John Hart Chapter on the Presidency

The president: powers and power

The nature of executive power (From Governing America Robert Singh/John Hart)

Perhaps the best example of the constitutional ambiguity over the scope of presidential power occurs in the very first line of Article II: 'The Executive power shall be vested in a President of the United States'. It leaves no doubt about who has the executive power, but nowhere in the Constitution is the term 'executive power' defined. Compare this with the opening line of Article I which delineates the power of Congress: 'All legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States'. The Constitution gives to Congress, not all legislative power (as it gives all executive power to the president), but only those specific legislative powers that are 'herein granted'. The powers of Congress are specifically enumerated in Article L section 8. The president, too, is given some enumerated powers, but it is doubtful whether the Founding Fathers intended these to be the sum total of the executive power. In all, the president is given eleven powers, most of them ill-defined—which can often be very useful for a president—and most subject to checks and balances by other branches of government. Article II also gives the president two duties—`to take care that the laws be faithfully executed' and `to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution'. Both are, in essence, broad grants of power, particularly in times of national crisis, and would give the president constitutional authority to go far beyond the minimal executive powers enumerated in Article II.

The inadequacy of presidential constitutional powers.

Few presidents have thought that their constitutionally enumerated powers adequately matched the responsibilities of their office, and the expansion of presidential power has been an abiding characteristic of the presidency. Thomas Jefferson, for example, had no specific constitutional power to make the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, nor did Abraham Lincoln have the power to suspend habeas corpus or emancipate the slaves, as he did in 1863. The same could be said of Theodore Roosevelt's decision to build the Panama Canal, Richard Nixon's decision to impose wage and price controls, or Jimmy Carter’s instigation of a boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games. Presidents have either stretched the meaning of their constitutional powers or relied upon extra-constitutional authority to achieve their goals. William G Howell in Power Without Persuasion argues that Presidents have far more scope to set the political agenda and for the exercise of unilateral power than is suggested by Neustadt’s famous ‘Power to Persuade’ model.

They have been able to do so primarily because the ambiguity of Article II gave them enough flexibility and room for manoeuvre. One can only guess whether or not the Founding Fathers deliberately intended future presidents to strengthen the scope of presidential power once the immediate arguments over the Constitution had been forgotten; never-the-less, the narrow range of executive powers enumerated in the Constitution serves as an inadequate guide to what contemporary presidents do in office and how they are able to do it.

The sources of presidential power

The Constitution

Presidential power derives from a number of sources. The Constitution itself is still an important basis of Presidential power, not so much for what it says literally, but rather for what presidents have done with the vague grants of power written into Article II. The ‘commander-in-chief' clause, for example, has been routinely used by modem presidents to justify their dominance in the making of national security policy and, particularly, their usurpation of the congressional power to declare war. Only Congress has the power to declare war, but that hasn't stopped a number of presidents from using their power as commander-in-chief to commit American troops to fight in what are obviously wars, irrespective of constitutional niceties. The Korean War was never 'declared' by Congress, nor was the Vietnam War. Did the Founding Fathers intend the commander-in-chief clause to be so expansive? Probably not, but presidents have not been constrained by the intent of those who drafted the Constitution over 200 years ago.

Presidential interpretation

The way in which presidents themselves have interpreted presidential power explains much about the development of the presidency. The classic example of the 'expansive' or 'activist' interpretation occurs in the autobiography of President Theodore Roosevelt, in which he expressed his belief that the growth of the president's responsibilities—`anything that the needs of the nation demanded`—justified his expansion of presidential power, except where the Constitution or statute law expressly prohibited any presidential initiative. It was a conception of presidential prerogative shared by many other activist twentieth-century presidents, such as Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson. But it was not a view shared by all American presidents. In fact, Theodore Roosevelt's successor, William Howard Taft, directly challenged Roosevelt's activist conception of presidential over. Taft had a narrower, more passive view of the powers and duties of the president, a view also held by some of his successors like Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover. The debate between the activist and passive (or progressive and traditionalist) interpretations of the presidency is now less potent than it once was. The Taftian conception of presidential power seems to have lost out to the Rooseveltian view: with the possible exception of Dwight Eisenhower, there has not been a Taftian president in the White House since the days of Herbert Hoover. Today, even politically conservative presidents need to be institutionally activist in order to pursue their policy goals.

