President Overview


The President:

I. Introduction: The Reagan Revolution 

When Ronald Reagan took office as president of the United States in January 1981, he buoyantly interpreted his landslide victory in the November elections as a mandate to pursue sweeping changes in government policy.

Reagan promised to "get government off the backs of the people" by cutting regulations; fighting fraud, waste, and abuse; reducing spending on domestic programs; and sharply increasing military spending. Reagan's proposals sparked intense opposition from critics, particularly Democrats in Congress, and even some conservative Republicans expressed skepticism that he could accomplish his goals.

Reagan needed to use all of his personal skills and energy, and every resource of the presidency to achieve his legislative goals. From the start, the president cultivated friendly relations with members of Congress from both parties. Reagan, however, offered more than personal charm. He proved to be a skilled and shrewd deal maker.

Moreover, he worked to build up his popularity with the general public, aiming to go over the head of Congress to create public pressure to pass his program. Early in his administration, Reagan turned his survival of an assassination attempt into a public relations triumph, displaying courage and humor. His popularity was so high by the time he left the hospital that the Democratic majority in Congress was virtually helpless to stop the tide. The president's budget sailed through both the Republican Senate and the Democratic controlled House.

Few politicians, journalists, or political scientists anticipated Reagan's success. The conventional wisdom of the 1970s was that the presidency was imperiled and that strong presidential leadership was unlikely, if not impossible. During the 1970s, the nation had experienced dramatic drops in its international economic and military standing, in confidence in its fundamental institutions, and in corporate profits and people's standards of living.

The Reagan Revolution involved much more than Ronald Reagan. To understand it requires that we understand not just the 
personality, style, and effectiveness of Reagan as president but also the governmental, political, and structural context within which he operated.

Although the skills and personality of the president affect the nature of political life, individual presidents should not be considered free agents who can do as they wish. The presidency is not entirely plastic, ready to be molded into whatever shape a president desires. It is strongly shaped by individuals and groups from the governmental and political spheres, by rules and traditions, and by the structural sphere (the economy, culture, population, and the international system).

II. The Expanding Presidency

A. Modest Beginnings

The increase in presidential responsibilities, burdens, powers, and impact in a little over 200 years is obvious if we compare the presidencies of George Bush and George Washington. The nation today is vastly larger, the national government is more complex, and the president's overall power is dramatically greater.

B. The Founders' Conception of the Office of President

The Founders envisioned a presidency more like Washington's than Bush's. Although the Constitution provded for a single executive that would be strong compared with the executive under the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution's sparse language barely hinted at the range of powers that twentieth-century presidents exercise. Nonetheless, the vague language of the Constitution proved flexible enough to encompass the great expansion of the presidency. 

C. The Dormant Presidency

The great structural changes in the economy, society, and territory of the United States led to an enormous expansion in the federal government. From the time of George Washington's inauguration until the end of the nineteenth century, the presidency by and large conformed to the designs and the intentions of the Founders. The presidency did not dominate the political life of the nation. Policymaking at the federal level tended to be located in Congress.

Several presidents and their actions stand out as particularly important for the eventual development and expansion of the office. George Washington set the stage in several important respects. Most significantly, he solidified the prestige of the presidency at a time when executive leadership was mistrusted. He affirmed the primacy of the president in foreign affairs and set a precedent for presidential involvement in fashioning a domestic legislative program.

Thomas Jefferson increased the foreign policy responsibilities for the president. Andrew Jackson transformed the presidency into a popular institution where the needs and aspirations of the people might be met. James Polk was important to the development of the presidency in terms of the institution's war making capabilities. Abraham Lincoln dramatically increased the president's emergency powers which he invoked during the Civil War. After the Civil War was over, however, the federal government and the presidency shrank once again.

D. The Twentieth Century Transformation

The growth of the presidency accelerated at the beginning of the twentieth century. Theodore Roosevelt, who took office in 1901, vigorously pushed the prerogatives and enhanced the powers of the office as no president had done since Lincoln. In Teddy Roosevelt we see the coming together of an energetic and ambitious political leader and a new set of structural factors in the United States, especially the nation's emergence as a world power and an industrialized economy. Woodrow Wilson's New Freedom domestic agenda built upon the Progressive measures of Theodore Roosevelt, including an increase in government regulation of the economy.

