(From Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia)

President of the United States

The president of the United States functions in many capacities: head of state, head of government, commander in chief of the armed forces, and leader of the president's political party. The president is thus the most unifying force in a political system in which power is highly dispersed, both within the government and between the government and the people.

The President As Head of State

The president's unifying influence is exerted through the position of head of state. Like traditional European monarchs, the president is the ceremonial head of the government. The president receives representatives of other governments and performs ceremonial duties such as holding state dinners and bestowing the Medal of Honor.

Activities as head of state are not limited to the White House and Washington, D.C. The president is expected to travel within the country occasionally, a practice begun by George Washington, who undertook several grand tours to make the presidency visible to the people. Today presidents also travel extensively abroad and appear before the people of many countries. As head of state, the president symbolizes the sovereignty and power of the United States; presidential words and acts radiate an aura of significance that no other American can command.

The President As Head of Government

The president is also head of the government, ruling as well as reigning. As head of government the president is chief executive, chief diplomat, commander in chief, and chief policymaker.

Chief Executive. 

As chief executive, the president appoints the heads of the government departments (who constitute the cabinet) and the heads of agencies, subject to the Senate's approval, and supervises the work of the executive branch. The president's administrative role, however, is also sharply limited. The Senate may withhold approval of presidential nominees, as it did with John Tower, President George Bush's choice for secretary of defense. Despite a large White House staff, the president has difficulty keeping abreast of all activities of the vast executive branch. The bureaus, encouraged by interest groups and congressional committees, often resist and delay the fulfillment of the president's orders. Presidential power to remove personnel is circumscribed by Supreme Court decisions, and civil-service laws protect the tenure of most federal employees.

The president provides leadership in legislation. More than anyone, the president establishes the agenda for Congress. If major problems arise that require remedies, Congress and the public expect the president to offer recommendations.

The heart of the president's legislative program is conveyed in messages to Congress each January, beginning with the State of the Union address—a general, wide-ranging treatment of national problems and policies. The Economic Report follows, accompanied by the massive, detailed budget document itself; this contains the financial work plans for reaching the president's previously announced general objectives.

Subsequently, the president sends special messages to Congress, each devoted to a single topic such as foreign aid, welfare, or agriculture. Accompanying or soon following the special messages are drafts of legislation that the president urges Congress to pass. The president and the various cabinet secretaries work to persuade Congress to enact as much of the proposed legislation as possible. Increasingly, presidents, to succeed in Congress, must build coalitions of interest groups to support their measures.

The president can also be a constraining force on Congress. Recent presidents have tried to curb congressional spending. Congress and the presidency, particularly when controlled by opposing parties, may disagree regarding their priorities. The Republican presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford supported more spending for military and space programs and vetoed social programs, while Congress, controlled by Democrats, attempted to reverse these priorities. Republican President Ronald Reagan induced Congress during his first term to approve substantial cuts in social programs; although the Senate was then Republican, the House was Democratic—and swayed by Reagan's great popularity. In a rare display of bipartisan unanimity in 1997, however, a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, and a Republican-controlled Congress reached an accord on federal spending levels designed to achieve a balanced budget by the year 2002 (in fact, budget surpluses began well before that.) However, that same Congress impeached Clinton in 1998 (though he was acquitted by the Senate).

Recent presidents have frequently used the constitutional power to veto. In 1975, for example, President Ford vetoed 18 bills; Congress attempted to override him 9 times and succeeded 3 times. The mere threat to veto, as repeatedly demonstrated by President Bush, may enable the president to shape legislation to his liking. Overriding is difficult because it requires a two-thirds vote against the president in each house. When their vetoes failed, Presidents Nixon and Ford in some instances impounded funds—that is, they refused to spend what Congress had appropriated. This practice was curtailed by the Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974. Legislation governing a "line-item" veto went into effect in 1997, and President Clinton became the first U.S. chief executive to exercise the power to veto selected parts of broad legislation already passed by Congress. In 1998, however, the Supreme Court declared the line-item veto law unconstitutional, ruling that it violated the separation of powers.

Chief Diplomat. 

