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Lesson Plan on Executive Power Using C-SPAN and Washington Journal

As part of my application for the C-SPAN Teacher Fellowship, I was required to video tape one of my classroom lessons that involved C-SPAN video material. The lesson plan and materials below are from the lesson that I used in my application.

The American colonists rebelled against a king who wielded executive power capriciously, and they created a presidency that was far weaker and balanced by other elements of the government. Yet over the past 200 years, American presidents have constantly expanded the power of the chief executive. This has been particularly noticeable in 21st century, as the war on terror has justified a range of unprecedented presidential power.

Have American presidents gone too far in fighting the war on terror or are their actions within their constitutional powers as commander in chief?

The following lesson will lead students through a discussion of this question. It was originally designed for an A.P. U.S. Government and Politics class, but it would be suitable for any high school social studies class. It does incorporate video content from C-SPAN, so you will need a video projector. My students had previously discussed the drone program, and it would help if they have some background current issues in the war on terror.

The lesson is driven by the Google Presentation below, which is also accessible here.

Introduction / Do Now

To begin the lesson, I opened to the slide about the imperial presidency. I very briefly explained Schlessinger’s thesis (that the presidency has grown in power over time), and I posed the question: Do you think that the war on terror has give the president too much power, or have Obama and Bush simply been exercising their constitutional powers?

The question was paired with a political cartoon of President Bush crowning President Obama. I gave students several minutes to silently write a response, and once everyone had written down a few ideas I had students share their responses. Three or four students shared their responses before we moved on to the main lesson. Remember: this is an introduction, not the main discussion.

Video Clip from American Presidency

Next, I introduced a video clip from American Journal, a C-SPAN on program. In this particular segment, titled “Executive Power,” American Journal spoke with Jonathan Turley, a lawer from George Washington University Law School. He presented an argument that President Obama has seized a great deal of executive power and that he has expanded on the powers bequeathed upon him by President Bush and his predecessors.

Before watching the clip, I asked the students to think about the four questions included in the slide. We proceeded to watch about ten minutes of the clip – up until the initial interview ended and the phones were opened up. You may want to watch more if you have more time (i.e. a block period), but I found that in 43 minutes I couldn’t afford to watch any more in class.

We then discussed the questions together. I included the question about the novel 1984 because it articulates well with our English curriculum. Many of my students had recently read it in their English class. You may want to remove that question or replace it with something else if your students aren’t familiar with the novel.

Overview of Past Presidential Power Grabs

To wrap up, I segued into the penultimate slide – the pictures of Presidents Obama, Bush, Roosevelt, and Lincoln. I briefly described how each of these presidents grabbed executive power and took questionable actions as president in the name of national security.

President Obama has been criticized recently for the CIA’s drone program and especially the notion that the president could order the targeted killings of American citizens on American soil under certain extreme circumstances. President Bush had his own track record of dealing with terrorists, including water boarding  extraordinary rendition, and detention in Guantanamo Bay. President FDR took the step – perhaps one of the most extreme in American history – of imprisoning Japanese-American citizens in interment camps out of fear that they might sabotage industries or commit terrorist acts on the west coast. Finally, President Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus during the Civil War so that he could arrest Confederate sympathizers he suspected of espionage.

Again, it helps if students are seniors who already have a background in American history. This brief overview is not intended to teach the students about any of these events; it is intended to remind them of things of which they should already be aware.

Question for Homework

With the wrap-up finished, I proceeded to the final slide and assigned the writing question for homework.

Has President Obama expanded executive power too far in the name of the war on terror, or is he justifiably acting in the interests of national defense?

I use Schoology as a learning management system, and I instructed the students to respond to the question in several paragraphs and submit their response to Schoology. I also asked them to reference the video clip that we watched in their response.

Final Thoughts

This lesson came at the end of my unit on the presidency in my A.P. Government and Politics class. We had already discussed the fundamentals of the president’s job and powers, and we had discussed both the concept of war powers and the war powers resolution.

The point of this lesson was to apply some of these concepts to current events. It was also extremely timely, as it took place shortly after Rand Paul’s filibuster of Obama’s appointments in which he criticized the President and his continued use of unmanned drones to assassinate terrorists (including American citizens).

These are some interesting and complicated questions on which rational people can disagree, and they are certainly issues worth discussing with our students. One interesting concept that can also be illustrated with this lesson is how people are often changed by institutional power. President Obama was quite critical of President Bush’s use of executive power as a canddiate. However, he entered office and continued to use the full (and sometimes questionable) powers of his office to prosecute the war on terror.

Feel free to use the Google presentation provided or to adapt it to your own needs. As a technicality, it is “released” under the Creative Commons Attribution – Share Alike license. In short, do what you like with the materials, but please include a link back to this post if you should republish it online.

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