Franklin Roosevelt presided over the most significant expansion of presidential functions and activities in American history. In a very real sense, the founding of the modern American presidency occurred during Roosevelt's administration, in response to the Great Depression and World War II. Roosevelt's New Deal permanently established a number of independent regulatory commissions to regulate aspects of business. The biggest changes associated with Roosevelt's presidency, however, resulted from World War II.

The outcome of that war established the United States as a military superpower, overshadowing formerly mighty enemies and allies, unrivaled by any other country but the Soviet Union. Since the time of Roosevelt, all U.S. presidents have administered a huge national security state with large standing armed forces, nuclear weapons, and bases all around the world. Similarly, World War II brought unprecedented government involvement in the economy. All presidents since  Roosevelt have presided over a huge government apparatus that has been active in domestic, as well as foreign policy.

E. Individual Presidents: How Important Are They?

We cannot be sure to what extent presidents themselves caused this great expansion of the scope of their office. Presumably, not every president would have made the Louisiana Purchase, as Jefferson did, or would have responded to the Great Depression as Roosevelt did. Yet the great presidents were also the product of great times. They stepped into situations that had deep historical roots and dynamics of their own. Thus, the great upsurges in presidential power and activity were, at least in part, results of forces at the structural level.

III. Presidential Personality and Style

Although the presidency seems to change drastically with the personality and style of the person who occupies the office, the presidency is not just an individual; it is an institution. It is shaped by forces both inside and outside the government. Nevertheless, the personalities and styles of presidents do make a difference and are worth our attention.

A. The Operating Styles of the Presidents

Each president brings to office has his own unique personality and operating style.

Truman was feisty and combative, whether taking on Congress, Republicans, the Soviets, or the press.

Dwight Eisenhower had a commanding personality and radiated warmth.

John Kennedy was a glamorous president, handsome, young, energetic, stylish, and blessed with a winning sense of humor.

Lyndon Johnson was a giant of a man with superhuman energy who overawed those who met him.

Richard Nixon was seen by many Americans as a cold, awkward, and perhaps ruthless personality but also an experienced,
shrewd, hard-driving professional, especially adept at foreign policy.

Gerald Ford was seen as physically clumsy and had the misfortune to occupy the presidency during a period of deep economic recession and rapid inflation.

Jimmy Carter ran for the presidency as an outsider, projecting an image of moral rectitude and criticizing the Washington establishment.

Ronald Reagan radiated warmth and conveyed bubbling optimism about America's future.

George Bush projected an image of a kinder, gentler president but also less forceful or charismatic than his predecessor.

Such thumbnail sketches of recent presidents highlight the many variations in presidential style and personality.

B. A Theory of Presidential Character

How do personality differences and operating styles interact with the institution of the presidency? According to James
David Barber, a president's performance depends on the president's character, world view, and style. Style refers
to the president's habitual way of dealing with his main political tasks. World view refers to beliefs about social causality, human nature, and the preeminent moral conflicts of the time.

Most central to Barber's theory, though, is the concept of character, which Barber defines as the president's enduring
orientation toward life and toward himself, which is mainly formed in childhood. One crucial dimension of character
involves whether a president is active or passive--full of energy like the human cyclone Lyndon Johnson, or inactive,
like the nap-taking Calvin Coolidge. A second key dimension concerns whether a person is positive or negative,
whether he feels good or bad about life, about the job of the presidency, and about himself.

When these dimensions are combined, they produce four fundamental types of character: active-positive, active- negative, passive-positive, and passive-negative. Barber most admires the active-positive type, whom he describes as healthy, full of energy and enthusiasm for the job, a doer.

In contrast, Barber says that active-negative personalities are dangerous. Their activity has a compulsive, aggressive quality, as if they were trying to compensate for something. He says that an active-negative character leads to rigid, inflexible behavior, with disastrous results.

A passive-positive personality seeks love and affection by being agreeable and cooperative rather than assertive. 
Passive-positive presidents don't usually accomplish much. A passive-negative personality compensates for low self-esteem
and a feeling of uselessness by performing dutiful service--doing little and enjoying less, withdrawing from conflict by
emphasizing vague principles and standing for rectitude.