The president is the nation's chief diplomat. "I make American foreign policy," Harry Truman once said, and Thomas Jefferson observed that the conduct of foreign affairs is "executive altogether." Success in waging major wars such as the two world wars has enlarged the presidency's prestige and power. The unpopularity of the Vietnam War, however, an undeclared war, caused Congress to adopt the War Powers Act (1973), which bars wars longer than 60 or 90 days without congressional approval. Presidents have consistently challenged the constitutionality of the act, although President Bush, before beginning the Persian Gulf War, secured congressional approval, mainly to impress Iraq with U.S. unity.

As chief diplomat, the president deals directly with the heads of foreign governments. Summit meetings with leaders of the Group of Eight major industrialized nations, for example, have become a regular event for recent presidents. Presidents preside over the negotiation of major treaties with other countries, such as the Panama Canal Treaty of 1977–78 or the Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty of 1963. They oversee arms control negotiations and work to check the spread of nuclear arms capability to other nations.

Commander in Chief. 

As commander in chief of the armed forces, the president is responsible for the nation's security. The president deploys troops abroad and sometimes orders them into combat to protect the interests, property, and lives of U.S. citizens. Presidents have also used the armed forces within the United States to maintain the peace, and they are empowered to impose martial law, as Abraham Lincoln did in the Civil War. The president is custodian of the country's nuclear weapons; under law the president is the only person who can order their use, and the "Black Box" through which that order can be sent accompanies the president at all times.

As a civilian commander in chief, the president embodies the principle of civilian supremacy over the military. A dramatic exercise of this power occurred in 1951, when President Harry Truman dismissed General of the Army Douglas MacArthur for insubordination. The president appoints the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other military commanders, oversees the military budget, and passes on the development of new weapons systems. The president also directs the country's participation in military alliances.

The powers of the chief executive may extend even further in time of war. The president may find it necessary to establish wide-ranging controls on the economy, as in World War II. A president may even interfere with civil liberties, as >Franklin D. Roosevelt did in approving the forced relocation of thousands of Japanese Americans on the Pacific coast in World War II.


The president is the single most potent policymaker in economic and social affairs. Recent presidents have been concerned with such problems as health, welfare, crime, energy, inflation, unemployment, the U.S. balance of payments, the strength of the dollar abroad, and federal budget deficits. The sweeping income-tax reform legislation that President Reagan signed in 1986 represented one of his major policy objectives. The president and advisors also establish and administer national policies, within statutory limits, in such areas as social security, education, and other social issues. Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson gave encouragement to the civil rights movement. Johnson's Great Society included programs of health care for the poor and elderly, large-scale aid to education, a >War on Poverty, beautification of highways, and reduction of air and water pollution. The Reagan administration moved to cut spending on most social programs, in the belief that they were too expensive, inflationary, and wasteful. President Bush hoped, vainly, that a lagging economy would revive and help reduce the deficit and underwrite social policies. Favored by an improved economy, President Clinton attempted a major reform of health-care delivery. After the failure of this effort, however, his administration became very cautious on social policy. President George W. Bush took office in 2001 with a strong conservative agenda that included cutting taxes and shrinking the size of the federal bureaucracy. He accomplished both of these goals early in his administration, the former with the help of Republican majorities in Congress and the latter by contracting out thousands of government jobs. His administration also began to deliberately narrow the nation's traditional separation between church and state by, among other things, encouraging and funding various religious-based social-services organizations.

The President As Political Leader

Because the presidency is the foremost prize of American politics, the president is also normally the nation's principal political leader and regarded as the leader of his political party. The president's skills in that task influence the success of the president's party in electing members of Congress and holders of state and local offices.

The president chooses the chairperson of the party's national committee and oversees the national committee and the national party bureaucracy. The president seeks to win and maintain the support of state and local party organizations, which in turn can aid in obtaining congressional enactment of the president's programs.

Presidents in some instances may persuade candidates to run for national, state, or local office. A popular president is expected to campaign for the party in congressional and other elections and to appear at party fund-raising functions. But a president whose popularity is declining, as President Clinton's was in the fall of 1994, may be shunned by legislators of his party seeking reelection.

