Presidential Powers: Placing Civil Rights over Pracital Politics?

When there is a gap between our political principles and practical politics who you gonna call? When the nations cries “all men are created equal”, but does not treat them as such (and the Ghostbusters are on holiday), we turn to the president. Our constitution gives the president the power to make unpopular decisions and to take immediate action when necessary. Ideally, Americans elect a president who will have the guts to use those powers (and hopefully not abuse them).

Let’s talk about civil rights, at least that’s what I would like to do in my paper. How have past presidents been able to use their unique powers and position to advance civil rights?

Obvious questions: what exactly are civil rights, and what are these presidential powers? These will be the first things I look into. The popular conception of civil rights focuses on African-Americans, but securing civil rights for some can be notably more difficult than for others. That’s where the presidential perspective comes into play. The powers I’ll look at include, but may not be limited to: executive orders, special messages to Congress, presidential proclamations, and, perhaps most important to an issue involving a great deal of grass-roots activism, the president’s platform for public addresses containing persuasive rhetoric.

The plan is to analyze the presidencies of Truman through Ford. The reason being that during this time the issue of civil rights came in and out of style. National issues are always waxing and waning in popularity, but this time period is especially important because presidential power was on the rise. What better span of time to examine the use of presidential powers, especially those that may have technically gone beyond the scope of the president’s constitutional powers? This is not necessarily a rhetorical question though. I’ve also thought about using President Reagan’s veto on civil rights legislation (the Civil Rights Restoration Act) as an example of how these powers don’t always work out in favor of our puported ideological principles.

More important questions (arguably):Which of these actions are most effective and why? What does effective even mean in this case? My initial thoughts are that successful presidential actions in defense of civil rights are long-lasting, far-reaching, and irreversible/irrefutable. These criteria are by no means final, but they will help frame my research.

I’ve always been a bit leery of the strong executive presented by the Federalists. This paper, I hope, will convince me that the president needs the powers he is granted, or has adopted, to defend our rights.  The less selfish reason, though, is relevant for everyone. Yes, there are many factors involved, determining what powers are most effective in allowing the president to right the wrongs of Congress and public opinion as well as which types of presidents are best able to utilize these powers will give voters an advantage when it comes to choosing their leaders.


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