The rise of presidential power

GEORGE WASHINGTON would be astounded at the power in the White House today. Then again, he might not be. When the newly independent American states set up a confederation government in the early 1780s, they virtually omitted the executive. They feared that another George III - the king whose troops they had just defeated - might emerge to threaten their liberties. But by 1787, sobered by experience and calmer in spirit, the framers of the Constitution created a chief executive and vested him with limited but independent powers.

They still made their priorities clear. Article I established the Congress. Article II, which created the presidency, was brief in its grant of executive powers. To ensure a check on executive abuse, Congress was given the power to override a presidential veto and also to impeach the president. And Congress alone was empowered to declare war.

Washington, who accepted the presidency with reluctance, nonetheless set the pattern for a vigorous executive. He organized a permanent national government, took command of 13,000 troops to put down a tax rebellion in western Pennsylvania, adopted a stand of neutrality in the war between Britain and France - thus extending presidential authority into the area of foreign policy - and then voluntarily stepped down from office at the end of his second term, in 1797.

President Washington, however, had just three Cabinet departments - State, War, and Treasury. President Jefferson, elected in 1800, managed fewer than 2,000 federal employees.

Today, as a result of the increased role of the United States in global affairs, a changing economy, and the rise of the ``administrative state,'' the authority and responsibilities of the president are incomparably greater. The president today presides over 13 executive departments and 2.7 million civilian employees. He has become the most visible and influential figure, not only in the United States, but in the world.

``The president is a different being now - like a corporation,'' says Robert Nisbet, a historian.

Most of the accretion of presidential power has taken place in the last 50 years. In the first century of the republic, the presidency, despite Washington's strong start, was overshadowed by Congress. But even then there were instances of strong assertion of leadership. Jefferson made the Louisiana Purchase without constitutional authority. Andrew Jackson boosted presidential power by recruiting his own bureaucracy through the spoils system. Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and other constitutional rights during the Civil War. And Theodore Roosevelt foreshadowed today's manipulation of the news media by using the White House as a ``bully pulpit.''

But it was Franklin Roosevelt who launched the modern presidency in pushing through a package of reforms to lift the country out of the Great Depression. Congress obliged the President, creating executive departments and agencies to deal with the explosion of government programs.

``The framers did not foresee such power in domestic and economic policy,'' says Thomas E. Cronin, a political scientist at Colorado College. ``We were an agrarian society then and the states were expected to deal with [social and economic problems].''

Technological changes also played a role in enhancing presidential power. With the development of sophisticated weapons, as well as speedy communications and transportation, the military acquired the capacity to wreak massive destruction in a matter of hours. The president's position as commander in chief, with its responsibility to act in the national interest, became dominant. Going to the people AS international events intruded on the nation - World War II, the cold war, the Korean war, Vietnam - Congress ceded more and more authority to the president. Such domestic developments as the civil rights movement further expanded his role.

The electronic revolution, too, has had enormous effect on the presidency. President William McKinley rode through the streets of Washington 90 years ago so people could see him. Today presidents can be instantly visible to millions through television; they have the ability to go over the heads of Congress directly to the people.

FDR skillfully employed radio fireside chats to drum up support for the New Deal. President Reagan has relied heavily on a masterly use of television and careful choreography of his speeches and appearances, with the result that he has been able more often than Congress to tell his story - and to control the press. As Sen. Dale Bumpers of Arkansas comments, ``The presidency is the most powerful institution, because he coopts the three networks.''

Over two centuries the presidency has evolved to the point where the duties of the incumbent appear overwhelming. He is chief executive, managing a huge bureaucracy and executing the laws of the land; commander in chief of the armed forces; chief diplomat, conducting foreign policy; chief legislator, guiding Congress in lawmaking; head of his party; and world leader. By law, he is responsible for promoting national security and ensuring economic prosperity.

His role as chief of state, performing ceremonial functions and serving as a symbol of unity that holds the nation together, has grown particularly important for today's pluralistic America. ``In our fragmented society we need a symbol more than ever,'' says John Gardner, an author and former Cabinet officer. ``We have so little group identity today that we reach for the president.''

The president has also become the nation's chief communicator and persuader. An important part of the president's task is to cut through the complexity of contemporary issues. ``Americans are responsive to things through television, so only the president can help the public understand the issues,'' says Elmer B. Staats, a former US comptroller general.

Many political observers conclude that power has shifted from Congress to the presidency. ``The executive branch is the major policy developer,'' says Rep. William H. Gray III of Pennsylvania. ``We can't raise revenue without the president. Only when the president is not popular does Congress's power increase.''