America as a superpower

A third reason why presidential power has expanded beyond the enumerated powers in the Constitution in the latter half of the 20th Century is the nature of American foreign policy, when the US renounced its isolationist stance and began a new global, interventionist approach to foreign affairs as a world superpower. The confrontation between the US and the Soviet Union significantly enhanced the president's constitutional power as commander-in-chief. Foreign policy and national security policy became synonymous, and Congress was content to stand back and let presidents take the lead in managing the nuclear risk and cold-war threats. Congressional acquiescence over the direction of national security policy gave rise to what historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. labelled the imperial presidency —a presidency that was beginning 'to overwhelm the traditional separation of powers' (1973). On occasions, Congress has attempted to claim back its prerogatives and powers in foreign affairs and national security. In 1973, it passed the War Powers Resolution over President Nixon's veto, which was meant to curb the president's power to commit US troops to hostilities without the consent of Congress. No president, however, has accepted the legitimacy of the War Powers Resolution, on the grounds that it infringes their powers as commander-in-chief, and the War Powers Resolution seems not to have constrained the ability of successive presidents to commit American troops to theatres of war. The cold war with the Soviet Union has now given way to the War on Terrorism, but the president remains the dominant force in the making of national security policy, and presidential power in this respect remains substantially greater than the powers given to the office by the Founding Fathers. Public opinion has also played its part in enhancing presidential power and placing the president centre stage in national security matters. When the United States is under threat, public opinion rallies around the flag and presidential popularity suddenly soars, as it did for President Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961, for President Carter when American hostages were taken in Tehran in 1979, for President Bush senior when he initiated the Gulf War in 1991, and for his son after the events of 11 September 2001. The combination of a crisis and a presidential popularity rating at 80 or 90 percent is the worst time for Congress to try to challenge the power of the presidency. Issues about constitutionality and process get lost in the enormity of the threat and the overwhelming public support for the one national leader that the Constitution gives to the people of the United States.

The growth of government

The expansion of government activity has also enhanced the power of the president. During the course of the twentieth century, the federal government decided to take on responsibility for social security, unemployment, health care, education, urban development, racial desegregation, environmental protection, and a host of other issues. In most instances that meant increased responsibility for the president and with the increased responsibility went increased power. In some cases, Congress seemed all too willing to hand over to the president responsibility for complex problems of domestic policy for which it had no answer and it is hardly surprising that the presidency became the focal point for those groups and interests expecting some government response.

The growth of the mass media

Another explanation for the expansion of presidential power beyond the confines of the Constitution has been the growth of the mass media. The invention of radio and then television provided presidents with an immediate link to their national constituency. It gave them the means to reach out to the country at large and mobilize public opinion in support of their goals, something that could not be done very easily before the development of the electronic media. Television in particular has given presidents a new kind of power base and a tool that can be used to overcome some of the institutional barriers that stand in the way of presidential leadership.

Institutional support

Finally, the American presidency has acquired more power than the mere powers granted in the Constitution because successive presidents have been given the institutional capacity, in the form of an Executive Office of the President, to enable them to do what they could not possibly do on their own. The size and nature of the staff support that presidents have available to them has been a major resource over the last fifty years or so. Indeed, it is so significant in the development of the presidency that it requires a fuller discussion further on.

The reality of presidential power The US Constitution neither depicts the full extent of the power of the presidency in the twenty-first century nor ensures that presidents will necessarily have the ability to exercise the powers they are given. Most of the meagre powers allocated to the president in Article II are subject to checks and balances, and depend on congressional support and approval. Even broad grants of power to the president—the executive power clause, for example—do not guarantee that presidents will necessarily be able to overcome the obstructions and opposition that they will inevitably encounter from within their own federal bureaucracy. The 'iron triangle' formed by permanent career bureaucrats working with the equally permanent membership of relevant congressional committees and the professional lobbyists who staff the interest groups in Washington can be a formidable network when in opposition to the president's policies.

'Powers are no guarantee of power', wrote Professor Richard Neustadt (1960) in what became one of the most important books ever written on the American presidency. Neustadt's book grapples with the power problem of the president. It is built around a remark once made by President Harry Truman: 'I sit here all day trying to persuade people to do the things they ought to have sense enough to do without my persuading them. That's all the powers of the president amount to.' Neustadt gives Truman's statement some analytical backbone. He does not dismiss the formal powers given to the president in the Constitution, neither does he think they are insignificant, but he does argue that the formal powers of the president are rarely enough. They do little more than enable him to be a clerk. Neustadt argues that a president's power ultimately depends on his personal capacity to influence the conduct of those who make up the government, and that a president's personal influence becomes the mark of his leadership. The key point that Neustadt makes is that it is not easy for a president to exercise effective power in Washington just because he is the president. Presidential power is limited, and it requires people with extraordinary leadership ability to wield presidential power effectively. Presidential power is the power to persuade, argues Neustadt, and the ability to persuade rests on the president's public prestige and professional reputation among governing elites. Powers and power are two different things when one talks about the American presidency.

