The Presidency

The Presidency

The Power of the President Versus
Other Institutions

Two models of executive leadership exist in
representative democracies, prime ministers and presidents. A prime
minister is chosen not by the voters, but by members of Parliament.
In Britain’s parliamentary system, for example, the prime minister is
a party leader, chosen by elected officials of the party, and
selected on the basis of the ability to hold the party together
inside Parliament. Once in power, the prime minister appoints other

ministers (cabinet officers) from among members of his or her party
in Parliament, a fact that gives the prime minister great leverage
over party members. In addition, the prime minister is assured of a
great deal of loyalty from ministers because of the tradition of
collective responsibility, which requires ministers publicly to
support all government policies or, if in disagreement, to resign
from office. Moreover, the prime minister is shielded from bearing
personal blame for policy failures through the doctrine of
ministerial responsibility, which obliges the minister with
responsibility for a department with a failed policy to resign. A
prime minister is quite likely to have had high-level administrative
experience in the national government as well as in Parliament

Presidents, on the other hand, are chosen by
conventions in which party professionals are a minority; they are
chosen in election years with an eye to appealing to a majority of
the voters and are unlikely to have had administrative experience in
Washington. They often lack a majority in one or both houses of
Congress, and they select cabinet members to reward personal
followers, recognize interest groups, or gain expertise in the


The president’s constitutionally defined
powers, found mostly in Article 11, are not impressive. The power of
commander-in-chief was, at first, not considered to entail much
authority; the main military force was expected to be state militias,
and the president, according to Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., was thought
to lack any independent offensive capability without prior
congressional approval. When the navy captured a pirate vessel, for
example, Thomas Jefferson ordered the ship released because the
president “was unauthorized by the Constitution, without the sanction
of Congress, to go beyond the line of defense.” The president also
possesses the power to “take care that the laws be faithfully
executed.” The wording seems to imply that the president is allowed
to do no more than carry out the laws of Congress, but subsequent
Supreme Court interpretations of this clause, notably In re
Neagle (1890),
have expanded the scope of presidential authority
to act without a specific congressional mandate in domestic affairs.
Nonetheless, the chief source of increased presidential power can be
found in politics and public opinion: the American people look to the
president for leadership and hold him responsible for national
affairs. In an influential book, Richard Neustadt has argued that the
president’s success depends not on any formal power but on his
ability to persuade, especially the people within the Washington
establishment. From a few vague and unimpressive powers in Article
II, the issue is now whether the president has grown too powerful and
the presidency too imperial.

Under the constitutional system of separated
powers and checks and balances, the Congress is one of the strongest
checks on the president. Building unity across the branches is
therefore one of the greatest challenges confronting presidents, who
often propose ambitious legislative agendas to the Congress. Party
alliances are therefore extremely important.

The institutionalization of the

Since the New Deal era, the president has
headed a vast bureaucracy responsible not only for implementing
government policy but also for providing policy initiatives. The job
became too big for any single person to manage and culminated in a
report from the Brownlow Commission in 1937 bluntly declaring that
“the president needs help.” The result was the creation of the
White House Office and the Executive Office of the

The White House staff was initially quite
small, with presidents often personally answering the telephone and
their own mail. The president did not even have a paid secretary
until 1857. Rapid growth followed the 1937 recommendation. The staff
numbered 51 persons in 1943 and spiraled to 583 in 1971; after this
swelling of White House personnel President Carter reduced the staff
to 351, a number that increased only slightly by 1990, to

Presidents have developed three strategies for
organizing the White House Office. In the circular
structure, several assistants have direct access to the
president. This arrangement maximizes the flow of information to the
president but produces internal confusion over lines of authority. In
the pyramid structure, a chief of staff controls access to
the president and positions are organized in a hierarchical
formation. This arrangement is more orderly but frequently isolates
the president from needed information. Presidents have generally
preferred the pyramidal structure, with Carter and Reagan shifting to

this mode to cut back on the demands on their time imposed by the
circular model. According to Thomas Cronin, presidents have begun to
rely more heavily on White House staff for policy proposals than
cabinet departments, a fact that creates a stressful relationship
within the executive branch. In the ad hoc structure, the
president employs task forces and informal groups.

