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Founding Principles: American Governance in Theory and Action (Chapter 4--The Presidency)

13 minutes

(Describer) Titles: Founding Principles - American Governance in Theory and Action. Chapter Four: The Presidency.

(Describer) A man stands inside in front of tall windows.

Hi, I'm Andy Rudalevige-- Professor of Government at Bowdoin College. Welcome back to beautiful Brunswick, Maine; Hubbard Hall on campus; and Founding Principles-- our series about how the American government works. We pick up with the presidency. The President of the United States is called leader of the free world, most powerful person on earth. A story about Lyndon Johnson walking towards a helicopter during a visit to Vietnam-- a soldier realized LBJ was headed the wrong way. "Sir, that's not your helicopter," he says. Johnson turns, towering over him, and responds with a better Texas drawl than I can muster, "Son, they're all my helicopters." Yet the classic academic work on presidential power kicks off with a startling preface-- that the book is actually about presidential weakness. And it's right. So what's the deal? As usual, the answer comes from the Constitution and from American history.

(Describer) Against a parchment background, title: Chapter Four - The Presidency.

Why do we have a president in the first place? Because not having one didn't work very well. The governing document that preceded the Constitution, the Articles of Confederation, had only one branch-- the Congress. This didn't work. The framers of the Constitution realized that we needed a separate independent executive to make sure national policy actually got implemented. The problem was, their experience with executive power was dismal. They had nightmares about King George III, not to mention his royal colonial governors. The Declaration of Independence charges the British crown with despotism-- the King was aiming at the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states. On the other extreme, the governors created after 1776 and the various new state constitutions were mostly pretty weak-- unable to stand up to their legislative counterparts and protect individual rights. James Madison warned that legislatures could be just as tyrannical as kings, creating a vortex that would suck in personal freedoms. Therefore, as Alexander Hamilton put it... That was the key question-- the Goldilocks question, if you will. The King was too strong; the state governors too weak. What would be just right? Okay, quiz time. Name the powers of the presidency in the Constitution. Commander in chief of the armed services--good. He--someday she-- can pardon people, right. He can appoint people, can negotiate treaties, veto laws, right. After that? After that, it gets harder. The President has to give Congress information of the State of the Union-- more duty than power. She gets to receive foreign dignitaries--exciting. She may demand written advice from heads of the executive departments. That pretty much is it. It's not a long list. Most comes with an asterisk. Appointments have to be approved by the Senate. Treaties too by a 2/3 vote. Vetoes require Congress to pass a bill first. The operations of the executive branch require funding. The power of the purse rests with Congress. Congress can even fire the President through the impeachment process. One wild card-- the executive power is vested in a single president of the United States. Both parts matter. Some wanted a president by committee, after all. But what is the executive power exactly? The Constitution never defines it. In short, the Constitution gives the President what Alexander Hamilton called adequate powers but hardly royal ones. Think of the title of the office. The President is supposed to be a presider, not so much the decider. As one political scientist would write in his book, Presidential Power, "Presidential weakness is my underlying theme. Weakness is what I see." The upshot is simple. The history of the American presidency is how our presidents have tried to overcome that weakness. It's a long story. There are at least four broad strategies they've used. First is the creative use of the limited formal powers. Remember that duty to tell Congress about the State of the Union? That turned into a prime-time televised event-- allowing the President to set the agenda for the coming year. Take the veto. The earliest presidents felt they should only veto things they thought were unconstitutional. Andrew Jackson, John Tyler, and others set the precedent of vetoing things they thought were bad ideas. We accept veto bargaining as a normal part of presidential relations with Congress. Another example is the presidential requirement to faithfully execute the law. Given the ambiguity in statutory language, presidents have expressed that faith in the way that coincides with the way they would like the law to be implemented. Think about President Obama's administrative treatment of the Affordable Care Act or President Bush's interpretation of the Clean Air Act. A second strategy is what has been called the art of going public. Both tactics and technology have led to a more visible and responsive presidency than the framers likely envisioned. Originally, presidents didn't think they should speak directly to the people. It became clear that Teddy Roosevelt was right... Now TR meant a good pulpit, as in... He and others quickly realized they could use the stature of their platform to bully their political opponents into compliance. New technologies-- radio, television, cable, satellite links, and the internet and social media-- have made it easier for presidents to communicate with people outside the Washington Beltway. FDR's fireside chats, JFK's live televised press conferences, Ronald Reagan's speeches, Barack Obama's webcasts-- all these are ways presidents have tried to leverage public opinion to gain support. Going public has become a key tool for all presidents-- even those who weren't, like Reagan, great communicators. This is so important that some political scientists call it the equivalent of a second constitution. A third strategy might be termed the institutional presidency-- meaning that the presidency these days is much more than the President alone. Presidents have built up a large staff apparatus. Depending on how you count, there are 1,500 people doing substantive work within the office of the President, which includes not only the White House but Office of Management and Budget and National Security Council. Compare that to the 19th century when presidents had a secretary or two-- often a nephew who couldn't get another job. Having these helpers allows presidents to get information and advice they need to take on complex policy issues. Keep in mind, on paper at least, more than 2 and 1/2 million people work for the President across the executive branch.