Neustadt emphasizes the weakness of the presidency partly to make clear what is necessary for a strong president who is the centre of leadership the American political system. But more recently other political scientists have begun to stress that the American political system of government is not a presidency centred system. It is, as Charles Jones stresses ‘a separated system’ and an exclusive focus on the presidency, he warns, can lead to a seriously distorted picture of how the national government does its work’ (Jones 1994)

Key points

• The Constitutional powers of the president are minimal, and the Constitution is a poor guide to the real nature of presidential power.

• Presidents have stretched the meaning of their constitutional powers or relied upon extra-constitutional authority to achieve their goals, and have been able to do so because the ambiguity of Article II gave them enough flexibility and room for manoeuvre.

• The expansion of presidential power has been aided by the willingness of some presidents to interpret their role liberally and expansively, by the changing nature of American foreign policy, by public support in times of crises, by the growth of government, by the rise of the mass media, and by the creation of institutional staff support for the president.

The presidential branch

One of the most significant developments in the history of the American presidency has been the growth of the presidential staff. American presidents now have a formidable resource at their disposal to assist them in managing the executive branch of government and their relationship with Congress, the media, interest groups, state governors, the national party organization, and other important clients of the contemporary presidency. Presidential staff are also instrumental in developing the president's policy proposals, promoting his public image, and, for the first term at least, providing the president with an unofficial re-election campaign team.

During the nineteenth and early twentieth century Congress had been slow and somewhat reluctant to provide the president with sufficient staff assistance. Nineteenth-century presidential memoirs and diaries are full of complaints about how they and their office were overburdened by routine and volumous administrative chores. Even when FDR moved in to the White House in 1933, the staff system he inherited was small, rudimentary, and hopelessly inadequate for the kind of presidency that Roosevelt was about to launch.

But Roosevelt was prepared to make an issue of the need for more appropriate staff support for the president, which he did by establishing a prestigious, hand-picked, three-person committee to investigate the state of the institutional presidency and make necessary recommendations. The report of the President's Committee on Administrative Management (popularly known as the Brownlow Report after the committee's chairman, Louis Brown-low) was to become a landmark document of the modern presidency. The Committee reported in 1937 and recommended the creation of a substantially enhanced staff for the president in the form of an Executive Office of the President (EXOP). This was to house the principal management, planning, and budgeting agencies of the government under the direct control of the president, and it also provided an enlarged personal staff for the president in a separate division of the EXOP to be known as the White House Office. Brownlow gave Roosevelt exactly what he needed to drag an antiquated presidency belatedly into the twentieth century. Congress eventually approved the staffing Proposals when it passed the Reorganization Act of The Executive Office of the President has expanded considerably in both size and power since its inception in 1939, and has established itself at the centre of decision-making within the executive branch of government. It provides a very flexible structure of staff assistance to the president because its divisions can be disbanded when they have outlived their usefulness and new staff units, serving different purposes, can be added when needed. A variety of offices, more than forty in all, have been housed in the EXOP since 1939 and only a few have survived the administration that created them. Thus, the structure that Brownlow proposed has the capacity to meet the staffing needs of a succession of different presidents, operating in different circumstances, with different ideas about managing the government of the United States. The EXOP is currently made up of eleven divisions. It has an annual budget in excess of three hundred million dollars and a staff of over 1,600. The scope of the EXOP is now more far-reaching than originally envisaged by the Brownlow Committee, which saw it primarily as a tool to help the president manage the executive branch of government.

The contemporary EXOP is broadly engaged in the whole range of policy advice, policy-making, policy implementation, and political strategy, and as a consequence its work necessarily overlaps, second guesses, and sometimes conflicts with the work done in the executive branch departments and agencies. So, although the EXOP has given the president a very significant and powerful staff resource, it has also created some tension and division within the executive branch, such that the EXOP can often be in competition with the departments and agencies in a struggle to control and determine the direction of public policy. Indeed, the increasing power of the EXOP has been at the expense of the department and agencies, such that Nelson W. Polsby coined the term `the presidential branch' to describe a presidential staff resource that has become a de facto separate branch of government operating in Washington (Polsby 1983). While the establishment of the EXOP has given presidents the capacity to do things they would not be able to do on their own, it has also been a controversial development that has got the presidency into trouble on more than one occasion. The presidential staff, particularly the senior staffers in the White House office, have become powerful political players in Washington, and sometimes their ambition, enthusiasm, and drive has made them less sensitive than they ought to be to other political players in Washington. They speak on behalf of the president, they interpose themselves between the president and cabinet members, they make decisions, they issue orders, and the heady atmosphere of working in the White House leads some of them to forget that they should be exercising power on behalf of the president rather than themselves. There have been occasions when cabinet members have resigned because they came off second best in clashes with senior White House staffers, and there have been incidents like Watergate and the Iran-Contra affair where the presidential staff have abused their power and position to the point of breaking the law.

