of responsibility in November. On Election Day, Americans will select the man who will largely decide how and when the Iraq War ends and whether to enlarge our war efforts in Afghanistan. He will choose whether the U.S. negotiates with Iran-or attacks. He'll be charged with restarting global trade talks while protecting domestic jobs. He'll need to take steps to combat global warming without causing undue strain to the economy. As if this weren't enough, he also must gauge how to deter an empowered Russia from using its military superiority across its borders, as it did recently in Georgia.

Congress has virtually abdicated its constitutional right and responsibility to declare war. World War II was the last time that it was exercised. Since then, Presidents have sent U.S. forces into armed conflict dozens of times-including the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the two Gulf wars, and the war in Afghanistan-strictly on their own authority. Although Congress usually passed resolutions of support before or afterward, the decisions already had been made in the White House.

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