(Describer) ...in cabinet departments.

That's 2 and 1/2 million resources for the chief executive to utilize. It's a hefty management task. The job of White House staff is to give the president a chance at knowing what people are doing and get them doing what the president wants them to. To do that, presidents politicize. They appoint people who are loyal to them all across the bureaucracy. And they also centralize-- coordinating key tasks, like budgeting and legislative relations in the White House, away from the departments and agencies. Thinking about that wider executive branch brings us to our fourth strategy of overcoming weakness via that elusive phrase noted earlier--the executive power. Not surprisingly, presidents all the way back to George Washington have tried to define that power pretty expansively. The argument comes down to this--can presidents only do what they are specifically authorized to do in statute or in the Constitution? Or by contrast, can presidents do pretty much anything, unless the Constitution or the law says they can't? Over time, the second argument has gained a lot of ground. To some extent, we see this in domestic policy, especially as presidents seek to avoid conflicts with a polarized Congress by acting unilaterally-- for instance, through executive orders. But perhaps the most crucial examples come from the war powers. Remember, the authority to declare war is granted directly to Congress. "This system will not hurry us into war," Pennsylvania's James Wilson told his state's ratification convention in 1787. ..."to involve us in such distress." But presidents have long used the American armed forces without congressional authorization-- sometimes for small police actions, sometimes for full-scale conflict, even for the Korean War. More recent examples include American military action in places like Kosovo, Libya, and Syria. And in wartime, presidents also claim additional powers of command-- to interrogate combatants in very aggressive ways; to hold trials in military tribunals rather than in civilian courts; to order widespread surveillance of telephone calls or electronic communications; even to use drones that target and kill hostile actors abroad, even if they are American citizens. So presidential powers these days certainly seem more than adequate. The modern presidency has many potent tools and a global reach. It's hard to deny that the presidency has gone beyond its original constitutional boundaries. In that sense at least, it is fair to call it imperial. Even so, the power of the presidency remains conditional. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson put it this way... So you might say that an imperial presidency requires an invisible Congress. The framework of the Constitution hasn't changed, so Congress always retains the power to rein the presidency in. Every president winds up frustrated by decisions made in other parts of the Constitutional system, whether on Capitol Hill, the Supreme Court, or a statehouse. Still, when those others don't push back, presidential power ratchets forward. We probably can't do without a strong presidency in today's globalized, crisis-ridden world. The framers were right about needing an effective executive branch that could act with what Hamilton called decision and dispatch. They were also right that unchecked authority could be dangerous, that emergency powers tend to breed emergencies. Our history is good evidence for another observation of Justice Jackson's... Keeping the executive there requires that ambition continues to counteract ambition, as the Constitution assumes; keeping the President not too strong, not too weak, but just right.

(Describer) At the windows...

There is one more branch of government-- also a product of ambition and history. We turn to Article III-- home of the judicial branch-- what Alexander Hamilton called the least dangerous branch. But was he right? See you next time. Accessibility provided by the U.S. Department of Education.

(Describer) Titles: Written and Preformed by Andrew Rudalevige, Thomas Brackett Reed Professor of Government, Bowdoin College. Editorial and Production Assistance by Abigail McBride and Scott Schaiberger. Special Thanks to Clayton Rose, President, Bowdoin College. Special Thanks to Barry Mills, President Emeritus, Bowdoin College. A logo depicts a lower-case letter E in a purple shield with 1880 just above it. Beside it, title: produced by Emerson Productions. Bowdoin. Accessibility provided by the US Department of Education.

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Is the president the most powerful leader in the free world? In this episode, Dr. Andrew Rudalevige discusses the role of the executive branch. He explains the role and responsibilities of the president as outlined in the Constitution. Part of the "Founding Principles: American Governance in Theory and Action" series.

Media Details

Runtime: 13 minutes

Founding Principles: American Governance in Action
Episode 1
13 minutes
Grade Level: 10 - 12
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