The Executive Office (EOP), which technically
includes the White House Office and Office of the Vice President,
consists of agencies that perform staff services for the president
but are not located in the White House itself. Fourteen separate
agencies existed in the EOP in 1990. Unlike the White House Office,
most of these agencies have a specific function outlined in law, and
their heads must receive Senate confirmation. The two most important
units in the EOP are the Office of Management and Budget and the
National Security Council.

The cabinet consists of the heads of
the federal departments. Occasionally, under Eisenhower, for example,
the cabinet has come close to being a truly deliberative body. But
cabinet members are heads of vast organizations that they seek to
defend, explain, and enlarge. Only a tiny proportion of employees in
cabinet departments (typically under 1 percent) can be appointed by
the president. Whereas cabinet members once had strong independent
political followings, they are now likely to be appointed for their
administrative experience or policy connections. The president is
fortunate if most cabinet members agree with him on major policy
questions, and there is an inevitable rivalry between the White House
staff and the department heads.

Given the president’s lack of constitutional
powers and his inability to depend on cooperation from Congress or
even support from the executive branch, he must necessarily rely on
persuasion if he is to accomplish much. His persuasive powers are
aimed at three audiences: (1) his fellow politicians and leaders in
Washington, (2) party activists and officeholders outside Washington,
and (3) the public-really many different publics, each with a
different view or set of interests. Any statement the
president makes will be carefully scrutinized (and
perhaps attacked); therefore, recent presidents have had fewer and
fewer impromptu discussions and press conferences and have made more
and more prepared speeches. The purpose is to generate personal
popularity, which will translate into congressional support; the more
popular the president, the higher the proportion of his bills that
Congress will pass. Any popularity the president succeeds in gaining
is temporary, however. Every modern president except Eisenhower has
lost popular support between his inauguration and the time he left

In addition to the ability to appoint people to
office and to persuade the public, the president has three additional
prerogatives (two of them quite controversial) with which to
influence policy.

1. The veto. The president can
exercise this constitutional power of the office by sending a
veto message back to Congress or by doing nothing if
Congress adjourns within ten days of sending the bill to the
president: this is called a pocket veto. The veto is
nevertheless a powerful weapon, because historically less than 4
percent of presidents’ vetoes have been overridden. In 1996, Congress
enhanced the veto power of the president by enhancing the president’s
recission authority. This allows presidents to cancel parts of a
spending bill. Overturning such a decision requires a two-thirds vote
in both houses.

2. Executive privilege. The president
has traditionally claimed the right to keep secret communication
within the executive branch, based on the principle of separation of
powers (which would be compromised if the internal workings of one
branch could be scrutinized by another branch) and on the president’s
need to obtain confidential and candid advice from advisers (who
could not be frank if their communications were made public). In the
Watergate tapes case (United States v. Nixon) the Supreme
Court held that executive privilege did not allow the president to
withhold evidence from a criminal investigation.

3. Impoundment. Many presidents have
refused to spend money appropriated by Congress for programs they did
not like. Nixon was particularly aggressive in doing this and
eventually provoked Congress to pass the Budget Reform Act of 1974,
which severely limited presidential impoundment. It is not clear that
this matter is settled, however, because the Supreme Court has
declared the legislative veto unconstitutional.

Immediately on taking office, the president is
faced with the need to present a State of the Union address and to
formulate a program of policy changes. The president must also fill
hundreds of appointive posts and submit a new budget. His campaign
proposals are usually quite general (to avoid alienating any voters)
and his program is expected to have something for everyone. There are
essentially two ways for a president to develop a program: have a
policy on almost every topic (Carter) or concentrate on only a few
major initiatives or themes (Reagan). For help in formulating his
program, he can draw on his aides and campaign advisers, federal
bureaus and agencies, academic and other outside specialists, and
interest groups. A controversial proposal may be leaked to the press,
or floated as a trial balloon to test possible adverse public
reaction. The president’s ability to plan is constrained by his
limited time and attention span, the likelihood of an unexpected
crisis, and the fact that most federal programs can be changed only
at the margin.

