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The Presidents And The Presidency
Through the years the chief executive’s job has grown in power. Here is a study of the men who made it a greater office.
April 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 3
An executive would be established separate from the legislature. The executive would consist of one man, a President of the United States. The President would have source of election outside the legislature. He would have a fixed term of office. He would be eligible for re-election to an indefinite number of terms. He would be granted his own powers by the Constitution, especially the power to veto acts of Congress. He would not be encumbered with a council to which he would have to go for approval of his nominations or vetoes or other acts. No “person holding any office under the United States” could be a “member of either house during his continuance in office.”
The result of these decisions was the presidency of. George Washington, a presidency marked by strength, dignity, independence, and constitutionalism. Time and time again Presidents have gone back to him, and beyond him to the plain words of Article II of the Constitution, for unimpeachable authority for strong and unusual actions. Once these words had been written and approved and tested by time, legislative supremacy would not endure nor parliamentary government ever develop on the American scene.
The search for an explanation of the power and glory of the presidency requires us to survey the whole sweep of American history. Out of our history we may single five massive forces that have pushed this office ever higher in our memories and desires.
The first of these is the rise of the “positive state.” the big government that regulates, stimulates, and operates in every part of the American economy and society. The growth of our industrial civilization has brought in its train a thousand problems of huge contern to the American people; in seeking to meet them, Congress has created an Administration manned by more than two and a hall million persons. As a result, the President has been elevated to a position of administrative authority without precedent in all history.
Alexis de Tocqueville put his finger on a second element in the rise of the presidency when he lung ago predicted: “Ii’ the existence of the Union were perpetually threatened, if its (hid interests were in daily connection with those of other powerful nations, the executive government would assume an increased importance in proportion to the measures expected of it and to those which it would execute.” The power of the President has been permanently inflated by our entrance during recent times into world politics and our decision to be armed against aggression, and as the world grows smaller, he will grow bigger.
An associated cause is the shattering series of emergencies, both foreign and domestic, that have been our lot in the last century. Great emergencies in the life of a constitutional democracy bring an increase in executive power and prestige, always at least temporarily, more of’ten than not permanently. Lincoln, Wilson, and Franklin D. Roosevelt all lei’t the presidency a stronger instrument because of the extraordinary powers they had exerted in time of’ crisis.
The long decline of Congress has also contributed to the rise of the presidency. Not only does Congress now look to him for continuous leadership, as it certainly did not look to him before 1900; it cannot exercise its own authority without, in turn, increasing that of the President. Whether because of its exertions or because of its deficiencies, Congress has done its part to make the President what he is today.
Finally, the presidency has drawn great strength from the rise of American democracy. Since the days of Andrew Jackson it has been generally recognized as a highly democratic office. It depends directly on the people for much of its power and prestige; it shrinks to a rather mean thing when it loses their support. It is no accident of history that the upsurge of democracy and Jackson’s resurrection of the presidency went hand in hand. American democracy still finds in the President its single most useful instrument.
The search leads in the end to the Presidents themselves. None of these mighty events—the upbuilding of the positive state, our plunge into the world, the crises of war and depression, the hard times of Congress, or the triumph of democracy—would have had such influence on the presidency if strong, alert, capable men had not come to this high office and shaped the event to their ends. The Presidents, too, helped build the presidency, and we should pay our respects to the distinguished seven whom most historians nominate for greatness.
George Washington enjoyed a long head start toward being a great President simply because he was the first President. It was no easy trick to be the first occupant of a mistrusted office under a dubious Constitution. Two or three missteps might have touched oil an irresistible demand for a new convention to undo the damage of Article II. But Washington, who had a nice feeling for the delicacy of his task, never did commit a serious misstep.