Module 06 Sections
The powers of the presidency are outlined in Article II of the United States Constitution. Article II is less than half the length of Article I, which is telling in a number of ways. First, it seems clear that the Framers were not as concerned with the powers of the presidency becoming too destructive of the rights of the people as they were with the Congress. The common observation is that the Framers were deeply concerned that the presidency never become similar to a monarchy, but this was really not much of an issue. Some of the opponents of the Constitution, the Anti-Federalists, did occasionally bring up the issue, but it was never taken all that seriously, certainly not as seriously as their complaints against both the Congress and the federal judiciary. Nonetheless, the possibility of a monarchical President is addressed in Federalist 67.
Second, Article II’s brevity indicates that there might have simply been less to say about the presidency than the Congress. The Framers had quite a lot of experience with legislative bodies. As we have seen, they were deeply concerned with Parliament throughout the pre-Revolutionary and Revolutionary periods, but they had much less experience with an executive within the context of a constitutional republic.
The President’s delegated powers are enumerated in Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution, which you can read here:
Compared to Article I, the description of the President is vague and general. The President is commander in chief of the armed forces, which is significant. He is also tasked with executing the laws that Congress writes. Apart from those matters, though, the rest of the list reads like a job description for a sort of executive clerk. As we examine the institutional design of the American presidency, it will become clear that the President’s powers have grown since the Constitution was written in 1787, and the vagueness with which Article II was written is in no small part responsible for this. This brief article introduces the evolution of the office:
And this video covers some of the same ground, but introduces the concept of formal and informal authority, which is an essential distinction to understand when considering the evolution of the office:
The first video mostly presents the formal powers of the presidency.
This next one addresses the informal powers:
Needless to say, we see nothing of the informal powers of the presidency in The Federalist.
The argument here is firmly trained on the formal, constitutional powers of the office.
Publius takes up his discussion of the executive in Federalist 67 by attacking the Anti-Federalists’ contention that the President would wield the same power and authority as a European monarch. Given the colonists’ recent history, it was clear that Publius would have to differentiate the functions of the President from those of a king. Federalist 67 is devoted to just this task. The Anti-Federalists, Publius argues, capitalized on the people’s aversion to monarchy and “have endeavored to list all their jealousies and apprehensions in opposition to the intended president of the United States; not merely as the embryo, but as the full grown progeny of that detestable parent.” Regarding the other two branches, Publius presents the Anti-Federalists as being simply misguided and mistaken. Here, though, he asserts simply that they lied.
Publius goes on to show why it is not the case that the President will be allowed to fill vacancies in the Senate, but the particulars of this issue are not important to us now. What is important were the public sentiments concerning a strong executive. Indeed, the link to kingship was never far from the minds of the people during this period. This was a sword that cut both ways. On the one hand, people saw the need to keep too much authority out of the grasp of one man. On the other hand, there was more than just a little motivation to reestablish a monarchy, as had been attempted with Washington during the Revolutionary War.
Through issues like this, we can begin to get a handle on the tension between a weak and a strong executive, an issue which largely occupied Publius in the remaining numbers on the presidency.
In Federalist 68, Publius rebuts the assertions of the Anti-Federalists by discussing the mode of election of the President. The Anti-Federalists were strangely not aroused by the Electoral College, and Publius sets out to show that there was no cause for alarm. The sense of the people, he asserted, operates through the Electoral College. Subsequently, the ignorance of the people is therefore avoided and, as Publius wrote, “the choice of several to form an intermediate body of electors, will much less apt convulse the community, with any extraordinary or violent movements, than the choice of one, who was himself to be the final object of the public wishes.” If the system is not perfect, he wrote, it is at least excellent. Here, he makes the case that there is a link between the republican form and good government. What results is an executive independent of the legislature…an executive who is dependent only upon the people.
There is no possibility for a king; the President is simply an animal of a different stripe.
Publius continues in the same vein in Federalist 69, announcing that his purpose is to reveal the “real character of the proposed executive” and asserting that the President is more like the governor of New York than like a king. To counter further the claim that the proposed executive would be little more than an “elective king,” Publius addresses impeachment and removal and certain limitations on presidential power. He concludes that there is no ground for an argument about parallels between the British king and the American executive.