Some commentators argued, particularly after Watergate, that the presidential staff had become too large, too powerful, too unaccountable, and beyond the control of the president. They blamed the senior presidential staffers for isolating the president, and they were critical of the growing number of presidential staff who were recruited from the president's election campaign organization, with little experience of government. A number of critics argued that the power and size of the presidential staff ought to be reduced and that policy-making responsibility, now centralized in the White House, should be handed back to the departments and agencies, and the Cabinet, not the presidential staff, should be the focus of decision-making in Washington. Successive presidents have, however, resisted all attempts to rein in their staff and reduce their powers. Notwithstanding, the dysfunctional con-sequences of a powerful presidential branch government in Washington, its expansion in size and power has occurred because presidents themselves have wanted it that way.

Presidents prefer to operate through close aides whose loyalty is unquestioned and who see things from the president's perspective more clearly than anyone else in Washington. No president since Watergate has tried to reverse the development of the presidential staff system. As far as they have been concerned, reliance on staff has served their purposes better than a system that relies on the cabinet or the executive branch departments.

Key points

• American presidents now have a formidable resource at their disposal in the form of an Executive Office of the President to assist them in managing the executive branch of government and their relationship with Congress, the media, interest groups, state governors, the national party organization, and other important clients of the contemporary presidency.

• The EXOP has expanded considerably in both size and power since its inception in 1939, and has established itself at the centre of decision-making within the executive branch of government.

• The development of the EXOP since 1939 has been controversial and has got the presidency into trouble on more than one occasion. Some critics have argued that the presidential staff has become too large, too powerful, too unaccountable, and beyond the control of the president. They suggest that its size and power be reduced.

• Presidents have not responded to these suggestions. On the contrary, the EXOP has developed into a quasi-separate presidential branch of government.

The presidency and its clientele.

In order to give direction to government, presidents always have to confront other parts of the political system that have their own sources of political power, sometimes different perspectives and positions on matters of public policy, and the potential to oppose the interests of the White House. While the American presidency stands out as the archetype of one-person leadership in modern democracies, it is not the case that American government is presidency-centred. Presidents compete for power in a pluralistic and fragmented political system structured by the constitutional doctrines of separation of powers and checks and balances. They must, as Neustadt says, bargain and persuade in order to mobilize support behind their Policies. Presidents, save in times of national crises, have little ability to command other governing elites to follow their lead. They can encounter outright opposition or just lack positive support. Either way, the weak foundations of presidential power provide a strong incentive for presidents to think about their relationships with other key institutions in a strategic and systematic way. The presidential staff, housed in the Executive Office of the President, helps them to do this to some extent, but, important as such institutional developments are, the EXOP alone does not guarantee that presidents will be able to overcome opposition that they will inevitably face during their term of office. This section examines the inherent problems that presidents encounter in their dealings with four key political forces that can so easily frustrate the aspirations of any occupant of the White House.

The executive branch of government- The Bureaucracy

A new president is chief executive in name only. The vague grant of executive power in the Constitution does not, in itself, provide the means by which presidents can ensure that those who staff the executive branch of government will necessarily follow presidential directions and leadership. There are significant structural barriers to presidential leader-ship of the bureaucracy, and it is relatively easy for bureaucrats to exploit those barriers to thwart the will of the president. The size of the federal government alone is a major impediment for the president. No CEO of any private corporation anywhere in the world has as many people working for them as has the president of the United States. In November 2001 there were 2,633,985 civilians employed in the executive branch—almost 3 per cent of the total US workforce. Moreover, many of those employees stay in their jobs for a considerably longer period of time than the president. Many senior career bureaucrats know that they will outlast the president, and they also know that they have the expertise, experience, continuity of service, and institutional memory that neither the president nor the presidential staff are likely to possess. And because of their 'permanence' in Washington, career bureaucrats inevitably build strong working relationships with other 'permanent' political actors in Washington, particularly the congressional committee members and staff that deal with their policy area and the key interest groups who demand to be heard in the making of public policy. This relationship is frequently referred to as 'an iron triangle' — a network of influence among permanent operatives in Washington that forms an independently powerful policy-making sub-system which presidents must break down if their views are to prevail. This is not to suggest that all career bureaucrats are hostile to presidents and cannot cooperate with presidential administrations. In fact, as Mark Carl Rom notes, the evidence tends to show that the permanent bureaucracy is responsive and does behave in a professional bipartisan way even when incoming administrations have been overtly suspicious about its political leanings and loyalties. But it is inevitable that organizations as large as government departments, working in cooperation with Congress and organized interests over a long period of time, will develop their own perspectives and positions on issues that can be at odds with the policies and programs of newly arrived presidents, often from outside the Washington establishment. New presidents do tend to be suspicious about the career bureaucracy, particularly when party control of the presidency has changed hands. When the Republican Richard Nixon entered the White House in 1969 after eight years of Democratic presidents, he expressed grave misgivings about the partisan leanings of the bureaucracy. When two political scientists subsequently put Nixon's suspicion to the test by examining the attitudes of 126 career civil servants handling welfare policy, they found, in this case, that Nixon's suspicions were justified, and concluded that even paranoids can have real enemies (Aberbach and Rockman 1976).