But, as the framers of the Constitution intended, the president continues to be hemmed in by many forces, including the checks and balances built into the federal system. Some analysts suggest his power is more imagined than real.

``Presidential government is an illusion - an illusion that misleads presidents no less than the media and the American public, an illusion that often brings about the destruction of the very men who hold the office,'' writes Hugh Heclo, a Harvard scholar. Constraints on the president OVER the past 200 years the system has frequently functioned to restrain assertive presidents. When Franklin Roosevelt tried to ``pack'' the Supreme Court with more justices so as to secure judicial support for his New Deal programs, Congress, backed by public opinion, thwarted him.

After the bitter experience of Vietnam, where a succession of presidents deepened American involvement in a hopeless war, Congress passed the War Powers Resolution to curb the president's unilateral power to involve US forces in armed hostilities. Congress has also cracked down on the impoundment of appropriated funds by the president and often blocks him in budgetary matters and foreign affairs.

Presidents complain that Congress has arrogated too much power in foreign policy, often frustrating the conduct of diplomacy. But the framers clearly reserved a voice for the legislative branch in overseas affairs, including the requirement that treaties be approved by a two-thirds majority of the Senate.

The right of Congress to impeach and convict a president for ``high crimes and misdemeanors'' also remains an ultimate restraint on presidential power. Congress has exercised the right only once, when the House impeached Andrew Johnson in 1868 (he was later acquitted in a trial by the Senate).

But American republican democracy experienced one of its most severe tests at the time of the Watergate scandal in the '70s. Although anguished by the process of indicting Richard Nixon on charges of obstruction of justice, the House of Representatives proceeded with impeachment hearings. When President Nixon realized he would be impeached and tried by the Senate, he resigned his office.

Congress reasserted the fundamental principle that government operates under the rule of law. It also put a brake on a decade of growing presidential assertiveness. Today, in the wake of the Iran-contra affair, it is again exercising its duty to determine whether President Reagan and others in the executive branch have acted above the law.

The Supreme Court has likewise emerged as a strong counterweight to the presidency. In modern times it has invalidated parts of the New Deal, ruled against Mr. Nixon's effort to block publication of the Pentagon Papers, and paved the way for Nixon's resignation by turning down his use of ``executive privilege'' to quash a subpoena of White House tapes dealing with Watergate.

Not only Congress and the judiciary place constraints on the president, however. So does the government bureaucracy, or what has been dubbed the ``administrative state.'' The bureaucracy is not specified in the Constitution. Congress has created this vast administrative creature, establishing Cabinet departments and a plethora of agencies, from the Bureau of Standards to the National Institutes of Health.

Tension inevitably develops between the White House and the Cabinet departments. Because many federal employees owe their jobs to Congress, close alliances form between members of Congress, the career bureaucrats in the executive branch, and the massive number of interest groups trying to influence the bureaucrats. Every new president expects to ``take charge,'' only to find that these departments are virtually beyond his control.

``Government is just too big,'' says Treasury Secretary James Baker III. ``The president is beset with too many, often conflicting, opinions, and he spends an inordinate time resolving differences among his advisers and stroking advisers who are there because their existence has been legislated.'' The `institutional presidency' GIVEN the cumbersomeness and divided loyalties of the bureaucracy, it is not surprising that a new support system evolved to assist the president. In 1936 FDR set up the Executive Office of the President (EOP), comprising the White House Office and the Bureau of the Budget (today the Office of Management and Budget).

This was the beginning of the ``institutional presidency,'' as historian Everett Carll Ladd terms it.

Like Topsy, EOP too has grown. It includes among its 10 units the National Security Council, the Council of Economic Advisers, and the Office of Policy Development. Whereas President Hoover, elected in 1928, had fewer than 100 executive assistants to help him, Eisenhower had 600 appointed aides and Nixon, 2,000. President Reagan has succeeded in cutting the executive staff, but even he manages more than 1,500 employees.

The dilemma now is how to keep this huge support staff from inundating the president, who hears a cacophony of voices wanting to give him advice. Therefore, the roles of the White House staff, which now numbers more than 330, and especially of the chief of staff are crucial to protecting the president's political interests and keeping executive leadership focused on the central agenda.

``Because the departments become advocacy-driven, the White House staff has to be strong, or centrifugal forces pull the administration apart,'' says Stuart Eizenstadt, a top adviser in the Carter White House. ``The chief of staff has to impose the political agenda on the executive branch.''

Has the job of governing grown too large?