Barber's theory has provoked strong criticism. Some scholars argue that character comes in more than four types. Some say
that it is difficult or impossible to be sure how to pigeonhole individual presidents. Others suggest that ideology may be more important than character in determining how presidents approach their jobs.

Still other critics believe that presidents are less affected by their character than by events and circumstances. The situation may make the person, rather than vice versa. Many political scientists contend that personal characteristics are at best intervening variables which affect what happens but which themselves mostly reflect various political and structural factors.

C. Trends in the Modern Presidency: Beyond Personality and Style

The important but limited role of presidents' personal characteristics is clear from a look at enduring trends in the presidency. Major changes that occur in the office of the presidency sometimes take place with the help of great presidents and sometimes happen regardless of who was president. We can identify two basic trends in the presidency. First, the power, responsibilities, burdens, and impact of the presidency have increased enormously. Second, the perceived closeness of the president to the general public has grown.

IV. The Job of the President

Since Franklin Roosevelt's day, the American presidency has involved powers and duties unimagined by the Founders that
touch the daily lives of many people. As chief of state, the president is the symbol of national authority and unity. As head of government, the president manages the day-to-day affairs of the executive branch. In contrast to European parliamentary nations, such as Great Britain and Norway, where the king or queen acts as chief of state while a prime minister serves as head of government, the two functions are combined in the American presidency.

The president plays a number of roles. As commander in chief, the president has command over American armed forces.
The development of the war powers has grown enormously over the years. As chief legislator, the president takes the initiative on public policy. To a large extent, Congress now awaits and responds to presidential actions. The Great Depression convinced most Americans that the federal government has a role to play in fighting economic downturns, and the example of Franklin Roosevelt convinced most Americans that the main actor in this drama ought to be the president.

Thus, Americans look to the president to be the manager of the economy. Finally, the Constitution, by specifying that the president has the power to make treaties, to appoint and receive ambassadors, unambiguously lodges the main diplomatic responsibilities of the United States in that office. Thus, the president wears many hats and is usually a very busy person.

V. The President's Staff and Cabinet

A. The White House Staff

Presidents do not face their burdens alone. They have many advisors and helpers. The White House staff, for example, includes a number of close advisors. The chief of staff serves as the president's right-hand man. The national security advisor heads the president's national security staff, briefing the president on foreign policy matters and advising him on foreign policy decisions.

Most presidents have a top domestic policy advisor, who coordinates plans for new domestic laws, regulations, and spending initiatives. The staff also includes a number of close political advisors to the president, usually old comrades from past campaigns.

Prominent in every administration is the press secretary, who holds press conferences and briefs the media.

Nearly all presidents have a legal counsel, a special assistant to act as a liaison with Congress, an assistant to deal with interest groups, another aide for political matters, and still another assistant for intergovernmental relations. The exact shape of the White House staff changes greatly from one presidency to another.

Staff members are the people the president talks with every day. They are the ones who do their best to see that he gets his way. These staff members must do what the president wants or what he would want if he knew the details. The ideal staffer knows exactly what the boss wants and does it, with or without being told; otherwise he or she won't last long.

B. The Executive Office of the President

The Executive Office of the President is one step removed from the White House staff. The most important agency in the 
Executive Office is the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Acting on agency requests, the OMB advises the president on how much the administration should propose to spend for each government program and where the money will come from. The OMB also exercises legislative clearance, that is it examines the budgetary implications of proposed legislation and sometimes kills proposals as too expensive or inconsistent with the president's philosophy or goals.

Another unit in the Executive Office of the President is the Council of Economic Advisors (CEA), a small group of economists who advise the president on economic policy. The National Security Council (NSC) is a body of leading officials from the State and Defense Departments, the CIA, the military, and elsewhere who advise the president on foreign affairs, particularly during a crisis.

In recent years the Executive Office of the President also has included the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the
Council on Environmental Quality, and the Office of United States Trade Representative. Again, however, the makeup of
the Executive Office changes from one administration to another, depending upon which national problems seem most pressing and upon the preferences and operating styles of individual presidents.