There are also significant structural impediments to presidential control of the executive branch of government. The departmental organization of the executive branch is not well matched to the nature of policy problems in contemporary America. Much public policy today transcends the clientele-oriented jurisdiction of individual departments and agencies. Overlapping jurisdiction between government departments on major policy issues is now the norm, and that tends to blur lines of responsibility, encourage turf fights between departments, and generate the need for new coordination and control mechanisms.

What tools do presidents have at their disposal to overcome these problems of managing the executive branch? In short, the answer is not many. There are two features of the system of presidential government in the United States that could help, but neither works very effectively. The cabinet is one mechanism that, in theory, could be seen as a counter to the centrifugal forces of the federal bureaucracy, but operates very differently from the Westminster-type cabinet system and is falling into disuse. While the president's cabinet is made up of the heads of the executive departments, they are rarely power brokers within the president's political party—indeed, presidents sometimes select one or more cabinet members from the opposing political party—and, because of the separation of powers, there is no place for cabinet members in the legislature. The theory of the Westminster-type cabinet does not apply to the United States. Presidents are not politically dependent on the support of the members of the cabinet, nor do they need cabinet approval for anything they do. The cabinet in the United States serves as little more than a symbol of the unity of the executive branch, but is functionally unable to enforce that unity in any politically practical sense. The members of the cabinet, as individuals, are the president's political appointees and agents in the departments, along with deputy secretaries, under-secretaries, and assistant secretaries. They are there to ensure the responsiveness of the career bureaucracy to the president's program, but, in order to be effective political executives in the departments and agencies, they have to divide their allegiance between the president and their departments. This weakens the potential for presidents to rely on their political appointees as agents of presidential control of the bureaucracy.

Presidents have been inventive in their attempts to control the executive branch. Some have tried structural reorganization—abolishing departments or merging several into a super-department (Department of Homeland Security)—in the hope of breaking down the iron triangles of influence and structuring the executive branch departments in a more rational way. But departmental reorganization requires congressional approval, and Congress has its own interests in the organization of the executive branch. Moreover, because the congressional committee structure generally mirrors that of the executive branch, the abolition of a department could well make the relevant congressional committee redundant. Congress is more willing to create new departments and very reluctant to abolish existing ones, thus limiting the scope of presidential reorganization schemes.

Presidents have been more successful with their efforts to politicize the civil service and make career bureaucrats more responsive to political leadership. The passage of the Civil Service Reform Act in 1978 created a Senior Executive Service and incentives (in the form of financial bonuses) for civil servants accepting less job security and greater political direction. That legislation also allows presidents to make a greater number of political appointments to the bureaucracy. One or two presidents have resorted to micro-managing the career bureaucracy through the use of personnel policy—punitive assignments and reassignments, performance appraisals, closure of regional offices, staff reductions, etc.—in the hope that these threats will make independent civil servants feel a little less independent. None of these techniques has worked very satisfactorily, and given the frustrations many presidents feel over the lack of bureaucratic responsiveness, it is perhaps not surprising that they have resorted to what Aaron Wildavsky (1969) once called 'salvation by staff', where presidents have basically given up trying to make the bureaucracy responsive to their leadership and instead have centralized power and decision-making in the White House and turned the Executive Office of the President into a counter-bureaucracy which does what presidents think the bureaucracy ought to be doing but isn't—hence the concept of a separate presidential branch of government.

President and Congress

Presidential influence over Congress is variable. Some presidents have been much more successful than others in getting Congress to enact their legislative proposals and some have operated in much more favourable circumstances than others. Some have worked with a Congress in which their own party has had control of both the House and the Senate (unified government), some have had to deal with one chamber under the control of the opposing party, and some went through the whole of their presidency with both the House and the Senate in the hands of the opposition (divided government). Sometimes, the political leadership of Congress changes during the course of a presidency. President Clinton, for example, began his presidency with the Democrats in control of the House and the Senate, only to lose it at the mid-term election two years later, leaving him to try to work with what turned out to be an aggressively hostile Republican majority in Congress. President George W. Bush had the benefits of unified government for just five months until Senator Jeffords of Vermont renounced his membership of the Republican majority and became an Independent who was willing to support the Democrats. It was enough to give control of the Senate to the Democrats, and that had an immediate and adverse effect on the president's legislative agenda.