In Federalist 70, Publius shifts his emphasis. In this number, an effective executive is described as “energetic,” and energy in the executive is supposedly necessary for securing liberty and maintaining good government. In Federalist 39, Publius wrote that if the Constitution was not republican in nature it must be abandoned. Here, he asserts just the opposite. If republican government is incompatible with good government, he writes in Federalist 70, then republican government will have to be abandoned. A feeble executive will lead to feeble execution of the laws, which will in turn lead to bad execution, which will lead to bad government. The ingredients of an energetic executive, as Publius presents them, are unity, duration, adequate provision, and competent powers. These must be combined with ingredients that constitute “safety in the republican sense.” These considerations primarily led the Founders to advocate a singular executive in the end, since both human reason and experience work against the effectiveness of a plural executive or executive committee.
Duration in office, Publius writes in Federalist 71, is one of the ingredients required to maintain an energetic executive. Again, he links the energetic executive with the principles of republicanism and stability, writing that “When occasions present themselves, in which the interests of the people are at variance with their inclinations, it is the duty of the persons whom they have appointed, to be the guardians of those interests; to withstand the temporary delusion, in order to give them time and opportunity for more cool and sedate reflection.” To be sure, a firmness in the executive would allow the president to block unjust measures that arise from transient and arbitrary passions. While duration is important for maintaining stability, Publius asserts in Federalist 72 that a limited term not only makes republics safe, but that it makes republicanism safe. Ultimately, Publius advocates more than just a strong executive who serves the people; he advocates a strong executive who can, at times, resist them as well. Publius also defends the view that the president ought to be re-eligible to hold the office indefinitely.
What emerges in The Federalist sequence on the presidency is an understanding of the office as an odd one within the republican regime. The executive must be energetic in nature. In this respect, the President must be given a wide array of rights and abilities relative to the other branches of government. The executive must also be limited in nature, with clear constitutional checks and balances reining him in on every side. What remains is a strong executive who can do a great deal, but only within strict boundaries and parameters.
While Publius clearly called for a President to be eligible for reelection indefinitely, the American people came to have other ideas as time went on. George Washington stepped down after two terms in office, and apart from Ulysses S. Grant, who sought a third term but failed to become the Republican nominee in 1877, that standard was followed until FDR won four elections in the 20th century. The American people responded, for better or for worse, with a constitutional amendment.
In 1951, the 22nd Amendment was ratified, limiting the number of presidential terms to two, and placing a modern restriction on the office of the presidency. You can read the 22nd Amendment here:
The President, the Executive Branch, and the Growth of Presidential Power
Ultimately the President of the United States sits atop an institutional structure that is both powerful and complicated. You can get a sense of the size and scope of what the executive branch of the American government has become by having a quick look at the official website of the executive branch. Pay close attention to the number and variety of the various offices that sit below the presidency. We often talk about the President when we think of the executive branch of our government, but the Executive Office of the President (EOP) and many executive agencies also fall under the scope of the executive branch. Here is a link:
While it may be the case that Congress enjoys legislative supremacy through the constitutional provisions that divide governmental power in the United States, the executive branch of government captures the lion’s share of public attention. The various departments which comprise the executive branch are covered by the media in a way that congressional subcommittees simply are not. Further, the President himself provides a singular figurehead for the entire executive branch. No one person, not even a very powerful Speaker of the House, fills this role in the legislative branch. It is simply easier to examine the workings of the executive branch, where the policy preferences of the entire branch flow from the preferences of a single man: the President himself. In the legislative branch, on the other hand, there are 435 representatives and 100 senators, each with his own agenda. While a very powerful member of Congress may surface from time to time, it is almost never useful to study Congress in terms of individual actors. Conversely, the machinations of the executive branch can often be studied as a result of the singular presidency.
The President provides the American people with a solitary representative political figure. He is the only person in the federal government elected to be the representative of the people as a whole. Although everybody realizes that no one person, no matter how powerful, is fully to blame for all of America’s problems or fully responsible for all of America’s successes, Presidents frequently receive singular credit or blame for issues that arise during their terms. Oftentimes responsibility becomes a political issue. It is, after all, the responsibility of Congress to legislate regarding financial concerns in America. How is it, then, that a recession can be understood as a President’s responsibility? The answer does not lie in the constitutional structure of our government nearly as much as it lies in our need as a people to hold one person accountable, and the nature of the executive branch provides Americans with a figurehead on which to place all praise and blame.
The American President is often praised or blamed for the general quality of American life. Given his role within the constitutional structure of the nation, though, this is probably misguided. Presidents an accomplish a great deal to be sure, but how much they can accomplish is generally defined by the Constitution itself, and by the system of separated powers which the Constitution defines. The President cannot act in a vacuum. He must take the other branches and the American people into account.
He is thus like Congress in some respect, bound on every side in what he can accomplish. As was the case with Congress, this was a design feature of the office.
