President, U.S

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PRESIDENT, U.S. The president of the United States is by far the best known politician both within the United States and around the world. Americans who struggle to recall the name of their representative, senator, or governor almost certainly know the name of the president. Citizens of other countries from Iraq to China, Australia to Russia, are generally familiar with the president's name and photograph and have an opinion on his performance in office. The fame that U.S. presidents enjoy today is appropriate, for the person who holds that office is at the center of both American politics and world affairs. Yet the president is not all-powerful at home or abroad. U.S. presidents are of ten frustrated overseas (for example, in their attempts to bring peace to the Middle East or Northern Ireland), and domestically it is well to remember that, as the political scientist Charles O. Jones has emphasized, the United States does not have a presidential system of government in the sense that presidents are free to make and implement policy.

Powers of the Office

The Constitution, as is well known, created a system of checks and balances to prevent tyrannical government. The political scientist Richard Neustadt correctly noted that the Constitution did not create a system of separated powers favored by theorists such as Montesquieu, in which legislative, judicial, and executive powers were kept separate from one another. Rather, the Constitution gave pieces of all these powers to all branches of government. The power to oversee the departments and agencies of the federal government is given to Congress and the courts as well as to the president; Congress as well as the president is involved in foreign policy through Congress's powers to block the appointment of ambassadors and decide whether to accept or reject treaties, and through its general power of the purse through which it decides how much, if at all, to fund policies proposed by the president and his officers.

The Constitution is also particularly brief and ambiguous in describing the powers of the president. The president is given the rights to nominate ambassadors and other officers of the United States and to require their opinions in writing, to veto legislation (subject to override by a two-thirds majority), to report on the state of the union, to negotiate treaties, and to be commander in chief. The Constitution therefore provides a mixture of both precise and ambiguous powers to the president. There was no doubt from the earliest years of the republic that the power to veto legislation provided presidents with an enormously valuable bargaining chip in the legislative process. In the case of other Constitutional grants of power, it has taken many years of practice and interpretation to define what they mean. At the time the Constitution was written, the role of the British king as commander in chief had become merely ceremonial and honorific. Yet by the late twentieth century, U.S. presidents had successfully asserted that this title empowered them to order American forces into battle even if Congress had not used its undoubted constitutional right to decide whether or not to declare war. In the Cold War nuclear era, the implications were sobering. On a less dramatic level, the question of which officers and officials of the United States the president can not only appoint but dismiss is similarly ambiguous in the Constitution. The matter was not fully settled by the Supreme Court until the twentieth century; for example, the president can fire the Attorney General or the Secretary of State, but cannot fire members of independent regulatory commissions or independent counsels. In important respects, therefore, the powers of the president have accumulated over the centuries rather than invariably originating unambiguously from the Constitution.

The Constitution gave the president one enormous advantage compared with the other two branches of government, namely the singularity of the office. Power in Congress is widely fragmented between two chambers and among numerous committees, subcommittees, and part leaders. Individual legislators are hesitant to grant much of their own power to anyone. The president in contrast enjoys a solitary splendor. As Alexander Hamilton recognized in the Federalist Papers, the president is much better placed to act with speed and dispatch in making decisions than the fragmented Congress. The president's bargaining position with Congress is also enhanced by its divisions and his singularity.

Presidents enjoy one important advantage because of a constitutional practice rather than the Constitution as such. The president is uniquely positioned to claim to be the person who can speak for the United States and the national interest, particularly during crises and emergencies. This reflects the fact that, contrary to the plan for electing the president set out in the Constitution, the president is in practice elected directly by the people voting state by state. Thus the president can claim with some plausibility to be the only politician to have been elected by all the people, in contrast to legislators elected by a single state or district. Yet all these Constitutional advantages must be set against the constraints the Constitution provides and that we have discussed above. The most obvious are worth reiterating. Presidents cannot legislate without Congress. Presidents cannot even implement established policies unless Congress, which has the power of the purse, provides the funding. The contrast with a prime minister who can rely on a disciplined parliamentary majority (as is generally the case in Great Britain) is striking.