The Executive Office of the President has a measure of independence. Its employees cannot be considered personal arms of the president in the same way in which the White House staff is, and they do not meet with him as frequently, but they are generally loyal. They assist the president in establishing authority over the wider bureaucracy of the executive branch. Much of that bureaucracy is more distant and more independent, sometimes responding to constituency pressures that conflict with the president's program.

C. The Vice-Presidency

Vice-presidents find themselves in an awkward position, because their main job is to be available in case something happens to the president. Although the vice-presidency is a steppingstone to the White House, the office is generally not highly regarded. Within administrations, vice-presidents are often fifth wheels, not personally or politically close to the president and not fully trusted.

The Constitution mentions nothing about what vice-presidents should do except preside over the Senate, a duty that is largely ceremonial, except for the rare opportunity to vote to break a tie. Anything else is up to the president. 

Vice-presidents often spend their time running minor errands of state, attending funerals of foreign leaders who are not important enough to demand presidential attention, or carrying out limited diplomatic missions. Although many vice-presidents have been virtually frozen out of the policymaking process, recent presidents have realized the value of giving their potential successors some training before they take over the job. 

D. The Cabinet

The president's cabinet is not mentioned in the Constitution and no legislation designates its composition, duties, or rules of operation. In recent times the cabinet has consisted of the heads of the major executive departments, plus the vice-president, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and whichever other officials the president deems appropriate.

Rarely, if ever, have presidents actually relied upon the cabinet as a decision-making body. Most recent presidents have only infrequently convened the cabinet and have rarely done serious business with it. One reason for the decline of the cabinet is that government has grown large and specialized. Most department heads are experts in their own areas, with little to contribute on the broad range of government policies.

A second reason for the decline of the cabinet is that cabinet members occupy an ambiguous position: they are advisors to the president but also represent their own constituencies, including permanent civil servants in their departments and organized interests served by their departments. Presidents deliberately appoint some department heads with independent power bases to help get things done and to sell the president's program. Most presidents also try to include in the cabinet some people with whom they have close personal and political ties, such as former campaign managers, advisors, and so on.

Whether cabinet members are independent powers or close presidential confidants, cabinet members acquire importance from their relationships with the president or with their own departments and constituencies, not from their membership in the cabinet as a collective body.

VI. The President and the Bureaucracy

Many people assume that the president has firm control over the executive branch of government, that he can simply order 
departments and agencies to do something and they will do it. However, this common notion is far from the whole truth. In
the day-to-day operation of government, direct command is seldom feasible.

Presidents cannot keep personal track of each one of the millions of government officials and employees. They can only issue general guidelines and pass them down the chain of command, hoping that their wishes will be performed faithfully. But lower-level officials, protected by civil service from being fired, may have their own interests, their own institutional norms and practices, that lead them to do something different.

To a large extent, the president must persuade other executive branch officials to do things. The president must bargain, compromise, and convince others that what the president wants is in the country's best interest and their interest as well. The federal bureaucracy is not merely a creature of the president but is itself subject to influences from the political level. This constrains what presidents can do and helps ensure that the executive branch will respond to broad forces in society rather than simply to the wishes of one leader.

VII. The President and Congress Perpetual Tug of War

A. Structural Bases of Conflict in the Constitution

The president and Congress are often at odds. This is a structural fact of American politics. When the founders wrote the Constitution, they created a system of checks and balances, setting ambition to counter ambition. Because virtually all constitutional powers are shared, there is potential for conflict over virtually all aspects of government policy.

The potential conflict written into the Constitution becomes real, because the president and the Congress often disagree about national goals, especially when the president and members of Congress belong to different parties. Since the end of the 1960s, the voters have frequently elected Republican presidents, along with Congresses controlled by large majorities of Democrats.

Another reason for conflict between the president and Congress is that the opinions they hear and the pressures they feel may have different sources. Some political scientists argue that presidents, with their high-visibility and their presence on television, tend to hear from and represent the general public rather than organized interest groups.

In contrast, members of Congress are more open to the blandishment and appeals of organized interest groups, especially PACs, which contribute so handsomely to their campaigns. For all these reasons, our constitutional structure means that presidents are limited and affected in what they can do by Congress, which, in turn, reflects the various political forces.

B. And the Winner Is!

Whether Congress or the president dominates national policymaking varies from one period of time to another. The uneven expansion of the presidency throughout American history can be interpreted in terms of the shifting ascendancy of one branch or another. 