From the Institutional to the Rhetorical Presidency
Publius provided an analysis of the institutional outline of the presidency in The Federalist. While it is certainly worthwhile, necessary, and appropriate to view the presidency from an institutional standpoint, there are various other approaches one could utilize in studying the presidency. Beginning roughly in the early 20th century, institutional concerns ceased being enough as individual Presidents adopted a rhetorical model of governance.
It should come as no surprise that George Washington took a largely institutional view of the presidency. After all, he operated in a context devoid of precedent which was wholly informed by the Constitution itself. Washington’s First Inaugural Address illustrates his view of the Constitution and the role of the President. The speech can be found here, and you should read it before proceeding:
George Washington and the Institutional Presidency
Upon entering the office, Washington referred often to the constitutional limits placed on the presidency and the federal government as a whole. He thought that the president should be supreme concerning executive matters but reserved concerning matters that solely belonged to the legislature. As he announced in his First Inaugural Address:
By the article establishing the executive department it is made the duty of the President ‘to recommend to your consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.’ The circumstances under which I now meet you will acquit me from entering into that subject further than to refer to the great constitutional charter under which you are assembled, and which, in defining your powers, designates the objects to which your attention is to be given.
Washington maintained this position throughout his presidency, articulating it most clearly in his Farewell Address, where he stressed the importance of reverence for the Constitution. You should read the Farewell Address in order to understand Washington’s opinion of his own purpose and of the importance of the Constitution. Here is a link to one of the finest pieces of political writing ever produced in America:
In the Farewell Address, Washington wrote that “If, in the opinion of the people, the distribution or modification of the constitutional powers be in any particular wrong, let it be corrected by an amendment in the way which the Constitution designates. But let there be no change by usurpation; for though this, in one instance, may be the instrument of good, it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed.” To be sure, Washington’s words on this point illuminate his beliefs about the role and nature of the executive branch within the context defined by the Constitution. And the guidelines of the Constitution were, for Washington, carved in stone.
Only the Amendment process offered a means by which the governing compact could be altered.
The Institutional Presidency After Washington
Washington took a decidedly institutional perspective of the office which he occupied, and he was certainly not the last man to view the presidency in such a way. Throughout the 19th century, the holders of the office believed that the President could and ought to act only within the confines of the Constitution. It is no surprise that one can point to few instances of success among Presidents in the early 19th century. From Martin van Buren in 1837 to James Buchanan in 1860, no president departed from a decidedly institutional execution of presidential power. Actions of the federal government were almost always a result of the legislative process, and as a result, most Presidents in that period are consistently dubbed failures by modern historians.
Of course, our contemporary understanding of the presidency shifted in the early 20th century, which has a lot to do with this sort of criticism.
Abraham Lincoln and the Outer Limits of the Institutional Presidency
Abraham Lincoln represents the high watermark of the presidency in the 19th century. Although there is much debate surrounding Abraham Lincoln and his wartime actions, Lincoln nonetheless understood the institutional design of the Framers. He embodied the “energetic executive” discussed by Publius in Federalist 70 and was concerned chiefly with maintaining the constitutional order. He justified his actions on this sentiment. In his First Inaugural Address in 1861, Lincoln held that:
I therefore consider that in view of the Constitution and the laws the Union is unbroken, and to the extent of my ability, I shall take care, as the Constitution itself expressly enjoins upon me, that the laws of the Union be faithfully executed in all the States. Doing this I deem to be only a simple duty on my part, and I shall perform it so far as practicable unless my rightful masters, the American people, shall withhold the requisite means or in some authoritative manner direct the contrary. I trust this will not be regarded as a menace, but only as the declared purpose of the Union that it will constitutionally defend and maintain itself.
You should read the full text of this speech, which can be found here:
You should also look at Lincoln’s July 4th Special Session Message to Congress, which can be found here:
Lincoln justified many of his wartime measures, including the suspension of habeas corpus and unauthorized enlargement of the military, on the grounds that a national emergency required the President to act quickly and without immediate approval from Congress. He argued further that his actions were justified by the expectation that Congress would eventually approve what he had done. He addressed this in his Special Session Message, contending that “These measures, whether strictly legal or not, were ventured upon, under what appeared to be a popular demand, and a public necessity; trusting, then as now, that Congress would readily ratify them. It is believed that nothing has been done beyond the constitutional competency of Congress.” This notion was in fact confirmed by the Supreme Court in the Prize Cases of 1863. The Court sustained Lincoln’s actions while Congress was in recess, thereby ruling that his actions were justified on the basis of necessity.