There is no single formula for successful presidential relations with Congress, nor is there a totally satisfactory way of measuring presidential legislative success. The traditional methods that presidents have used to win support in Congress range from persuasion on the merits of an issue (and some-times arguments on the merits can prevail), to more political persuasion through various inducements like patronage, pork-barrelling, and other government largesse (although there is never enough largesse to meet the congressional demand), to an appeal over the heads of members of Congress directly to the public to create the kind of popular pressure that members of Congress cannot resist. None of the above can ensure success in Congress for any presidential initiative, and specific efforts to win individual votes have been supplemented by the development and expansion of an increasingly sophisticated congressional liaison staff within the White House Office whose job is to monitor routinely and systematically the members of Congress, respond to their needs wherever possible, act as the president's lobbyists on Capitol Hill, and foster a relationship that creates a generally favourable disposition towards presidential legislative initiatives .

The individual leadership skill of the president is also a factor in persuading Congress and securing its support; although there is a considerable difference of opinion amongst political scientists about how much difference presidential leadership skill makes to congressional voting behaviour (see Bond et al. 1996). What is agreed, however, is that the kind of legislative success that Franklin Roosevelt had with Congress—too often the benchmark against which his successors are unfairly measured—was the product of an unusual combination of circumstances (an economic depression and then a world war, a realigning election in 1932, an extremely popular president, a clear mandate, a coat-tails Congress, and huge presidential party majorities in the House and Senate) that are unlikely to be replicated. Legislating in the United States is a cooperative endeavour. As John Owens argues Congress is a 'co-equal partner'.

Presidents cannot be assured of support even when their own party forms the majority in both houses of Congress, as President Clinton discovered when he failed miserably to get Congress to pass his number one legislative priority, health care reform, in 1993 notwithstanding the fact that his own party had a majority of eighty-two seats in the House and fourteen in the Senate. The politics of Congress has changed considerably since the abnormal circum-stances of Franklin Roosevelt's presidency. Party discipline, although improving, is still weak, incumbency-protection behaviour among members of Congress is strong, and interest group influence on Congress, courtesy of campaign financing practices, has become a formidable obstacle to presidential initiative. Moreover, divided government is now the norm. In only six of the thirty years spanning 1972 to 2002 have the presidency and both houses of Congress been controlled by the same party. Contemporary presidents may still wish to lead Congress and set its legislative agenda, but they have to recognize that, in normal times absent a cri-sis, Congress demonstrates a remarkable resistance to presidential direction and presents formidable obstacles to presidential legislative success. Presidents have to cajole and bargain and persuade, but they may also have to accept compromise to avoid politically humiliating defeats. On occasions, they accept programs and laws that they would rather not have. President Clinton, for example, was strategically compelled to sign the Republicans' welfare reform legislation in 1996 even though much of it was unpalatable to him and his party (Mule 2001: 158-80). George W. Bush was in a similar situation when he signed what was essentially a Democratic education reform bill (No Child Left Behind) in 2001 (Ornstein and Fortier 2002: 47-8). It would appear that presidential success with Congress is getting harder to achieve as time goes on. If one ranks the last nine presidents , excluding the present incumbent, George W. Bush, in order of their average yearly success rates then three of the last four are the most recent presidents (Reagan, Bush, and Clinton) and three of the top four are the earliest of the cohort (Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson). It is also interesting to note that the top three performers were the only three presidents in the last fifty years who enjoyed the benefits of a united government.

The president and the media

The American mass media are the vehicle through which the image, the words, and the deeds of the president are transmitted to governing elites and the public at large. The media feed off the president as the most newsworthy individual in American d politics, and the president depends on the media t to convey favourable impressions that will help to determine his public prestige. The relationship between the media and the president has, for most of American history, been an adversarial one. In terms of the dissemination of news, the interests of the media and the president are very different and often incompatible. They became more so following the Vietnam War and Watergate, when the media Identified 'the credibility gap—the between what President Johnson was saying about the conduct of the Vietnam War and what was actually happening in Vietnam—and discovered that President Nixon was lying to them about the Watergate affair.