This pattern of cycles suggests that presidents may tend to emerge as dominant during times of great national crisis (war or depression, for example) when Americans unite under strong leadership. When the crisis is over, however, there is often a reaction against the strains of crisis management, a reduction in federal government activity, and a return to a more relaxed system of congressional government.

Since World War II, with the immensely increased international role of the United States, all presidents have been active in foreign affairs, with none accepting subordination to the Congress as was the case during the nineteenth century or the 1920s.

During the 1970s, however, Congress cut off aid to South Vietnam, halted the bombing of Cambodia, and passed the War Powers Act over a presidential veto. This period of Congressional resurgence near the end of the Vietnam conflict did not last long. President Reagan took office in 1981 and reasserted presidential authority in domestic as well as foreign affairs.

C. What Makes a President Successful with Congress?

Political scientists identify several reasons why some presidents are more successful at getting their measures passed by Congress than other presidents. The most important factor is party control of Congress. When the opposite party controls Congress, presidents get frustrated. The bigger a majority the president's party has, the better presidents generally do (although this is not always the case).

President are also more successful when their popularity is high than when it is low. Presidents tend to do better on foreign policy issues than on domestic ones (although this difference may have decreased somewhat in recent years). On certain issues, such as the nomination of judges or cabinet members, presidents nearly always get their way. When the issue is a presidential veto of legislation, the president again is likely to prevail. Few vetoes are overridden by the Congress. Finally, the president's legislative skills make a difference too, at least on certain bills.

VIII. The President and the People An Evolving Relationship

A. Beginnings: A Distant Presidency

The Founders thought of the president as an elite leader, relatively distant from the people, interacting with Congress often but with the people only rarely. 

Most nineteenth-century presidents and presidential candidates believed and practiced this ideal. They seldom made speeches directly to the public, for example, averaging generally ten or fewer speeches per year. In the earliest years of the American Republic, presidents were not even chosen directly by the voters, but were selected by an electoral college. The president, in the view of the Founders, was not to be a tribune of the people.

B. Getting Closer to the People

This system quickly evolved into a more democratic one, in which the people played a more direct part. By 1800, the two-party system began to develop, with parties nominating candidates and running them under party labels that provided voters with clearer choices; electors were pledged in advance to support their parties' candidates.

The two-party system also made it easier for presidential candidates to win clear-cut victories in the electoral college, thereby taking the House of Representatives out of the process. Early in the nineteenth century, state legislatures began to turn over the power to choose presidential electors to the people, by direct election. By 1832, the present system for electing presidents was mostly in place, with the winner in the electoral college nearly always the winner of a plurality of the popular vote.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, the presidency changed markedly as presidents began speaking directly to the public. Woodrow Wilson, for example, made appeals to the public a central part of his presidency and created an entirely new constitutional theory advocating close connections between the president and the public.

Wilson argued that presidents are unique because only they are chosen by the entire nation. Presidents, he said, should help educate the citizens about government, should interpret the true popular will, and should faithfully respond to it. Presidents throughout this century have followed Wilson's theory of the presidency more and more as they have frequently gone public, using television to bypass the press in order to speak to the public directly about policy.

C. Leading Public Opinion

Especially since the rise of television, modern presidents have enhanced their power to shape public opinion. Studies have found that when a popular president takes a stand in favor of a particular policy, the public's support for that policy tends to rise. The power to lead the public also implies a power to deceive or mislead the public so that it will approve of policies that it might oppose if it were fully informed.

This may happen especially in foreign affairs, where presidents can most easily control information. Those who seek energetic presidential leadership must face the possibility that leadership will go wrong and result in demagoguery or manipulation. The power to do good is power to do evil as well. But some safeguards can be found in the capacity of the public to judge character when it is choosing a president. Moreover, other national leaders have the ability to counteract a deceitful president.

D. Responding to the Public

Presidents respond to public opinion. For the most part, however, the influence of public opinion is so quiet as to be almost invisible. The goals of presidents usually resembles the goals of the public--that is partly why they were elected in the first place --so there is often no conflict or struggle to observe.