The Presidency in the Political System

The Constitution therefore confers both opportunities and constraints upon the president. As we have seen, American presidents share all their powers with other branches of government. Presidents can achieve their policy goals only by winning the support of other political actors. The nature of American politics makes the challenge all the greater. Political parties in the United States are famously (or notoriously) less disciplined than parties in parliamentary systems; the president's unofficial role as leader of his party nationally does not automatically result in legislators from that party supporting one of the president's bills in Congress, particularly if their constituents' interests or opinions conflict with it. Attempts by even the most prestigious presidents to punish members of their own party who have failed to support them (such as Roosevelt in the 1930s) have harmed presidents more than the objects of their wrath. American political parties historically have not coalesced around explicit ideologies to which presidents can appeal for support. It is true that in the late twentieth century the parties in Congress achieved much greater cohesion than in the past, with much larger proportions of legislators voting with their party much more of ten than in previous years. Yet, as President Clinton experienced when his proposal for national health insurance failed in a Congress controlled by his own Democratic Party without even a formal vote being taken, higher party unity scores do not necessarily result in support for a particular presidential proposal from his own party. As Richard Neustadt argued, the power of the president is the power to persuade.

Fortunately for presidents, they enjoy a number of advantages not enumerated in the Constitution to help them in their attempts to persuade. Particularly in times of acute crisis, such as the beginning of a war, the president's dual role as head of state as well as head of government causes a "rally effect" in which the public and other politicians unite in support of the nation's leader. Presidents can reward support with government contracts for the legislator's constituency, appointments for friends, or support for the legislator's own favorite proposal. Most importantly, presidents have the ability to "go public" in the words of Samuel Kernell, appealing to the public for support over the heads of other politicians. The rise of the electronic media, first radio and then television, has enabled presidents to establish a direct, almost personal relationship with voters that skilled presidents such as Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton have used to good effect. It is probably advisable for presidents to use this tactic on a limited number of important issues lest it lose its impact. If used wisely, it can be decisive.

The degree to which presidents are successful in persuading other politicians to follow their lead has varied significantly. Three different cycles can be distinguished. First, success varies over the course of a presidency. Even those presidents regarded as the most successful in gaining support from Congress have found that toward the end of their presidencies their success has faltered. Both Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson experienced dramatic success in obtaining legislation from Congress only to experience subsequent periods of frustration and failure. Second, a president's success may be influenced by reactions to events that occurred under his predecessors. Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter both suffered from the belief that under their predecessors an overly powerful "imperial presidency" had developed. Ronald Reagan benefited from a fear that under Carter and Ford the presidency had become "imperiled, not imperial." Third, there have been longer-term historical variations. The unimposing presidents that James Bryce had in mind when he discussed the office in his magisterial book, The American Commonwealth, gave way to the strong presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt and (after William Howard Taft) Woodrow Wilson. The uninspiring presidents after Wilson were followed by the strong leadership of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman.

The Office

The Constitution talks of the president, but in the modern era, at least, the presidency is not merely the president but a sizable political institution employing over 1,500 people. By way of contrast, the Executive Office contained less than half that number (703) in 1943 when Roosevelt had a world war to run. Some of these people are civil servants, notably in the Office of Management and Budget that constructs the president's budget and monitors the regulations that agencies and departments develop. Around 400 are members of the White House staff, a group of political appointees whose role and power varies from the relatively mundane (arranging travel, answering correspondence) to the extremely important (writing speeches, advising on policy issues.)

The growth in the size of the Executive Office might be seen as reflecting merely the growth in the responsibilities of governments in all advanced industrialized economies and in the international role of the United States. It is important to note, however, that new functions or responsibilities of American government could have been entrusted to established departments such as State or the Treasury. After all, American presidents are given far more freedom to make political appointments to the top positions in government departments than most democratic heads of government enjoy, and the number of such political appointees continues to grow. Newly elected presidents in the United States can make about 5,000 political appointments; a British prime minister in a country with admittedly only about one-fifth of the U.S. population can make fewer than two hundred.

All modern presidents have felt, however, that they needed their own staffers to advise them from within the White House rather than relying on the cabinet secretaries. In part this results from the fact that issues do not correspond to departmental boundaries; a foreign policy crisis will almost certainly involve the Department of Defense, the Treasury, and the Department of Justice as well as the State Department. It also reflects, however, presidents' suspicions about the responsiveness of the civil service in government departments and the commitment of cabinet secretaries to the president's agenda. After all, many political appointments are made more for political reasons (ensuring that there are enough women or minorities in the president's appointments) rather than because those selected are known to have a clear commitment to the president's policy preferences. Indeed, of ten presidents must make appointments to positions in policy fields that they have rarely thought about, and they have no clear preferences until a problem develops. Moreover, political appointees in departments must operate in a political setting in which many influences upon them—powerful congressional committees, the opinions of the permanent bureaucracy, interest groups—can pull them away from the president's priorities and policy positions.

