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Democracy in America

The Modern Presidency: Tools of Power

Explore the role of the President and what has come to be called the "Institutional Presidency." Evaluate the growth of the office and compare presidential power to that of other executives.


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 affect 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 create 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 enhance 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.

Using the Video: Pre-Viewing Activity and Discussion

Pre-Viewing Activity and Discussion (30 minutes)

Before viewing the video, discuss the following questions:

  • To what extent do modern presidents resemble the expectations of the founders?
  • Why have presidents become so important to modern American government?
  • In what political arena does the president typically find the greatest occasion to exert his skill and authority?
  • Why does our Constitution entrust the power to declare war to the Congress?
  • Do the high expectations that Americans have for the presidency ensure disillusionment with the incumbents?

Using the Video: Watch the Video and Discuss

Watch the Video (30 minutes) and Discuss (30 minutes)

The video includes three segments:

1. Getting the Job Done: The Johnson Treatment
Today, the responsibilities of the president are vastly greater than at any time in our history. The president is our nation’s public face to the world, commander-in-chief, chaplain to the nation in times of crisis, and head of his political party, among many other things. In modern times, there is one president who used the power of his position better than many who came before him, and many who have come since. Lyndon Baines Johnson became our 36th President of the United States in the blink of an eye, but he had been preparing for the role throughout his career. He had been a congressman, senator, and a vice president, and along the way he had become a master at getting what he wanted. The so-called “Johnson treatment” describes Johnson’s unique style in getting others to support his favored policy and political positions. A look at how Johnson marshaled the Civil Rights Bill through Congress shows how the Johnson treatment was used to overcome entrenched legislative opposition, but it also demonstrates the power of a skilled and highly involved president.

Discussion Questions

  • What skills did President Johnson use to gain passage of the Civil Rights Bill?
  • Can other presidents replicate the Johnson style or is it unique to one individual?

2. Ronald Reagan: The Great Communicator

President Ronald Reagan’s efforts to mobilize public and political support for his mammoth tax cut of $784 billion (about 1.5 trillion in today’s dollars) are a testament to his “great communicator” reputation. The sheer size of the cuts made it a difficult sell to many in Congress, but the president used a speech to the nation to move aside his congressional opponents. Reagan’s speech is a classic example of a president “going public” to roll out a major policy proposal. The president’s personal advisors helped him hone a message designed to garner broad public appeal. Reagan’s efforts to sell his tax cut were among the many times he employed the “people strategy” during his two terms as president.

Discussion Questions

  • To what extent has the development of the modern media helped presidents?
  • What are the advantages for presidents of going public?
  • What are the disadvantages for presidents of going public?

3. Robert Reich: Locked in the Cabinet

The president’s cabinet is made up of his 14 cabinet secretaries and others he may include such as the vice president and the directors of key federal agencies. In general, however, presidents in the last few decades have come to depend less on the cabinet for advice and help and more on other staff and advisors within the White House Office and the Executive Office of the Presidency. Robert Reich, President Clinton’s appointee for Labor Secretary as well as his close friend, directly experienced the marginalization of Clinton’s cabinet. Reich learned early on that the key to power in a presidential administration is access, and that the staff in the White House’s West Wing had a distinct advantage over others.

Discussion Questions

  • Why do presidents rely so heavily on staff in the White House Office and the Executive Office of the Presidency?
  • What did Secretary Reich take his camp

Using the Video: Post-Viewing Activity and Discussion

Post-Viewing Activity and Discussion (10 minutes)

1. The Ideal President (10 minutes)

Take a few minutes to think about and then list all the qualities that you expect in a president. Compare your list of desirable traits to that of others. Discuss your lists with others and evaluate the likelihood that any one person can ever match the expectations. What does this tell us about our expectations of presidential leadership?

Using the Video: Homework

Read the following Readings from Unit 8 to prepare for next week’s session.

  • Introduction-Bureaucracy: A Controversial Necessity
  • Tocqueville, Democracy in America: “Public Officers Under the Control of the American Democracy”
  • Federalist Papers: “Federalist No. 72”
  • Myers v. U.S.
  • Humphrey’s Executor v. U.S.

Read next week’s Topic Overview.

Using the Video: Classroom Applications

You may want to have your students do the post-viewing activities: The Many Roles of Our Modern Presidents and The Ideal President. They are provided for you as blackline masters in the Appendix of the print guide.


