Study Guide

Executive Branch & Presidents

Executive Branch & Presidents Introduction

  • President is most powerful individual in US government
  • Constitution charges president with ensuring that laws are faithfully executed, commanding the military, and filling executive and judicial offices
  • Beyond that, Constitution leaves definition of presidency fairly vague

Article II of the Constitution lays out the president's role very briefly. It states that the "executive power" of the government shall be vested in the president and that he shall be responsible for a handful of tasks:
  • He is to make sure that the laws are faithfully executed
  • He is to periodically inform Congress of the "state of the union" and recommend to Congress issues that need attention
  • He is responsible for directing American foreign policy, and he is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces
  • He has the power to fill, by appointment, offices in the executive branch and to name judges to the Supreme Court

What is Executive Branch & Presidents About and Why Should I Care?

The President of the United States is almost certainly the most powerful person in the world.

Yet the president's powers are defined in only a few vague paragraphs of the US Constitution. The president can drop the bomb, overrule the wishes of a majority in Congress with the stroke of a pen, or jet to Cancun for the weekend on Air Force One, but his official job description can fit on the back of a three by five card.

Of course, we live in an age of paper overload—an age of written disclaimers, authorization forms, and endless fine print. The McDonald's employee handbook is 37 pages long; the iPhone user's guide is 130 pages. But even if we account for 200 years' worth of ever-increasing documentation of all matters great and small, the Constitution's minimalist approach to the president's job description—the whole thing fits in just over half a page of the handwritten original copy—remains almost shocking. After all, eighteenth-century Americans were quite wary of executive power. Remember: they had just fought and won a Revolutionary War against a "tyrannical king"—an executive with too much power. And in their first stab at government-building, newly independent Americans had deliberately created state governments and a national government under the Articles of Confederation that featured very weak executives, with precisely limited powers.

But by the time the Constitution was drafted in 1787, though, most Americans were somewhat less freaked out about executive power. This was partially because many of their experiments with weak executives had failed miserably during the first decade of American independence. The desire for a stronger and more effective executive was one of the driving forces that caused the Constitution to be drafted in the first place.

But the minimalism of the Constitution's framers when it came to defining the presidency was ultimately inspired less by any newfound comfort with executive power than by their inability to agree on the details of the new office, combined with their confidence in George Washington (hippo ivory teeth and all). As the framers of the Constitution debated what powers the president should possess, as they struggled to define an office that would be strong enough to serve the nation's needs but not strong enough to threaten their liberties, they did so knowing that George Washington, a man almost universally trusted, would be the first to fill the position.

Had George Washington not been around, we may have ended up with a very different Constitution and a very different executive branch. But since Washington was around, and just about everyone realized he was a shoo-in to become the first president, the framers created an executive office defined broadly enough (or, you might say, vaguely enough) to allow its occupants—and history—to flesh out its character more fully.

In stark contrast to the Constitution's vague delineation of executive powers, the members of the Constitutional Convention outlined with great precision (and almost bizarre complexity) the method for selecting the president. The two most logical options—that the president either be elected directly by the people or, alternatively, selected by the Congress—were far too simple for these political geniuses. So they came up with a much more complex hybrid institution of their own creation. A "college" comprised of "electors," selected by the states using processes left to their own discretion, would assemble once every four years to do only one thing—elect the president and vice president. States would be represented in this college proportional to their population, but also on the principle of equality. Electors would represent the will of the people but be free to vote for whomever they wanted. (Makes perfect sense, no? No?)

In other words, the Constitution's framers did a peculiar thing when they created the job that has since grown to become the most powerful position in the world. They left one aspect of the presidency—almost certainly the most important aspect of the presidency, which is what exactly the president's job is—largely to chance. Meanwhile, another aspect of the office—how the president is chosen—was elaborately (or, you might say, imaginatively) constructed.

So, now that we have more than 200 years' worth of presidents to judge the office by… how did the Constitution's framers' do?

Executive Branch & Presidents Trivia

Franklin Roosevelt made himself more accessible to the press than any other modern president; he held, on average, 83 press conferences annually. George W. Bush was the least accessible to the press. During his first term he held only sixteen press conferences—an average of four per year.

Vice President John Nance Garner (1933-1937) offered the most biting criticisms of the vice presidency. He initially spurned the office, commenting: "I don't intend to spend the next four years counting the buttons on another man's coat tails." And after his election, he suggested at various times that the office was the "spare tire of the government," and that accepting the party's nomination was the "worst d--n-fool mistake" he ever made, adding that "there cannot be a great vice president." Most famously, he supposedly said that the office was "not worth a bucket of warm spit." His biographer, O.C. Fisher, has suggested that the comment was sanitized by reporters; most likely, Garner really likened the office to "a pitcher of warm piss." Or, as Garner more pointedly explained, "those pantywaist writers wouldn't print it the way I said it."

