Growth of Presidential Power

  • Presidents have become more powerful over time
If you do win, the power rush is huge. The President of the United States is certainly the most powerful person in the world—but, interestingly, the Constitution's drafters did not expect this to be the case.

In fact, James Madison, the Constitution's principal architect, worried that the "balance of powers" tilted toward the House of Representatives. Madison believed that its control over taxes and spending and its ability to make laws that narrowed the powers of the executive and the judiciary made the legislative branch the real center of national power.

But from the start, presidents worked to protect and expand their turf—and they generally succeeded. George Washington set the precedent; when Congress requested documents pertaining to the controversial Jay Treaty, he refused to turn them over, introducing the doctrine of executive privilege and making a point about the autonomy of the executive branch. Over the course of the nineteenth century, other presidents added new weapons to the office's arsenal of powers. Andrew Jackson was the first to make extensive use of the veto and Abraham Lincoln read broadly into his wartime powers as commander-in-chief. But with Teddy Roosevelt and the arrival of a new, more complex century, the office's power grew at an even faster clip.

Part of this growth in the presidency might be classified as organic—the inevitable result of the historical process. As the nation's economy grew, the government needed to assume a larger regulatory role. As the world shrank, enabling the United States to increase its international presence, the federal government needed to expand its diplomatic presence. And many of the new demands placed on government could not be easily met by Congress. Take foreign policy, for example. Congress may be well suited to the task of drafting educational reform legislation—but 535 people cannot negotiate treaties or efficiently respond to a national security crisis.

And even complicated domestic legislation can be difficult for Congress to manage. When confronting the scientific complexities of environmental supervision or the financial intricacies of banking regulation, Congress's 535 members rarely manage to agree on more than the broad outlines of a legislative proposal. Consequently, many of the details are left for the president to work out after he is handed the bill for implementation. The president gets to decide how to prioritize the legislation's content and how to interpret its critical sections. And the president also possesses the authority to appoint the staff that will oversee or run any agency or board created by the congressional act.

Thus there was a certain "natural" tendency for the presidency to expand as history progressed. But there were other factors contributing to the growth of the office, as well. For example, the presidency is more unified than the legislative branch. The executive office centers on one person—and therefore, the office more easily speaks with one voice.

A president who knows how to use that voice is particularly powerful. The most effective presidents of the modern era have known how to work the national media that emerged at the turn of the twentieth century. Theodore Roosevelt was the first to recognize that the presidential office was a "bully pulpit," a great podium from which to shape public opinion. Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy were also effective communicators. Ronald Reagan was, hands down, the best at turning the presidential pulpit to his advantage. The "Great Communicator" was masterful not only at delivering a message, but also at controlling the delivery of that message.

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