Many thought so during a period of national insecurity after Vietnam and Watergate. With the assassination of John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson's decision not to run again, owing to opposition to his Vietnam policy, and Nixon's resignation, the US presidency appeared to be in trouble.

President Gerald Ford helped begin the healing process, but his was only an interim leadership. His successor, Jimmy Carter, demystified the presidency. But though Carter piled up an impressive record, in the eyes of many observers, he went down to defeat after four years as American hostages languished in Iran and inflation roared out of control. Cynicism about government grew.

But the American system proved resilient. Like some other presidents after periods of chaos and uncertainty, Reagan - with Rooseveltian flair - seemed to reaffirm the presidency. Until overtaken in his sixth year by the scandal involving the covert sale of arms to Iran, Reagan helped restore public confidence, in part by demonstrating that a president can govern without a sense of exhaustion and burden.

Even liberals acknowledged Reagan's political and communication skills. Through good legislative liaison and consummate use of television, Reagan achieved many of his first-term goals.

The key to Reagan's early managerial success lay in part in getting control of the Cabinet departments. The White House gave the departments their agenda through a system of Cabinet councils (now down to only two), using them to keep secondary issues from bothering the President and enabling him to focus on the two or three issues deemed most important.

Following Nixon's strategy, Reagan tightened control by politicizing the Cabinet departments, appointing ideologically compatible people to the secondary as well as the top posts. Reagan's supporters say that any president must get a handle on the bureaucracy through political appointees.

``Even then it's very difficult to get the bureaucracy to implement policy,'' comments Treasury Secretary Baker.

But many observers regret the trend away from establishment of a strong civil service like that in Britain or France. Reagan has in fact played on animosity to government.

``The spoils system came back with Nixon,'' says Harvard scholar Richard Neustadt, ``and it will probably continue, because the White House will not want to surrender control.'' Tripping over success

To the nation's dismay, after six years of what was widely regarded as strong leadership, the presidency is again weakened, this time because of the Iran debacle. What had been hailed as an efficient style of presidential management turned out to be too passive in the second term. Hubris and a kind of insouciance developed at the White House, where the President reveled in his popularity while aides pursued policies that flouted the law and failed to give him proper advice.

Political scientists observe that presidents often run into difficulty after a big victory, such as an overwhelming electorate mandate. ``One of the things going for a president is the capacity to create and use illusion - about himself and his office,'' says Dr. Heclo, ``and people believe it and the world cooperates with it. But one of the greatest dangers is when the president buys the illusion. Then you start seeing excesses.''

To evaluate a president's political capacities, furthermore, is not to look at the substance of his policies or to assess how well or poorly he uses his leadership. Reagan has enjoyed immense popularity. During his tenure, national security has been stiffened, inflation has been brought under control, and the tax system has been reformed, with the help of Democratic and Republican lawmakers.

But, the Iran misadventure aside, the jury on the Reagan presidency is still out.

Many Americans are alarmed about the budget and trade deficits and a national debt that has doubled in six years. Others worry about the growth of the military establishment and the overriding emphasis given private enrichment over a sense of civic good and concern for the underprivileged. Even members of his own party suggest that President Reagan has not used his leadership enough to overcome economic problems or to pursue creative initiatives, especially in foreign policy.

``The President's unique power is with the public; then he should be working with Congress to shape policy,'' says Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum of Kansas. ``Government has not shrunk in a constructive way .... And we've lost bipartisanship in foreign policy making.'' Public opposes amendment

``Reagan has not used his popularity to break the logjam,'' says Kevin Phillips, a conservative analyst.

``In 1988 we'll be looking for a tougher president rather than a genial one,'' comments Horace Busby, a Democratic political expert.

Despite affection for Reagan, Americans appear to be satisfied with the limits the Constitution places on a president's tenure. The 1988 presidential race has generated a flurry of interest in repealing the 22nd Amendment, which limits a president to two terms in office. Some politicians and scholars favor repeal.

But public opinion polls show that a vast majority of the American people oppose such a move. Perhaps they sense that, if the presidency continues to grow - and chief executives continue to display the human frailties that the framers sought to keep in check - the 22nd Amendment will turn out to be prophetically wise. Tomorrow: Congress - chaos vs. consensus. Further reading: The State of the Presidency, by Thomas E. Cronin: Little, Brown and Company (1980). Presidential Power, by Richard E. Neustadt: Wiley John and Sons (1980). The Twilight of the Presidency, by George E. Reedy: World (1970). The American Presidency, by Clinton Rossiter: Harcourt, Brace and Company (1960). - 30 -{et

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to The rise of presidential power
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today