Gerald Ford became president without winning a single vote outside his congressional district in Michigan. He was named vice president by President Richard Nixon when Vice President Spiro Agnew was forced to resign after being indicted for tax evasion. Nine months later, when President Nixon resigned amid the Watergate scandal, Ford ascended to the presidency.

Executive Branch & Presidents Resources

Books

Mark Hertsgaard, On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency (1988)
Drawing from an analysis of print and television reports and close to 200 interviews, Hertsgaard explores the relationship between the Reagan White House and the national press corps. His conclusion that Reagan effectively managed an ideologically hostile news establishment provides a provocative challenge to the widespread argument that a "liberal media elite" controls America's news.

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., The Imperial Presidency (1973)
This classic by a Pulitzer Prize winning historian traces the evolution of the presidency, with a particular focus on the growth of the office between the administrations of Franklin Roosevelt and Richard Nixon. Although written during the Vietnam War and the Watergate Crisis, Schlesinger's book still speaks to concerns about the modern presidency. In fact, Schlesinger, who died in 2007, argued that the administration of George W. Bush posed an even greater threat to the Constitutional limitations of the executive office than that of Richard Nixon.

Images

Counting Every Vote
A Florida election official tries to determine voter intent.

Back in the Saddle
President Ronald Reagan

The Great Communicator
President Ronald Reagan waving to well-wishers from his hospital room after being shot in 1981.

Reining in the Imperial President
Richard Nixon responds to the 1973 War Powers Act.

King George I?
President Bush's support for the unitary executive revives concerns about the imperial president.

Movies & TV

Nixon (1995)
Like all Oliver Stone films, this one is more provocative than historically precise. In fact, critics from across the political spectrum have found plenty to fault in this three-hour epic. While some have complained that the film libels Nixon and his contributions to American history, others have suggested that it romanticizes the disgraced president. But if viewed more as a Shakespearean tragedy, or a gothic exploration of the dark forces shaping politics, the film provides food for thought.

Recount: The Story of the 2000 Presidential Election (2008)
This HBO docudrama unravels the 36-day political and legal battle following the presidential election of 2000, culminating in the Supreme Court ruling which brought this historic election to an end. It is a film about politics—and so, of course, the reviews have been mixed. Democratic analysts have generally concluded that the film is accurate in its portrayal of events, while Republican critics have labeled the film biased and like to point out that the prior to Recount, the film's director, Jay Roach, was best known for Meet the Parents and Austin Powers.

"The West Wing" (1999-2006)
There is plenty to criticize in this long-running television series. Leaning to the left, its politics are not balanced, and it is hard to believe that White House staffers engage in such sophisticated, rapid-fire banter on so little sleep. But the show is provocative and well written, and, for many viewers frustrated by the scandals of Bill Clinton's presidency and bumbling administration of George W. Bush, Jed Bartlett was the president they wish they had.

Websites

American Presidency Project
The American Presidency Project is an invaluable source of information and sources for the study of the presidency. Election data, an extensive media archive, and online resources are provided.

History of the Presidency
The Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia maintains a website devoted to the history of the presidency. Biographies of all the presidents and essays on the "president at work" are available. Materials acquired through an oral history project focusing on the key figures within all of the administrations since Jimmy Carter are accessible here, as well. A collection of presidential recordings dating to Franklin Roosevelt can also be downloaded along with their accompanying transcripts.

Famous Trials
The "Famous Trials" website includes well-conceived pages dedicated to the impeachment trials of Presidents Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. A wealth of material is provided including trial records, transcripts of testimony, biographies of participants, and the impeachment articles.

Video & Audio

Presidential Media
The online audio-video archive of the American Presidency Project contains materials dating to the administration of Herbert Hoover.

Classic Election Ads
History.com maintains a US Presidential Elections page that includes audio and video recordings of campaign speeches, debates, and ads, including Lyndon Johnson's ad campaign against Barry Goldwater and the Lloyd Bentsen-Dan Quayle vice presidential debate of 1988.

Primary Sources

Presidency Project Docs
The American Presidency Project has made thousands of documents available through its searchable database. Speeches, press conference transcripts, executive orders, signing statements, and public papers for every American president are among the documents linked to this site.

National Archives
The National Archives hosts a "presidential documents guide" to presidential papers and documents. The site provides direct links to some papers as well as links to presidential libraries, many of which provide resources online.