Post-Watergate media coverage of the president has been aggressively critical, except in times of national crises such as the 11 September terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, and more intensive. The White House is now covered around the clock by specialist White House correspondents who feed off White House gossip, rumour, intrigue, conflict, and personality. They need to make their news interesting. The details of presidential policy are often regarded as less newsworthy than the behind-the-scenes politics related to that policy. What often emerges in the media is not what presidents wanted to be reported. The consequence is that presidents now expend more time and effort in trying to manage the media to get their message across to the public with a minimum of media intermediation from reporters, analysts, or public figures who are likely to oppose them. Again, the presidential staff has become one of the president's most effective resources in media management. Both the press secretary and, more recently, the White House Office of Communications have expanded in size to manage the White House press corps and control the news that the media report. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the presidential staff who devise media strategy and handle the press want their news to be the news that is reported, whereas professional White House correspondents are inherently suspicious of the 'spin control' that is part of the function of the presidential staff. Post-Watergate presidents have been inventive in devising strategies and tactics to manage the media try to get their message across without the media interpreting it to the public in an adverse way. Some of the more interesting innovations are designed bypass the traditional, mainstream political journalists and exploit media opportunities that are more suitable for presidential purposes. Bill Clinton, for example, did this very effectively during the 1992 presidential election campaign when he tended to avoid the 'hard news' programmes like NBC's Meet e Press or CBS's Face the Nation and opted instead to pear on the softer chat shows, audience participation programmes, or breakfast television, where the questioning is less confrontational and the atmosphere less adversarial. Clinton also made use selected media appearances where he could reach a specific target audience such as his MTV appearances which gave him a direct channel to young people. Clinton used the same techniques for dealing with the media as president. His aim was to go over the heads of the Washington press corps directly to the people. He developed the 'electronic town meeting' where he would respond to questions from a studio audience at a local television station. He exploited new technologies like email to increase direct communication with the public. He gave interviews to local television stations when travelling outside Washington, where his reception would be rather more reverential President Clinton gave just forty-0ne press conferences in his first six years in office compared to the sixty-four given by his predecessor. The Washington press were resentful of the way in which they were being bypassed by what one of them labelled Clinton's 'talk show presidency' (Kurtz 1993), and they responded with unusually critical treatment at the of the president during the honeymoon period beginning of his presidency. In return, Clinton and his media staff made no secret of their hostility to the Washington press corps, and within a few months the war between Clinton and the media had become a major media story itself.

The president and the public

Richard Neustadt's Presidential Power emphasized the significance of public prestige to a president's power prospects. 'The prevalent impression of a president set the tone and define the limits of what Washingtonians will or will not do for him’ (Neustadt 1960)

The hope is that strong public support will translate into pressure on those in Washington to support their policies and initiatives, and presidents engage in activities designed to achieve just such an effect. Samuel Kernell (1986) has labelled this approach to presidential leader-ship 'going public', a response to the importance of public opinion in the conduct of the presidency. Public appearances by the president are strategically arranged and carefully planned by the presidential staff. The words that presidents speak on these occasions are scripted by a team of speech-writers in the White House, aided by the president's communications staff. The timing of these appeals and their geographical setting are also strategically important. The message is visual as well as oral, often symbolic as well as substantial.

There are drawbacks to the 'going public' style of leadership. It may not always work. Presidents run the risk of overusing the direct appeal, such that the novelty wears off and interests wanes. It is now less easy for presidents to command prime time television to address the nation. The American electronic media is no longer dominated by the big three free-to-air networks (NBC, CBS, and ABC). Cable television and the internet provide alternatives for viewers and competition for the networks, so the networks have to think very carefully about giving up prime time television just because a president wants to address the nation. When President Clinton decided in June of 1993 to hold his first televised prime time press conference, two of the three major networks refused to broadcast it and the third cut off coverage after thirty minutes. It is also possible that the American media and the public may be getting a little tired of the over-scripted, stage-managed public appearances of the president. So much staff effort goes into preparing every last detail of a presidential statement, speech, or public event that they are in danger of being interpreted as nothing more than artificial public relations stunts designed to boost sagging presidential popularity. Presidents need to conserve their use of the public appeal in order to preserve its impact for the occasions that matter. The major drawback with presidential leadership built around 'going public' strategies is that it comes to be seen as an alternative to bargaining and persuading political elites in Washington. No president can go public on every contentious political issue. The art of negotiating, bargaining, and compromise is still paramount in making Washington work. No Matter how articulate and charismatic presidents can be on television addressing the nation, the reality of political life in Washington is still very traditional and requires coalition-building skills of a high order.