Aside from Lincoln’s actions during the Civil War, few presidents took any liberties with the constitutional design of the office or the tripartite system in general. They were solely and chiefly institutionalists who acted more often than not at the behest of Congress. Under Article II, the President is entrusted with faithful execution of the laws. This is how many, if not all, Presidents prior to the 20th century understood their role. This is not to say, of course, that the men who occupied the office during this period saw themselves as the powerless puppets of Congress. They did see themselves, however, as holding an office which was strictly defined by the rules of the Constitution, for better or for worse.
This approach would soon become passé in the American regime.
The Rhetorical Presidency: TR and Beyond
The institutionalist understanding of the presidency remained unchallenged for essentially the first one-hundred years of the republic. Any discussion of the executive, though, would be incomplete without some study of the evolving nature of the office. Beginning roughly with the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt in 1901, the office took on a new function and purpose, largely because of TR’s own outlook on the relationship between chief executive and electorate. He adopted Progressivism as his overarching political ideology and applied that ideology to his 1912 presidential campaign. From this point forward, Presidents used the office as a “bully pulpit,” following TR’s lead. They used political rhetoric to further their own policy objectives, and did their level best to eclipse the boundaries set by the Constitution. For our purposes here, we will address Progressivism briefly and then consider TR’s influence on the American understanding of the executive before moving forward through American political history.
Progressivism will be covered in more detail in a later chapter.
Herbert Croly’s 1909 book, The Promise of American Life, served as the manifesto for Progressivism, a movement which would stretch from 1909 to the present day. Croly argued specifically that limited government provided no solution for America’s problems in the 20th century, many of which were brought about by industrialization and urbanization. The remedy was to be found instead in a strong central government led by disinterested politicians who worked to promote social progress. Government regulatory agencies, he held, had to protect ordinary citizens from the encroaching power of corporations. Only through governmental intervention could Americans, and consequently American society, actually progress.
TR was profoundly influenced by Croly’s treatment of 20th century American life. Following the conclusion of his second term in 1909, TR broke with the Republican party and ran as the Progressive or “Bull Moose” Party candidate in 1912. His New Nationalism speech, delivered in Kansas in 1910, became the platform for his campaign. You can find the speech here:
Like Croly, TR believed that the ideals of individualism and minimal government could no longer solve the problems of American society. Large corporations reigned supreme in the early 20th century and, according to TR, the federal government had to protect the rights of workers and consumers.
While Woodrow Wilson ultimately won the election of 1912 in a landslide victory, the themes propounded by TR in his New Nationalism speech resonated, and continue to resonate in the electorate in many respects.
Progressivism and the Rhetorical Presidency
By advocating Progressive tenets and a policy agenda of big government and social progress, TR altered the way presidents and government institutions responded to the concerns of the people. The rhetorical presidency supplanted the institutional, even passive, presidencies of the 19th century.
TR’s 1912 campaign did much to solidify the image of the rhetorical presidency in the popular mind. Nonetheless, his work during his two terms laid the groundwork for this view of the office. As presidential scholars Samuel and Dorothy Rosenman wrote, “Roosevelt extended executive authority to the furthest limit permitted in peacetime by the Constitution – if not further.” In his active courting of public opinion, TR reformed the presidency by extending the sphere of presidential influence. No President before TR had so actively and deliberately courted the American electorate. He used eloquent and appealing rhetoric to push his policy agenda and gain the support of the people. He even described his office as a “bully pulpit,” or a position from which a sitting president could directly persuade and advocate a position. Years after his presidency, TR explained:
 Rosenman and Rosenman, Presidential Style, in Milkis and Nelson, The American Presidency 4th ed, (Washington DC: CQ Press, 2003) 203.
My belief was that it was not only his [the President’s] right but his duty to do anything that the needs of the nation demanded unless it was forbidden by the Constitution or by the laws. Under this interpretation of executive power I did and caused to be done many things not previously done by the President and the heads of the departments. I did not usurp power, but I did greatly broaden the use of executive power. In other words, I acted for the public welfare, I acted for the common well-being of all our people, wherever in whatever manner was necessary, unless prevented by direct constitutional or legislative provision.
 Theodore Roosevelt, Works, in Milkis and Nelson, 203.
For more on these points, see also TR’s 1901 and 1904 State of the Union Addresses, both of which are included here:
The rise of the rhetorical presidency, brought about by TR’s “bully pulpit” and policy platform, marked a significant transformation of the institutional design of the Framers. The Framers, who wanted to proscribe active leadership or demagoguery, created an executive office that was limited by the confines of the office itself and by the actions of the other two branches.
TR broke with that model, bringing his policies straight to the people.
Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points
The shift in presidential leadership brought about by TR persisted throughout the 20th century. In 1918, Woodrow Wilson delivered his Fourteen Points to Congress, outlining his blueprint for peace in the wake of World War I. The complete text can be found here:
Following WWI, Wilson offered his policy prescriptions for fostering and maintaining a peaceful Europe, including provisions for diplomacy and equality of trade. Wilson’s speech represented the outgrowth of TR’s influence; a president was actively engaging the legislature and offering his policy agenda. In this case, that President was taking an active stand in foreign affairs, expanding presidential influence and taking a role traditionally held by Congress.
Just as Wilson extended presidential power in the area of international affairs, FDR increased governmental and presidential authority at home. Perhaps America needed such authority. When FDR took office in 1933, about one-third of the American workforce was unemployed. FDR responded with active leadership. In his First Inaugural, he asked Congress for sweeping executive power, imploring, “But in the event that the Congress shall fail to take one of these two courses, and in the event that the national emergency is still critical, I shall not evade the clear course of duty that will then confront me. I shall ask the Congress for the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis–broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.” Because of TR’s innovations, FDR could simply ask for power and take the reigns. Gone was the passive institutional President, and in its place was set the active executive leader.
By 1945, FDR’s active leadership extended to foreign issues as well, as America was involved in the height of WWII. FDR’s Fourth Inaugural Address is brief, but you should read it to understand the President’s role as leader on both fronts, domestic and foreign.
You can listen to his Fourth Inaugural here:
FDR led the country through the Great Depression into WWII. In 1960, JFK’s task was not quite as daunting, but he nonetheless promised to lift America out of the sluggish years of the Eisenhower Administration. When JFK took office, the economy was slow, civil rights issues had begun to come to the fore in the South, and the Soviets became increasingly threatening. He proposed to remedy American complacency through active leadership. He was the new model of a rhetorical President: a figurehead with personality who could restore the executive to a place at the center of government. Indeed, JFK was appealing in a way no other President had been. He wanted to inspire the nation, and everything from his appearance to his rhetoric to his promises was intended to do just that. His Inaugural Address was an uplifting speech in which the new President articulated a plan for American greatness. He claimed:
We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage—and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world…
Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.
You can watch the complete speech here:
Kennedy’s personal style of leadership appealed to the public distinctly and certainly, and when he was assassinated in 1963, America mourned the loss of its dynamic leader. His successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, lacked JFK’s appeal and ability to inspire. Still, he took an active stance in solving America’s social problems. His policies represent the reinvigoration of the President as a legislative leader. The passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 marked a return to FDR’s style of leadership. Moreover, Johnson generally dominated the political process, passing many sweeping provisions under his Great Society program.
His Great Society speech, delivered in 1964, can be found here:
Johnson’s program was broad in scope, and undoubtedly owed its origins to the Progressive vision of TR and the policies of FDR during the Great Depression. Johnson’s Great Society was one of progress, and he believed that in order to realize that progress, he would have to persuade Congress to pass several new policies.
Medicaid, the War on Poverty, and the Voting Rights Act were, among others, policies of LBJ’s creation.
Reagan’s Semi-Return to the Institutional Roots of the Presidency
Johnson’s vision of social progress through government programs persisted for roughly twenty years, until the so-called Reagan Revolution in the 1980s. Yet, Reagan’s revolution, if it can be called that at all, was more of a return to the institutional model of presidential leadership than it was an expansive recasting of the office. He proclaimed succinctly in his First Inaugural Address that, “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem.” This represented a significant departure from the rhetorical model. Whereas most 20th century Presidents operated according to TR’s Progressive ideology, Reagan was content to make at least some return to the institutional model set forth by the Framers.
His institutional view of the office is evident in both his First and Second Inaugural Addresses, links to which are included here:
Although Reagan returned somewhat to the original model of the Framers, most of his actions were still consonant with the rhetorical model of the 20th century. He operated within a context initiated by TR and perpetuated by later presidents. Like JFK, he was a president with a dynamic personality who utilized optimistic rhetoric to inspire America. His Farewell Address exemplifies well both facets of his presidency. Written in the inspiring tone characteristic of speeches throughout his tenure in office, the speech still contains warnings about limiting government scope and securing liberty.
Listen to the speech here:
The route from the institutional to the rhetorical presidency might well be a one-way road. Just as the circumstances which led to the transformation of the office cannot be undone, so too the shift in the office itself might well be permanent. There might be no going home, in constitutional terms, for the presidency. The office, like so much in American politics, has been defined by the times through which we have lived and the people who have served.
- “Energetic Executive”
- “The Rhetorical Presidency”
- “Formal and Informal Authority”