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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 itself.

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 cabinet.

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 Presidency

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 President.

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 386.

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 office.

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 next.

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 cover-up.


The Increasing Importance of the Vice Presidency

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 Leadership 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 administration.

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 a prominent role in foreign affairs as a personal representative of the president. (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. (p. 202)

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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