Presidential Succession

The key problem in presidential succession is
to establish the legitimacy of the presidency itself: to promote
public acceptance of the office, its incumbent, and its powers, and
to establish an orderly transfer of power from one incumbent to the

No president except FDR has ever served more
than two full terms. Assassination, death, and inability to be
reelected have all taken a toll. Accordingly, the vice president has
become president eight times as provided for in the Constitution. The
Twenty-fifth Amendment, approved in 1967, provides for the vice
president to take over in cases of presidential disability; it also
provides for the nomination of a new vice president.

The president may leave office through death,
disability, resignation, or impeachment. An impeachment is like an
indictment: a set of charges. For the president to be removed from
office he must be impeached by the House and convicted by a
two-thirds vote of the Senate. Andrew Johnson was impeached in 1868
because of policy differences with Congress over Reconstruction, and
he escaped conviction in the Senate by only one vote. Richard Nixon
resigned when faced with impeachment for the Watergate

The Increasing Importance of the Vice

Until the last few decades, the vice presidency
was seen as an insignificant job by most politicians. A plethora of
political quotes attest to this fact. Thus, in 1848, Daniel Webster,
when offered the vice presidential nomination, replied, “I do not
propose to be buried until I am really dead.” John Nance Garner,
FDR’s vice president, once characterized the office as not being
worth a bucket of “warm spit.” John Adams termed the office
“insignificant” and Woodrow Wilson (as a professor) asserted “how
little there is to be said about it.” Such assessments, however, no
longer square with the office’s growing significance.

Due to the increasing threat of assassination,
death, or resignation, recent presidents have tried to involve their
vice presidents in the affairs of the state. Presidential
by George C. Edwards and Stephen J. Wayne (St.
Martin’s Press: 1997, pp. 198-202) explores this trend. The authors
acknowledge that a vice presidential nomination can be valuable
preparation for later accession to the presidency (building up party
credibility, contacts, and national media exposure). Furthermore it
may, in and of itself, allow the individual to train for the chief
executive slot, provided that the vice president is given the
opportunity to do so by the incumbent president. Vice President Gore,
for example, has had considerable influence in the Clinton

He participated in the personnel
selection process for cabinet and subcabinet appointments at the
beginning of the administration, reviewed the drafts of
presidential speeches, and, in his most important role, directed
the National Performance Review project, the administration’s
effort to “reinvent government” by making it more efficient and
less costly…. As an important Clinton adviser, Gore lunches
regularly with the president, attends political strategy sessions,
and has had regular input into most major policy decisions. In
such areas as the environment, high technology, and matters of
science, he has had the most influence. A principal link to
organized labor, to Senate Democrats, and to the Democratic party
in general, Vice President Gore has also played
prominent role in foreign

affairs as a personal representative of the
(p. 201)

These roles have led some to observe that Gore
may become the most credible Democratic candidate in the next
presidential election.

Vice presidents are more likely to
have their importance maximized when they follow certain unwritten
rules. A president must trust his vice president not to upstage
him or his programs. This trust may be difficult to build because
of the way vice presidents are placed on the national ticket to
balance the ticket’s voter appeal politically, geographically, and
often ideologically. Often the two men are rivals at the
convention or incompatible personally. Once elected, a president
may shunt his vice president aside as a natural outgrowth of the
earlier primary campaigns. (John F. Kennedy’s staff apparently did
this to Lyndon Johnson, despite JFK’s own attempts to involve his
vice president in important domestic and international
activities.) Other unwritten rules, according to Edwards and
Wayne, involve never complaining to the press; never taking credit
away from the president; always supporting the president’s final
policy even if privately opposed to it; and sharing the dirty
work, such as traveling extensively on what may often be boring
ceremonial and/or political fence mending events.

The growth of the vice presidency has not only
benefitted the vice president but has also worked to the presidency’s
advantage. It has provided the institution with additional resources
for the performance of ceremonial and symbolic functions.

Each of these advantages, however,
can become a disadvantage if the vice president rivals the
president for political influence, policy direction, or personal
power. Presidents want strong and loyal support, but they do not
relish internal opposition, particularly from those who are a
heartbeat or an election away from replacing them. That is why the
vice president’s influence is still dependent to a much larger
extent on the president’s personal needs than on the institutional
responsibilities of the office. (p. 202)

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