The imperial presidency is back - but who's watching?

It wasn't so long ago really, only four years, when the raven-haired intern with the dazzling smile and the fashionable beret was dominating the news cycle, and Washington was up in arms about - well, the state of Washington. The president at the time, we were told, was not just bringing shame on the White House, he was fundamentally changing the powers of the presidency - weakening them beyond repair.

The days of the imperial presidency were over forever, we were told. In its place, a shriveled prune of an office. Soon, the president would just be another guy in a limo. Sure, he had a nice house, but everyone saw what went on inside. The presidency was fast becoming a reality show.

But, as is often the case, all the hyperventilating was unwarranted.

In the past few months alone the Bush administration has refused to tell the American people what it projects a war in Iraq might cost, while at the same time quietly floating a proposal for follow-up to the Patriot Act that would allow, among other things, the government to withhold information on whom it was holding as suspects in the war on terror. And all with little protest.

In fact, if there is a lesson from the past three years it is that the imperial presidency is alive and well - and that is a good and a bad thing.

Good, because despite the fun we sometimes have, we Americans don't really want our presidents to be reality-show contestants. We would rather they retain some dignity. And besides, we all believe Fox handles the genre better than C-SPAN. But bad because there are dangers in imperial power, when the nation's foundation is built upon people getting facts so they can make informed decisions.

Of course, I'm not talking about true imperial power here. The system with all its checks and balances remains intact. And the press corps, which at times likes to rumble through the capital like a pro wrestler in need of anger management, persists.

But Washington has been a very quiet city since Sept. 11, 2001. The debate that is central to the function of this country has largely disappeared. The Senate, the self-proclaimed "greatest deliberative body in the world," has been busy with other issues. Last week, it took a tough stand on the Pledge of Allegiance, adopting a resolution "expressing support" for it 94 to 0. It also waded into the thorny Mr. Rogers debate when it passed a resolution honoring him by unanimous consent.

Not that these are not relevant issues. It's just as the nation leans closer and closer toward going to war, one might think potential death and destruction, not to mention the spending of billions of dollars may at least merit similar attention. Perhaps if the president wore a cardigan and had Mr. McFeeley the deliveryman over to the White House?

What's worse though is this silence on the Hill leaves themedia unsure of how to handle their jobs. For better or worse (usually the latter) the political press in this country covers policy debates as back-and-forth between two voices within the government - Democrats say X, Republicans say Y. Reporting means relaying to readers the state of debate on the war in Washington - and minus a debate, the White House can send whatever message it likes.

The most ridiculous example is this administration's unwillingness to reveal how much it believes the war will cost. At a January Monitor breakfast, R. Glenn Hubbard, chairman of the president's Council of Economic Advisers, refused to discuss whether the administration had even developed an estimate of the cost of the war. How this would compromise the war effort was never explained. And last week, when President Bush was asked at his primetime press conference if he'd share his estimate of how much the war in Iraq might cost, he said he would tell the nation how much when he requests "the expenditure money from Congress."

Why? Because that's when he has to. There surely is an estimate kicking around the White House somewhere. And as the nation confronts a slumping economy, a series of painful budget cuts at the federal and local level, and a tax-cut proposal from the White House, it might be beneficial to get that estimate so the public could weigh the alternatives.

That's not likely to happen, however. Without serious questioning of how this administration is doing its job - either from the Congress or the press - there's no motivation for Mr. Bush to provide answers.

It is, of course, hard to challenge an administration that is seen as having great support from most Americans. And many politicians who have failed to support wars have been shown the door. But for opponents, that's not an excuse. And when the president's opposition and the press don't even challenge the president on that most American of points - how much will this cost? - it's clear that debate, vigorous or otherwise, is on holiday.

Does this mean the imperial presidency is back for good? No. The bottom line is the president is as imperial as the Congress, the press, and the public allow him to be. It just seems odd that they can be so riled by an affair with an intern and silent when the stakes are so much bigger.

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