As political and party leader, the president must build coalitions among interest groups. In order to win national elections, presidents must draw support from a variety of constituencies: ethnic and racial groups; businesspeople; labor leaders; and people who live in particular regions. Coalitions such as these may endure for many years. Elements of Franklin D. Roosevelt's new wide-ranging Democratic coalition, formed in the 1930s, played a part in Jimmy Carter's victory in 1976 and Clinton's in 1992 and 1996.

The president manages patronage for the party—that is, rewarding supporters with jobs. The president appoints cabinet and subcabinet officers, federal judges, U.S. attorneys, and ambassadors to foreign countries and fills several thousand other jobs of varying importance. The president also administers an executive pork barrel—the distribution of federal funds to be spent on public works, military installations, and social programs. The president is most likely to channel those funds into the districts of members of Congress who support the chief executive's legislative proposals.

If presidential legislative requests are to thrive in Congress, the president must exert political leadership on Capitol Hill, inducing legislators to support presidential policies. Varying degrees of persuasion are used, from soft-sell tactics to the tougher methods in which the member of Congress is made to realize that he or she will pay a price for refusal to comply. Among the most successful presidential persuaders were Lyndon B. Johnson, who had developed his techniques during years in the House and Senate, and Ronald Reagan. President Carter, in contrast, failed to achieve a close working relationship with the Congress, and this failure inevitably weakened the enactment of his legislative proposals.

The president accomplishes more on Capitol Hill when successful as a public leader. Presidents who excel at public leadership skillfully employ the dominant communications media of their day. Franklin D. Roosevelt perfected the informal radio talk known as the "fireside chat." Television was used memorably by Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan, who appeared as calm and fatherly figures, and by John F. Kennedy, who, in his televised press conferences, exuded youth and charm. The president has almost unlimited access to this visual medium from which most Americans acquire their news and political information. The modern president's large share of the public limelight, however, focuses attention on all aspects of the office; should the president lose the public's confidence, grave consequences may follow, as they did for President Nixon, whose efforts to extricate himself from Watergate only succeeded in worsening the scandal. Bill Clinton faced investigation and litigation of Whitewater, a real estate venture, and of alleged personal misconduct, both matters stemming from the years of his governorship of Arkansas. Matters were complicated in 1998 by allegations of sexual misconduct in the White House, and these led to the impeachment of Clinton on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice in December 1998. He was only the second president in history to be impeached, the first being Andrew Johnson. Like Johnson, he was acquitted. The Clinton administration, in addition, faced continuing scrutiny over questionable fund-raising practices during the 1996 reelection campaign.

George W. Bush's leadership abilities were not apparent until the Islamist terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, after he had been in office for some eight months. His decisive actions following the attacks brought widespread approval from the public, which gave him the leeway to begin to implement the conservative policies he had brought with him to Washington. Bush's new-gained popularity, in addition to a wave of patriotism that followed the September 11 attacks, also made his aggressive foreign policy more politically acceptable, which led to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003, despite heated domestic and foreign opposition. Bush's perceived leadership abilities were a major factor in his being reelected in 2004.

The president gains special credentials as a political leader by winning election to office, a supreme political test. Beyond satisfying constitutional requirements (the president must be 35 years old, a "natural-born citizen," and a U.S. resident for 14 years prior to election), most contemporary presidential candidates must also undergo the physically exhausting test of entering up to 30 or more primary elections and party caucuses in various parts of the country.

The person running for president must also formulate a strategy that will win a majority of the electoral votes. These are supplied by a geographical combination of states, such as Carter's combination of states in the South and Northeast in 1976. Clinton's 1992 and 1996 victories owed much to his sweep of the industrial Northeast, the first such Democratic successes since Johnson's 1964 win. Because presidential elections are often close, the candidate's strategic choices as to the states in which to make the greatest efforts can be crucial to victory or defeat.

Organization of the Executive Office

Personal Staff. 

In discharging the functions of the office, the president is assisted by a large staff. Closest to the president is the personal staff, which works in the White House Office. It includes a score of top assistants—such as the chief of staff, the press secretary, the appointments secretary, the special counsel, the assistant for national security affairs, the cabinet secretary, the assistant for congressional liaison, the assistant for public liaison, and various administrative assistants—aided by a sizable junior staff. The White House staff totals several hundred; many employees are clerks handling the large inflow of mail and papers.