The Readings for Democracy in America unit 7 are available here for download as a PDF file. You’ll need a copy of Adobe Acrobat Reader to read the files. Acrobat Reader is available free for download from

Download Unit 7 Readings, The Modern Presidency: Tools of Power

  • Introduction—The Modern Presidency: Tools of Power
  • Tocqueville, Democracy in America: “The Executive Power”
  • Federalist Papers: “Federalist No. 69”
  • Jackson, “On Indian Removal”
  • Lincoln, The Emancipation Proclamation


  1. In what political arena does the executive typically find the greatest occasion to exert his skill and authority?
  2. What is the most important difference between the king’s war power and the chief executive’s war power in the United States Constitution, according to Alexander Hamilton?
  3. Which branch of government possesses the war powers that the president lacks?
  4. “Our conduct toward these people,” Andrew Jackson explained concerning native Americans, “is deeply interesting to our national character.” What did Jackson believe our conduct conveyed?
  5. Who did Lincoln free with the Emancipation Proclamation?

Introduction—The Modern Presidency: Tools of Power

“It is a lesser question for the partisans of democracy to find means of governing the people,” Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in a letter to John Stuart Mill, “than to get the people to choose the men most capable of governing.” Choosing good leaders, whether men or women, is often a matter of choosing leaders who can themselves choose well, and can lead their staff as well as the nation. Executive leadership has changed greatly since the days of George Washington—the modern president is a creature of vast power. Presidents exercise a wide range of powers, including the ability to set a national agenda, to appoint members to executive agencies and to courts, to conduct a wide range of foreign affairs concerns, and to control the extensive military resources of the United States. In all of these areas there has been a significant shift in power from the legislative branch to the executive. Many cultural demands have contributed to this—the president’s power of charismatic leadership, the growth of mass communication with its focus on a single speaker, the growth in international American power, and the deference of the other branches to the executive.

In 1960, Richard Neustadt suggested that students of the executive branch should maintain the difference between the president’s power of personal influence and the powers of the office. This difference is important in understanding the growth of executive power. During the twentieth century, the terms of executive power have not changed very much by the terms of the Constitution—in fact, one of the major changes would be an apparent reduction in the constitutional power of the president by the limiting of the number of terms of office the president can serve. The power of the president has, however, vastly increased in all the areas mentioned above. Presidents are in charge of ever larger institutions of administrative power, more than ever they are expected to be the pilot of national policy, and, moreover, the president is now widely conceived to posses the sole power in foreign affairs, including the ability to make decisions of war and peace.

Incidentally, this growth of presidential power has not met with significant success. Presidential use of these extensive powers has often brought remarkable failure. “They geld us first,” President Lyndon Johnson told David Brinkley, “and then expect us to win the Kentucky Derby.” Johnson experienced failure both in domestic and foreign policy realms, none so extensive as the popular and political failure of his policies in Vietnam. There are, of course, numerous other failures, Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs, Clinton’s health care plan, Reagan’s Iran-Contra Affair, and Reagan’s Beirut. If there has been a growth in presidential power, it is highly difficult for presidents to use it with impunity.

Questions of the success and failure of presidential action performed under extra-constitutional political power, however, should not distract citizens from their concerns about the constitutionality of the action. If presidents are allowed to posses all the power they currently claim, especially the extra-constitutional powers, then citizens of the United States face a substantially new form of government, whether a success or a failure. Instead of a government limited by the constitutional document, the powers of government are regulated only by what the people will bear—a plebiscite, not a constitutional, government. Constitutional government requires that people pay attention to the constitutional fidelity of government. The readings collected in this section begin with accounts of the early founding period, then explore the historical actions and actual behaviors of presidents. “A good government implies two things:” claimed the author of “Federalist No. 62,” “first, fidelity to the object of government, which is the happiness of the people; secondly, a knowledge of the means by which that object can be best attained.” This chapter seeks to examine the means of executive power, with an emphasis on retaining the constitutional power of the office.

Web-based Resources official Web site of the White House contains a variety of information about the current president and the history of the presidency including reports, speeches, press briefings, and even a White House tour.

http://www.millercenter.virginia.eduThe Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia provides scholars and the general public with an extensive array of multi-media and printed materials on the U.S presidency, including presidential recordings from the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations. Smithsonian Museumhas a Web site of materials and activities from its popular exhibit, The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden. Web site materials include an interactive timeline of the presidency and grade-specific lesson plans.