The growth and development of the Presidency

Two key events, the Great Depression and the Cold War, led to the status and power of the modern presidency.

Congressional government

In accordance with the intent of the constitution, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were largely periods of congressional government, and the president was for most of the time dependent on the use of the veto to exercise influence.

However, as the economy industrialised and society became more complex and interdependent, the need for national leadership and policy-making became apparent. The institutional structure of Congress meant it was too divided to provide consistent and coordinated leadership, and the president was the only nationally elected office able to meet this need.

The start of the activist presidency

The concept of the activist presidency began with Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson at the beginning of the twentieth century; both presidents operated on the basis that the president could do everything that was not specifically prohibited him and that he was not confined by the powers specifically allocated in the constitution.

The passage by Congress in 1921 of the Budget and Accounting Act created the Bureau of the Budget as part of the executive branch, and gave it the responsibility for compiling a single federal budget proposal. This was a recognition, first, that federal spending was now at a level which needed effective central coordination, and, second, of the overall presidential control of domestic policy.

It was the Great Depression in the 1930s that saw the balance of legislative power shift decisively and irrevocably to the president. The dire nature of the situation created the need for the federal government to have a much more active and interventionist role than it had played hitherto. The formulation of broad and coherent policy programmes, and the rescue of a complex industrial economy, were beyond the disparate and parochial operation of Congress. The programme of policies known as the New Deal, which President Roosevelt initiated, extended the reach of the president and the executive branch into the management of the economy, and substantially increased the size of the federal bureaucracy through the creation of bodies such as the Securities and Exchange Commission and the National Labour Board.

Just as the Great Depression expanded the president's powers domestically, so the emergence of the USA after the Second World War as one of two global superpowers had the same effect in foreign policy. For a period before the war Congress had played a significant role in shaping foreign policy — for example, through the passage of the Neutrality Acts — but it was now the president, as head of one of two global superpowers and the 'leader of the free world', who assumed unambiguous control of foreign policy.

President Truman set the precedent of the president taking significant military action through his power as commander-in-chief with only informal consultation with Congress when he ordered military forces to Korea in 1950, in response to the invasion of the South by the Soviet-backed forces of the North. The postwar period also saw the creation of what has become known as the 'national security state'; the 1947 National Security Act created the National Security Council (NSC) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and reorganised the military into the Department of Defense, with its headquarters in the Pentagon in Virginia. After Korea, the armed forces were no longer mobilised and then demobilised to meet a specific threat, but were expanded and became permanent to counter Soviet aggression, reporting to the president as commander-in-chief. As significantly, the president assumed responsibility for the deployment of the nuclear deterrent, which rapidly became a vital factor in the Cold War.