The staff of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his early successors remained largely anonymous. But as White House staff members gained power, many of them became public figures. Henry Kissinger, for example, began as assistant for national security affairs under President Nixon, but his influence grew until it surpassed that of the secretary of state in many areas of foreign policy. In presidencies following Carter's the assistant's role became less powerful and less publicity driven.

Institutional Staff. 

In addition to personal staff, the president commands a large institutional staff concerned with managing the executive branch and with policy development. The principal managerial arm is the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Subject to the president's direction and approval, the OMB prepares the budget of the executive branch.

Prominent among the president's policy advisory organs is the National Security Council (NSC). It is concerned with the whole gamut of foreign policy, including military strategy. The assistant for national security affairs organizes the council's agenda and oversees its staff. Truman and Eisenhower used the NSC extensively; Kennedy and Johnson consulted it more erratically; and their successors have relied on the NSC more consistently on major policy issues.

From the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) the president secures professional economic advice, tempered by awareness of the president's political needs. Although the Council competes with other sources of economic advice, such as the Treasury Department and the OMB, it is usually a top participant in the president's economic policymaking.

The Office of Policy Development (OPD) was redesignated in 1981 to replace the Domestic Policy Staff. Its origins go back to 1970, when Nixon created a Domestic Council. Today the OPD assists in formulating and evaluating long-range economic and domestic policy. (Presidents may also utilize outside task forces, as Clinton did with the group, headed by Hillary Rodham Clinton, that prepared the administration's ill-starred health-reform proposal of 1993.) Other Executive Office units are the Council on Environmental Quality, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the Office of Administration.

The Cabinet. 

The most historic source of presidential advice, the cabinet, is not part of the Executive Office but exists independently. Consisting of the heads of government departments, the cabinet traces its beginnings to George Washington's assembling of his department heads in 1793 to discuss U.S. neutrality in the French Revolutionary Wars. Presidents have used the cabinet irregularly, largely because cabinet members' administrative duties and loyalties to their own departments often preclude a close working relationship with the president.

Occasionally, the vice-president becomes important in an administration, although the Constitution does not allot the vice-president any responsibilities other than to "preside over the Senate," and traditionally the vice-president has been remote from the center of power. In the Clinton administration, Vice President Al Gore headed a task force to "reinvent government," with a sweeping reexamination of the executive branch. A close associate of President Clinton, but untainted by personal scandal (except for some allegations of questionable campaign-finance practices), Gore appeared to be in a strong position for the presidential race in the year 2000—the benefits of incumbency enhanced by a strong economy. He ran an uneven race, however, and lost in the end to the Republican candidate, Texas governor George W. Bush, who was perceived by many voters to be more personable.

Presidential Transitions. 

When a new president is elected, a delicate and often cumbersome ten-week process of transition begins. The president-elect appoints teams of academic, business, and political people to gather information, prepare reports, and make recommendations on policies and appointments. Outgoing staff members brief the newcomers. The Senate begins confirmation hearings to advise and consent on cabinet-level appointees well in advance of inauguration day, so that the new administration can take power smoothly.

Presidential Remuneration. 

The president receives $400,000 a year in salary and $50,000 for expenses, an additional $100,000 for travel expenses, and handsome retirement benefits.

Growth of the Presidency

The establishment of the presidency in 1789, by the framers of the Constitution of the United States, was an act of political creativity. The presidency had no real counterpart in historical experience. The framers aimed to have a strong, but responsible, chief executive, and to this end the office was made to consist of a single incumbent whose power would not be shared with a cabinet or council. The president would be elected by a source outside the legislature—the electoral college—and thus could govern without being indebted to Congress. The president gained strength from a fixed, substantial term of office and was originally eligible for reelection indefinitely. (Presidential tenure of office has since been limited to two terms by the 22d Amendment and otherwise affected by the 20th Amendment and the 25th Amendment.)

The Constitution granted the presidency powers of its own, such as the power of commander in chief. Believing, however, in balanced government, the framers created a strong Congress and a judiciary to check the chief executive.