Only rarely does a modern president get badly out of touch with the public, so that the full power of public opinion is revealed. Presidents normally keep abreast of changes in pubic opinion and in many cases, shift their policy in the same direction. This can be observed by the numerous polls which the president's staff watch and often conduct.

E. Presidential Popularity

The public's influence does not only proceed through its opinions about specific policies; it also works through presidential popularity or unpopularity. The percentage of people approving of the president's performance in office varies from month to month and year to year.

The president cares a great deal about these numbers, because they have a lot to do with how much clout the president has in Congress, how his party will do in midterm elections, and how he himself will do in reelection or in the history books. Presidents try to figure out what causes their popularity to go up and down and they do everything they can to make it go up.

Presidential popularity rises and falls for a number of reasons. One major factor is time. Most presidents lose popularity as time passes. The state of the economy is another factor determining the popularity of presidents. When the economy goes sour, fewer Americans approve of the president's handling of his job. Unsuccessful wars, especially limited wars that drag on with high casualty rates, are also detrimental to presidential popularity. Scandals, such as Watergate and the Iran-Contra affair, pull down popularity ratings as well. Certain kinds of symbolic events or crises, however, can have a positive influence on a
president's popularity by producing a rally 'round the flag influence.

F. Presidents as Tribunes

The evidence so far indicates that presidents today are indeed tribunes of the people. They are close to the public, both leading public opinion and responding to it. However, care should be taken in going too far with this idea. Presidents may at times manipulate, ignore, or even defy public opinion. In some cases they respond instead to organized interest groups, political parties, or some other influential group inside or outside the government.

IX. The Presidency, Interest Groups, and Parties

A. Interest Groups

To a large degree, the relationship between interest groups and presidents is probably hidden from scholars and observers. Presidents take office beholden not just to the general public but also to interest group who help them win nomination and election. At a minimum, presidents generally give special access to those who helped them into office.

Precisely which interest groups have a greater influence on policy depends significantly upon which party controls the 
presidency, because many groups are more closely allied with one party than with the other.

B. Political Parties

Political parties are clearly important in determining what presidents do. Despite the pressure put on American political parties to compete for votes by moving to the center of public support, party positions nonetheless differ, as the responsible-party model indicates. The result of party influence is that there are cycles of presidential action, depending on which party holds office. Democratic presidents tend to fight unemployment, to favor civil rights and environmental protection, and to promote domestic social welfare programs. Republicans worry about inflation, attempt to cut domestic expenditures, and take conservative stands on social issues, such as abortion.

C. Social Movements

Social movements occasionally provide yet another political- level influence on presidents, in at least two different ways. First, mass demonstrations and protests sometimes cause disruptions that are inconvenient or dangerous to ignore and lead presidents to take actions in order to diffuse them. Second, mass movements can sometimes produce changes in general public opinion that, in turn, affect presidents.

X. Structure: The Enduring Presidency (454-55)

An enduring presidency is one that does not merely fluctuate with the whims of whoever holds office but reflects the goals
and preferences of the people, groups, and institutions which make up the American society. The enduring presidency also
means that both continuities and changes in what presidents do tend to reflect influences at the structural level of analysis. Structural influences have a major impact on the problems that the president puts on the American agenda, the way people think about those problems and how they want presidents to solve them, and finally on the resources that determine which groups will get a hearing from the president.

In order to understand why presidents do what they do, it is not enough simply to look at political factors. We must also 
consider the structural factors which have an enormous impact on presidential behavior.

A. The International System

All presidents from the end of World War II to the end of the Cold War pursued a broadly similar set of foreign policies.
Although postwar presidents differed in their means, they agreed on the goals of foreign policy: the containment of the
influence of the Soviet Union; the solidification of the Western alliance; the encouragement of open economies in which American business might compete; and opposition to leftist or nationalist movements in the nations of the Third World.

The reason for this continuity is that U.S. foreign policies reflect the basic features of the international system, the U.S. position in that system, and the nature of U.S. economic interests. When the international system changes, presidential policy tends to change--whoever is president. 

B. The Economy

All presidents, whether Democrat or Republican, must see that the economy remains healthy, with a proper balance between
growth and inflation. A healthy economy is essential for a president's own popularity and his continuation in office, for the generation of tax receipts to fund government programs, and for the maintenance of social peace and stability.