Unlike the leaders of most advanced democracies, American presidents are presented with the challenge of constructing the core executive for themselves. British prime ministers used to walk through the front door of 10 Downing Street to take charge of a prime ministership that was ready to use and with key officials (who are permanent civil servants)in place. U.S. presidents arrive to find that their predecessor has removed all key files and computer discs. A number of obvious dangers lie in wait for the new president in constructing his or her administration. Some presidents (Johnson, Nixon) are said to have created a severely hierarchical structure for the White House staff that screened out and sheltered them from bad news or contrary opinions that they needed to hear. Others (Carter for most of his administration, Clinton for periods of his) have been criticized for allowing too much access to them by too many of their staff, resulting in incoherent decision making and excessive demands on their time, down to, in Carter's case, allegedly deciding on who could use the White House tennis courts. Reagan claimed that members of his Executive Office, notably Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North of the National Security Council staff, had organized the illegal sale of weapons to Iran and transfer of the proceeds to right-wing rebels in Nicaragua. In short, the Executive Office, if organized ineffectively, can harm presidents as well as helping them. An appropriate structure for the White House staff and the Executive Office in general will avoid these dangers. It will also, however, take into account the styles and personalities of the incumbent; an appropriate structure for one president may be inappropriate for another.

The Presidency and the World

Presidents of the United States are elected only by Americans, but their policies and performance matter to people throughout the world. Although the end of the Cold War meant that presidents were no longer as obviously leaders of a mighty "Western" coalition, the dominant position of the United States in the world has compelled U.S. presidents to accept a role of global leadership. Post–Cold War presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush came into office determined to be more domestically oriented than their predecessors but were unable to escape the demands of world leadership. Global issues ranging from climate change to trade, from bringing peace to the Balkans to combating international terrorism against the United States, from countering the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait to settling disputes with the European Union over the use of growth hormones in beef cattle, have regularly forced themselves onto the agendas of the post–Cold War presidents.

Leaders in other countries are as much a part of the attentive audience for presidents as, for example, representatives in Congress. The annual meeting of the leaders of major advanced industrialized nations known as the G8 brings presidents (and more extensively, their staffs) into regular dialogue with foreign counterparts. Certain foreign leaders (the British prime minister, the Russian president) expect to speak with the U.S. president regularly and informally on major global issues. Almost all foreign heads of government prize the publicity and prestige that a visit to the White House brings. Foreign leaders know that, given the extent of American economic, diplomatic, and military power, a decision not to become involved in a problem that concerns them is as much a policy decision on the part of the American president as a decision to become involved. Presidents frequently find themselves practicing what Robert Putnam termed the "two level game" of balancing the sometimes conflicting, sometimes coinciding demands of global politics on the one hand and domestic politics on the other.

The Presidency in a New Century

The history of the U.S. presidency has been a history of expansion. The institution has grown in terms of the number of people it employs, in terms of the range of policy problems for which presidents are held accountable, and in terms of the international responsibilities of its incumbent. In spite of the misleading adage that "all politics is local," Americans feel that through the medium of television they have a closer connection with the president than with any other politician. Yet all the prominence and responsibilities that befall a modern president must still be handled within the framework established by an eighteenth-century document, the Constitution, that created not a presidential system of government but a system of separated institutions sharing the powers of government. The president, whose international prominence is so great, must always remember that at home, success depends on the ability to persuade other politicians to cooperate.


Burke, John P. The Intuitional Presidency: Organizing and Managing the White House from FDR to Clinton. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.

Edwards, George C. At the Margins: Presidential Leadership of Congress. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1969.

Greenstein, Fred I. The Hidden Hand Presidency; Eisenhower as Leader. New York: Basic Books, 1982.

Hart, John. The Presidential Branch. New York: Pergamon, 1987.

Rockman, Bert A. The Leadership Question: The Presidency and the American System. New York: Praeger, 1984.

Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr. The Imperial Presidency. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973.

Skowronek, Stephen S. The Politics Presidents Make: Leadership from John Adams to George Bush. Cambridge, Mass.: Belkap Press, 1993.


See alsoCongress, United States ; Constitution of the United States .

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President, U.S

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President, U.S