The first incumbent of the office, George Washington, was an assertive executive who was active in both foreign and domestic affairs and who interpreted his powers broadly and defended them against congressional encroachment. Thomas Jefferson exploited the presidential role of party leader and won exceptional congressional support. Under his weaker successors, however, the office was eclipsed by Congress.

Andrew Jackson revived the presidency by reinterpreting it as an organ of popular leadership. Abraham Lincoln, in the crisis of the Civil War, largely on his own claimed authority, expanded the armed forces, imposed a naval blockade, and used funds from the Treasury without congressional appropriation. Although Congress ratified many of Lincoln's acts after the deed, it soon reacted against the expanded power that he had given the presidency; his successor, Andrew Johnson, was impeached and narrowly escaped conviction. Through the rest of the 19th century the office's impact remained modest.

Theodore Roosevelt, the first 20th-century president, was the principal architect of the office's modernization. An extraordinarily gifted politician and popular leader, he campaigned for the conservation of natural resources and for government regulation of business. Woodrow Wilson was a vigorous president who pressed tariff reform and antitrust legislation and persuaded Congress to establish the Federal Reserve System and the Federal Trade Commission. Wilson led the country into World War I, but after his failure to secure Senate approval of the League of Nations, another reaction against the presidency set in. His successors Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover interpreted presidential power much more modestly.

The Depression of the 1930s, followed by World War II, produced an enormous expansion of presidential activity under Franklin Delano Roosevelt. This expansion continued during the cold war and the Korean War, when Harry S. Truman used the presidential powers fully by dispatching troops to South Korea without congressional approval. Although Dwight D. Eisenhower restored peace, the troubled relations with the USSR required him to maintain the armed forces and the nuclear arsenal at high levels. John F. Kennedy, preoccupied with crisis management, successfully managed the first nuclear confrontation with the USSR in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis while at the same time guiding the nation through a domestic crisis over civil rights. Lyndon Johnson's Great Society program enlarged the presidency's fast-growing commitment to the welfare state, but this expansion was limited by the financial demands of the escalating Vietnam War.

Richard Nixon ended that war and inaugurated a policy of détente toward the USSR. He clashed with Democratic Congresses, and the threat of impeachment for his implication in the Watergate break-in and related scandals forced him to resign. Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter struggled to restore popular confidence in the office and to cope with a reassertive Congress. Carter's difficulties in charting a decisive course and obtaining congressional cooperation during his single term in office helped reestablish public desire for a strong presidency and pave the way for public and congressional acceptance of many of Ronald Reagan's economic initiatives. Bill Clinton found himself at odds with both liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans and only made headway in Congress by adopting positions acceptable to Republicans.

Powers of the President

The presidency has thrived because of the broad powers conferred on it by the Constitution. Some incumbents have interpreted these powers expansively, often with congressional and judicial acquiescence.

The executive-power clause of Article II, Section 1, states merely that "The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America." The scope of this clause was disputed in George Washington's presidency when he promulgated (1793) his proclamation of neutrality in the French Revolutionary Wars. Rejecting the argument that the clause was merely a statement of fact, Washington agreed with Alexander Hamilton that it was a grant of power and that the direction of foreign policy is inherently an "executive" function residing in the presidency.

A constitutional power to which presidents have given vast scope is the commander-in-chief power (Article II, Section 2). One of the freest interpretations of this power was exercised by Lincoln, who—after the Civil War erupted, and while Congress was not in session—called up 75,000 men and waged war for 12 weeks, relying on his independent authority. Lincoln claimed to possess the "war power," which, he said, combined the commander-in-chief power with the president's duty "to take care that the laws be faithfully executed."

The commander-in-chief power has been cited to justify commitment of the armed forces to scores of short-term hostilities. A far more ambitious military intervention occurred in Vietnam. Critics contended that the Vietnam War could be legally sustained only by a congressional declaration of war, which was never made.

Although the Constitution specifies that the president can make treaties, the requirement that they be approved by a two-thirds vote of the Senate has often driven presidents to use executive agreements instead. If congressional appropriation or other action is required, only a majority vote is necessary. The term executive agreement is not in the Constitution. For authority to make such agreements presidents cite the executive-power clause and the commander-in-chief power. Bill Clinton invoked presidential emergency powers early in 1995 to provide a $20-billion bailout loan to Mexico, thereby circumventing Congress.

