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7. The Modern Presidency: Tools of Power, Topic Overview
Topic Overview Using the Video Readings Critical Thinking Activity Web-Based Resources





Topic Overview Unit 7

The Modern Presidency: Tools of Power

Learning Objectives

After completing this session, you will be able to:

  • Summarize the growth in presidential power since the ratification of the Constitution.

  • Explain the major elements that effect presidential influence with Congress.

  • Explain and discuss the consequences of the modern president's tendency to cultivate public support for policy actions.

  • Analyze the role of the cabinet and cabinet secretaries in the policymaking process.

  • Discuss the difference between the public's expectation of presidential power and the constitutional allocation of power to the president.

The growing expectations that the public has of presidents creates a gap between expectations and formal powers. This unit discusses the ways in which presidents seek to bridge this gap, by using personal attributes and cultivating strong public support. The unit also illustrates how presidents have increasingly centralized, at the expense of many of the cabinet officials, policy-making authority as a means of maximizing their own power to control the political environment.

The American Presidency has changed dramatically over American history. Article II of the Constitution lists potent but limited formal powers for the president. Article II states that "executive power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America." Among the president's other formal powers (also called enumerated powers) is the power to appoint (subject to Senate confirmation) executive department heads, federal judges, and U.S. ambassadors. The president can negotiate treaties, also subject to Senate approval, and can recognize ambassadors from other countries. Presidents can veto bills passed by Congress, but such vetoes can be overridden by a two-thirds vote in both houses of Congress. As commander-in-chief, the president is the top civilian commander of all U.S. forces, although the Congress retains formal authority to declare war.

Beginning with our first president, George Washington, many presidents have used their implied and informal presidential powers to enhanced their personal influence, and often the power and potential influence of later presidents. Many of these implied powers, which are assumed as granted under the Constitution although not explicitly listed, stem from a president's responsibilities during times of national emergency. For example, our early presidents, including Washington and Jefferson, didn't hesitate to exercise their commander-in-chief authority by ordering Navy ships into hostile waters without an express declaration of war from Congress. And in his bold Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson showed that a president who acts decisively might successfully compel others to follow his lead after the fact.

A president's informal powers, or the powers to persuade others to follow his lead, derive in part from his use of the visibility and prestige of the office itself. As America's only nationally elected leader, the president is considered our county's "first citizen" who stands and acts for the American people as a whole. Some presidents, such as Lincoln, Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin Roosevelt, drew upon their informal powers during times of national crisis to increase their influence over others in Congress and the executive branch. Other presidents, including Lyndon Johnson, drew upon their personal skills and intimate knowledge of legislative processes to pass bold national initiatives such as the Civil and Voting Rights Acts.
During the twentieth century, the presidency itself was transformed. As they presided over two world wars, a major depression, and a cold war, several twentieth century presidents increased their powers and influence at the cost of Congress and other government institutions. Presidents now compete with Congress in setting and enacting the country's legislative agenda, and the White House is the focal point for setting foreign and domestic policy. Presidents Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton, for example, conducted specific foreign policy initiatives almost wholly from within the White House, sometimes at the cost of a consistent and unified U.S. foreign policy.

The institutional presidency has also grown during the twentieth century. It includes the White House Office (WHO) and the Executive Office of the President (EOP). These offices surround modern presidents in layers of bureaucracy that they can use to enhance their power and influence. However, some presidents have found that the White House bureaucracy can actually make them feel isolated and out-of-touch. A key position is White House chief of staff. The chief of staff serves as the president's "gatekeeper," and is often credited or blamed for helping or detracting from the support and effectiveness of recent presidents. Some vice presidents have exercised important influence in their presidential administration.

The development of electronic mass media facilitated the transformation to the modern presidency. Through the adept use of television, modern presidential candidates can get elected as national personalities who enjoy broad personal popularity. While in office, a president can choose to "go public" through direct television appeals to the American people that are designed to circumvent party leaders, Congress, and other government officials. President Reagan, for example, used his first televised speech after an assassination attempt to successfully sell his signature tax cut directly to the American people.

Although the presidency offers a range of formal, implied, and potential informal powers, modern presidents grapple with the inherent limitations of the office and often have difficulty coping with conflicting public expectations. For example, most Americans want their president to be a "regular person" who understands them and their daily struggles. Yet, many Americans also expect their presidents to rise above commonality and command the international stage. Similarly, Americans usually prefer pragmatic approaches to governing and executive leadership, but also expect presidents to lead with visionary policy initiatives. Modern presidents must meet these and other conflicting assumptions in a political environment where institutional challenges, including the opposing party in Congress and organized special interests, daily attempt to thwart or fundamentally reshape the president's policy initiatives.


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