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.