Presidents have, by constitutional interpretation, enlarged their powers in relations with Congress. Early presidents, for example, employed the veto only when they considered legislation unconstitutional, but Jackson extended it to legislation he considered objectionable on policy grounds, as presidents have continued to do. After Congress appropriates funds, the president may impound them, or delay their expenditure, usually to correct some deficiency of procedure or policy. But President Richard Nixon enormously expanded the practice by impounding billions of dollars of appropriations. Subsequently, both the judiciary and Congress acted to limit the president's power to impound appropriations.

Tenure of office confers power. Presidential tenure is protected by a rigorous impeachment procedure. Conviction requires a two-thirds vote of the senators present. President Andrew Johnson escaped conviction by a single vote. In 1974, President Nixon, facing impeachment and almost certain conviction, became the first president to resign. President Ford, exercising the president's pardoning power, pardoned Nixon for all federal crimes that he "committed or may have committed or taken part in." Clinton was the second president to be impeached (in December 1998), but the House vote was largely partisan and he won acquittal by a comfortable margin in the Senate (Feb. 12, 1999).

Executive Privilege. 

Presidents also claim to possess executive privilege, or the right to withhold information from Congress and the public. Although the term executive privilege was not used until the 1950s, George Washington in effect employed it in denying executive papers regarding Jay's Treaty (1794) to the House of Representatives. Other presidents also invoked the doctrine, but Eisenhower expanded it substantially in denying executive papers and testimony to Sen. Joseph McCarthy's investigation of Communist infiltration of the government. In court proceedings concerning Watergate, President Nixon sought to withhold tapes and transcripts of White House conversations, but in United States v. Richard M. Nixon (1974) the Supreme Court ruled that executive privilege did not immunize him from judicial proceedings. President Clinton also invoked executive privilege to prevent some of his aides from testifying during Kenneth Starr's grand jury investigation of the so-called Whitewater matter. The courts disallowed the claim.

Presidential Power and the Supreme Court. 

It should be noted that although the Supreme Court of the United States determines presidential power by its interpretation of the Constitution, the Court has seldom directly checked the exercise of presidential power. In many cases, the Court has affirmed it. In United States v. Curtiss-Wright Export Corporation (1936), for example, the Court acknowledged a broad presidential power to make executive agreements. The Court's rulings against the president have occurred mainly in civil liberties cases, such as Ex parte Milligan (1866), striking down a presidential authorization of the trial of civilians by a military tribunal in an area far removed from the theater of war. In Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company v. Sawyer (1952), Truman's seizure of the steel mills on his own authority was held unconstitutional.

Actual Presidential Use of Power. 

Like other kinds of power, formal presidential power cannot always be used in all its fullness. Several major factors determine the way presidents exert power at any given time.

A president needs opportunities for using power. If times are quiet and no urgent problems are apparent—as in the America of 1880, for example—even the most dynamic and skillful president cannot use power extensively. Presidents have employed their powers most fully in visible major crises, such as the Civil War and the world wars, and in grave economic emergency such as the Great Depression of the 1930s, when one-fourth of the workforce was unemployed. When crises are less obvious, as in the energy crisis of the 1970s, the president may have difficulty persuading the public and Congress of the necessity for serious action.

The powers presidents can actually employ also depend heavily on their political skills. Some analysts called psychobiographers or psychohistorians stress that how the president uses power is also determined by the president's personality. Personality characteristics may, for example, cause a president to work very hard, but without being attuned to public sentiment. The strivings of these individuals may become so compulsive as to lead to the rigid—and futile—pursuit of a policy. Woodrow Wilson, for example, took an absolute stand on the League of Nations, rejecting compromises that might have saved much of his project in the Senate.

How the president uses power may also depend on the president's own conception of the office. Some presidents, such as James Buchanan or William Howard Taft, have interpreted their powers narrowly, declining to act unless power was specifically granted in the Constitution or in statutes. At the other extreme are the presidents who, like Theodore Roosevelt, feel constrained in their "stewardship" only by what is expressly forbidden by the Constitution.

The Current Issue of Executive Power. 