Presidential efforts to manage and manipulate public opinion are essential in order to maintain or increase presidential popularity, but they have met with mixed success. In general, presidential popularity declines over the course of a presidency: every post-war president has left the White House with his public approval ratings lower than when he entered it. Ironically, the only exception is President Clinton, who, notwithstanding the Whitewater scandal, his escapades with Monica Lewinsky, and his impeachment by Congress, left the presidency in 2001 with higher approval ratings than he had in January 1993. But then, no president had begun his presidency with less public support than President Clinton.

Key points

• To give direction to government, presidents have to confront other parts of the political system that have their own sources of political power, sometimes different perspectives and positions on matters of public policy, and the potential to oppose the interests of the White House. But the US system of government is not presidency-centred, and presidents can easily be frustrated in the exercise of leadership.

• Managing the bureaucracy is difficult for presidents because of its size, the independent power of career bureaucrats through networks of influence in Washington known as 'iron triangles', and the clientele-oriented structure of the departments and agencies. Presidents try to counter this through reorganization, politicization, and personnel policies, but rely ultimately on centralization of power and decision-making in the White House.

• Presidential influence on Congress is variable and there is no single formula for successful presidential relations with Congress. Legislating is a cooperative endeavour, and presidents must be prepared to compromise as well as cajole.

    • The relationship between the media and the president has, for most of American history, been an adversarial one. Presidents need the media to communicate with the public, and have been inventive in devising techniques and strategies to reduce the impact of the media intermediating between president and public.

• Presidents put a lot of effort into enhancing their public standing in the hope that strong public support will translate into pressure on those in Washington. This strategy has been labelled 'going public'. It can work well for presidents but can also be overused. Its danger is that it comes to be seen as an alternative to bargaining and persuading political elites in Washington, but no president can go public on every contentious political issue. The art of negotiating, bargaining, and compromise is still paramount in making Washington work.

The presidency and electoral choice

Given the constraints facing the president in a separated system of government, it matters a great deal who is chosen to be president every four years. Neustadt emphasized that presidential power is essentially personal and that only those with extra-ordinary skill, ability, and temperament can be successful presidential leaders. His message is that, if the United States is to have good leadership in the White House, it will have to choose its president carefully from amongst a very small class of able, experienced politicians who understand the elusive nature of presidential power.

If that is so, then how do American voters know whether they are making the right choice when they vote for their president? Neustadt doesn't answer that question, but James David Barber tries to do so. Barber's book, The Presidential Character (1972), ranks along with Neustadt's as one of the most influential and important works published on the American presidency in the last half-century. It is a psychological study in which Barber identifies four personality types that shape the nature of any presidency. One of those types—the active-positive character—is highly desirable and another—the active-negative—is rigid, inflexible, and dangerous and to be avoided at all costs. Even more alarming is Barber's assertion that presidential character is fixed long before the individual contests a presidential election, and there is not much that can be done to change a personality type once that personality is occupying the White House. Barber intended his book to be a tool for voters to help them anticipate a potential active-negative President. It is a controversial work and his psychological typology is not accepted by all presidency scholars but nevertheless, his argument that not much can be done about bad presidents once they have been elected is always a timely one, and emphasizes how much responsibility voters carry when they exercise electoral choice. Once installed in the White House, presidents can only be removed from office by the impeachment process—a form of accountability of last resort and one that works imperfectly, as the attempted impeachments of Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton demonstrated. In other words, electoral choice lies at the heart of presidential leadership. While the success of any individual president will depend on the ability of that individual and the circumstances of the time, ultimately it is electoral choice that makes the difference between good and bad presidents in the United States; and so the nature of the presidency may ultimately turn on the quality of the electoral process rather than anything to do with the nature of the presidential office itself.


The presidency is the single most significant political office in the United States. No other figure possesses the legitimacy conferred by a national election and a national constituency. Only the president can speak both to and for America, and only the president possesses the resources (formal and informal) to galvanize a notoriously fragmented and conflictual system. In short, only the president can lead. But as George W. Bush has found, even in the most demanding of crisis situations the president must recognize that he operates in a separated system of government, not a presidential democracy. Accordingly, whilst most presidents since FDR have rightly seen their office as an especially powerful one, few have held it to be sufficiently so.

Key points

• Presidential leadership is personal and elusive, and requires extraordinary temperament and ability from those elected to the office.

• Presidential character is fixed by the time a president reaches the White House, and nothing much can be done to alter presidential personality once a president has been elected.

• The quality of presidential leadership ultimately rests on electoral choice, and that in turn depends on the quality of the American electoral process.

1 'Sustained presidential leadership is now impossible in America.' Discuss.

2 Can the power of the presidency be reconciled with its inherent weakness?

3 What are the most formidable obstacles to effective presidential leadership?

4 What best explains presidential 'success'?

5 'The president typically possesses authority but not necessarily power.' Discuss.