The nature of the presidency has evolved considerably over the course of American history, from the limited role the framers of the Constitution had in mind to the rise of the president-centered government of the twentieth century.
The framers of the Constitution were wary of executive power because they saw it as the most likely source of tyranny. King George III of Britain was, for many, the villain of the Revolutionary War; he was an example of executive power run amok. At the same time, the framers knew that the first president would almost certainly be George Washington, whom they all admired greatly.
As they wrote the Constitution, the framers decided not to provide great detail about the president. Instead, the framers gave the office only a few specific powers. They wanted a strong executive who could deal with emergencies, particularly those involving other nations, but who would not dominate the U.S. government. The framers expected that Congress would be the focal point of the national government, and they structured the Constitution accordingly. They made the president powerful enough to check and balance Congress but not so powerful as to overrun Congress.
For the first few decades of the republic, congressional delegations chose their party’s presidential candidate in a caucus, a meeting of political leaders to select candidates or plot strategy. As a result, the president was, to some extent, dependent on the representatives of his party in Congress. Critics derided this system as undemocratic, labeling it “King Caucus.” Starting in the 1830s, however, parties began using conventions to choose their presidential nominees. This change gave more power to party members outside of Congress, opening up the nomination process to increased public participation, a trend that has continued into the present day. The end of King Caucus gave more power to the president because he was no longer beholden to his party’s members of Congress and could act more independently.
Even though the end of King Caucus opened up the possibility of greater presidential power, presidents refrained from seizing that power because of long-standing attitudes toward the presidency. For most of the nineteenth century, political leaders believed that political power should center on Congress and that the president’s job should be to execute decisions made by Congress. Some scholars have referred to the presidency during this era as a “clerk in chief” because the president was not expected to initiate or guide national policy. Many nineteenth-century presidents acted more like clerks in chief, exercising little initiative or independent power.
Despite the general trend of weak presidents, several early presidents stand out for their assertiveness and importance. George Washington (president from 1775 to 1783) established the character of the office that nearly all his successors would emulate. Washington carried himself in a statesmanlike manner and set the standard of serving no more than two terms. He also created an indelible image of what a president should be: strong, capable, honorable, and above partisanship. Thomas Jefferson (president from 1801 to 1809), in contrast, acted without congressional approval a number of times, such as when he made the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Andrew Jackson (president from 1829 to 1837) was another assertive president and was the first to appeal directly to the average voter as a means of building support.
Abraham Lincoln (president from 1861 to 1865) took substantial control of the federal government in order to conduct the Civil War effectively. Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus and other civil liberties, for example, and also spent money without congressional authorization. After the war, however, Congress reasserted itself as the dominant branch of the federal government.
At the start of the twentieth century, the president began to emerge as the key political actor in the federal government. Both Theodore Roosevelt (president from 1901 to 1909) and Woodrow Wilson (president from 1913 to 1921) believed in a strong presidency, one in which the president would be assertive and initiate federal policy. After Wilson left office, however, presidents returned to acting as clerks in chief until Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected in 1933 during the Great Depression.
Franklin Roosevelt (president from 1933 to 1945) permanently changed the nature of the American presidency. Elected during the Great Depression, Roosevelt expanded the size and scope of the federal government. As a result, the government became involved in many aspects of its citizens’ lives. FDR’s New Deal policies included social security, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Works Progress Administration, and several other programs designed to give jobs to the unemployed.
World War II furthered the scope of the president’s power as commander in chief: Many people thought that because the president was the person best positioned to lead the war effort, power should be concentrated in the president’s hands. During the war, for example, FDR curtailed civil liberties, nationalized industries to aid the war effort, and decided how the war would be waged. When the Cold War began shortly after the end of World War II, the next president, Harry S Truman (president from 1945 to 1953) continued FDR’s policies.
Presidents have assumed extraordinary powers in the areas of foreign and domestic policy since the 1930s. In the 1960s and 1970s, a number of people decried the “imperial presidency,” which they felt threatened democracy by giving too much power to one person. The imperial presidency may have peaked with Richard Nixon (president from 1969 to 1974). In the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, Congress took a more assertive role in government, and the power of the president receded. In particular, Congress began an active campaign of oversight, investigating the president’s actions and demanding more information from the executive branch.
Since September 11th, the War on Terror has created new concerns about the power of the presidency. Many people feel that President George W. Bush (president from 2001 to 2009) has taken too much power as well. Others feel that Bush is doing what is necessary to win the War on Terror. It remains to be seen whether the office of the president will decrease in strength.