After the long, drawn-out, and eventually unpopular Vietnam War and the excesses of Watergate, the presidency passed into an era of criticism and reassessment. The office was seen to have become inordinately powerful and to be threatening civil liberties. It was viewed as having placed the political system in disequilibrium by drawing excessive power to the presidency at the expense of the other branches.

All too often the presidency's power expands by congressional default—by the disinclination of the legislature to deal directly with national problems. The bureaucracy of the executive branch has shown itself incapable of a great deal of initiative; addicted to established routines and averse to new ideas with their accompanying risks of failure, the bureaucracy has preferred to leave innovation to the White House staff. This in turn has perhaps encouraged presidential subordinates to use—and abuse—their power in ways that are symptomatic of the presidency's excesses.

Congress became more assertive after Watergate, passing the War Powers Act and other measures to control presidential abuses. It also created its own Budget Office to sharpen its annual review of the budget. Congress employed the appropriations power to constrain presidential initiatives in foreign affairs, with consequences that could be seen in the chief executive's limited responses to military crises in Angola and Congo (Zaire). Congress enlarged its own retinue of experts on committee staffs, in the General Accounting Office (now the Government Accountability Office), in the Congressional Budget Office, and in the offices of individual legislators and committees, enhancing its ability to challenge the bureaucracies of the executive departments.

In the late 1970s, however, public sentiment began to call for a more assertive presidency that could provide greater leadership to a fragmented and interest-ridden Congress and that could act decisively on the array of stubborn problems that troubled Americans. President Jimmy Carter's inability to guide many of his legislative initiatives through Congress weakened his administration, as did his perceived failure to provide effective action in the Iranian hostage crisis. Carter's successor, Ronald Reagan, who won two landslide election victories, was notably more successful in getting Congress to do his bidding, especially in the areas of increased military spending and tax reform. However, the Reagan administration stumbled into the Iran-contra affair. In effect, the appropriations process was bypassed, a grave violation of the Constitution.

Reagan's successor, George Bush, continued his conservative policies but was forced to allow tax increases in order to lower the budget deficit. In foreign affairs, Bush was the beneficiary of the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the disintegration of the USSR, and he mobilized the alliance that defeated the Iraqis in the Persian Gulf War. However, voters perceived him as too engaged in foreign affairs, and his successor, Bill Clinton, accordingly pressed an agenda that included reform of welfare and health care. Although initially successful in pressing his initiatives—notably in lowering the budget deficit and securing ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement—Clinton failed to deliver on the main promises of his campaign, and, perceived as waffling in both domestic and foreign policy matters, he suffered a stinging rebuff at the polls in the midterm elections of 1994. His zeal in promoting aggressive fund-raising policies to finance the 1996 presidential campaign fueled his reelection but led to harsh criticism of lapses in ethical standards and allegations of the corrupting influence of foreign money—chiefly Asian—on the administration and the party national committee. A Democratic White House and a Republican-controlled Congress nevertheless reached a compromise accord on welfare reform, ongoing deficit reductions, and a future balanced budget. In 1998, President Clinton was able to announce a budget surplus for the first time in 30 years. However, his presidency was soon engulfed in the investigation that led to his impeachment at the end of that year. Following his acquittal (February 1999), it was unclear whether he would be able to work with Congress for the remainder of his term. In fact, Congress gave scant support to Clinton's conduct of the Kosovo war, and the U.S. Senate failed to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, its first rejection of a major treaty since Woodrow Wilson's League of Nations debacle in 1919–20. On the other hand, Congress did approve the Clinton-backed normalization of trade relations with China (2000).

The presidential election of 2000, pitting George W. Bush (son of the former president) against Clinton's vice-president, Al Gore, was one of the closest and most bitterly contested in U.S. history. It was followed by a legal battle over the vote count in Florida that lasted for more than a month, with the U.S. Supreme Court eventually deciding in favor of Bush. He was the first candidate in more than a century to win the presidency while losing the popular vote. Bush won reelection in 2004 in a race against Democratic senator John Kerry, also after an intense and hotly contested race that drew a record number of voters to the polls. This time, however, Bush secured a convincing enough margin of both popular and electoral-college votes so that there was no question about his victory.

Louis W. Koenig


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