The Basics of American Government 3E

Chapter 8: The Presidency

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by Carl D. Cavalli

The White House in Washington, D.C. Public Domain.The framers envisioned a presidency that left them concerned about what they termed “energy in the executive”. In other words, they thought the presidency would not be powerful enough. Contemporary politicians and scholars present a very different view. They often debate whether or not the presidency has in fact become too powerful. Related to this shift in the views about power is a shift in what is perceived to be the main sources of presidential power. The Framers created an office empowered by, and limited by, the Constitution. However, modern analysts see the office empowered by a very different – and extra-constitutional – source: the public.


Chapter 8: The Presidency

I. Article II – The Executive Branch
A. President is head of the executive branch
B. Designed to carry out (or execute) policy
C. Modern Presidency
1. Much more influence over international affairs changes than domestic affairs changes
2. More power than previously held
a. Chief Lobbyist
D. Presidential Roles
1. Chief of State
a. National Symbol of the United States of America
b. Only office elected by the entire country
c. Often claim to be a voice of the American people
d. Engages the public on national issues
e. Spurs on debate of these issues
f. Involvement in international affairs
2. Executive Orders
a. Charged to carry out laws by congress
b. these orders carry the same official weight as laws and at times may be used by presidents in place of c. legislation in the face of an uncooperative Congress
3. Executive Agreements
a. agreements between the president and other heads of state
b. Executive agreements do not require any congressional approval, yet they are recognized as having the same force of law as treaties
4. Executive Privilege
a. Claim by presidents of their right to refuse to hand over information requested by Congress
II. Presidential Power
A. In the beginning ,the constitution outlined presidential power as a means to carry out laws passed by Congress
B. Modern Presidents are much more powerful than the framers outlined
1. During the Cold War, presidents were referred to as "the leaders of the free world."
2. Most presidential power does not come directly from the Constitution
III. Constitutional Executive Powers
A. Chief Diplomat and Commander-in-Chief: effectively manages our relationship with the rest of the world
1. Chief Diplomat
a. President meets with foreign heads of state, negotiates treaties, and enters into executive agreements
b. Receives foreign ambassadors in recognition of their government
2. Commander-in-Chief
a. president oversees the nation’s military establishment
b. In times of peace he raises, trains, supervises, and deploys the forces that Congress is willing to maintain
c. With the aid of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the National Security Council
d. In times of war the President’s power to command the forces swells out of all proportion to his other powers.
B. Primary Presidential Sources of Power:
1. The Vice President
a. John Adams, said, "I am nothing. I may be everything."
b. Often play the part of trusted presidential advisers
c. Vice presidents are charged with leading various presidential initiatives
2. White House Staff and the Executive Office of the President
a. Positions and organizations in these two entities may be based on direct presidential creation or on congressional statutes
3. White House Staff
a. The people who most immediately surround the president
b. Advise the president on what to say, when to say it, what to do, who to meet, and when
c. President’s Chief of Staff coordinates this group
4. Executive Office of the Presidency
a. Act as policy advisers to the President
b. Advise the president on what policies to pursue and propose and assist with management of the federal bureaucracy
c. President appoints members of the White House Staff and E.O.P. and do not require Senate confirmation
d. They serve "at the president’s pleasure"
5. Cabinet Departments and Executive Agencies
a. Organizations created by congressional statutes
b. Actually carry out policy
c. President nominates the heads of these organizations, but unlike the advisers, they require Senate confirmation
d. Organizations have operational responsibilities
e. Department and agency heads serve at the president’s pleasure
C. Other Presidential Sources of Power
1. Appointment Power
a. The Constitution empowers the president to appoint all federal judges and Supreme Court justices, and top-level cabinet and executive agency personnel, including the ambassadors who represent the United States around the world, subject to Senate confirmation
b. Appointments amount to over 6,000 people by recent estimates
c. Gives the president the ability to shape the Executive Branch
d. Patronage
e. Reward loyal supporters with jobs
2.Legislative Power
a. president is an important actor throughout the legislative process, and is actually the primary source of legislative proposals
b. "State of the Union Address" gives the president a lot of influence over Congress’s legislative work
c. Modern presidents tend to live or die by the success of their campaign proposals
d. Much of their time is spent building support for their proposals both publicly and with members of Congress
e. constitutional veto power gives presidents influence at the end of the process
D. Growth of Presidential Power: Congressional Accomplices
1. In some instances, the Congress actually ordered the president to take action
a.presidents have been required to monitor and manage levels of national inflation and unemployment
2. The more laws, the larger the Executive Branch and the larger the Executive Branch, the greater the effect of presidents and presidential decision on our lives
a. 1.5 million civilian personnel
b. 2 million military personnel under the Department of Defense
c. The Executive Branch of the United States is the largest employer in world history
3. Major events in the 20th century made the presidents take action and expand their power:
a. The Great Depression of the 1930s
b. The Second World War in the early 1940s
c. The Cold War of the late 1940s through the late 80s
4. The Brownlow Committee Report - 1937: "The President Needs Help"
a. Recommended a formal structure to help manage the growing number of agencies and the laws and programs the president administers
b. Their recommendations were adopted as the Executive Office of the Presidency
E. Soft Sources of Power
1. A president with the support of the public can accomplish a lot
2. Congress is more likely to act on suggestions for legislation from the president if the president can claim that the American people support such legislation
3. Political Parties
a. Political party is a source of loyalty and cooperation that can bridge the separation of powers built into our system
b. Presidents can often count on their fellow partisans to support their initiatives and proposals. In Congress, this support translates into votes and helps more when the president’s party is the majority
4. Groups
a. Outside Interest Groups
i. Can work to build public support for presidents
5. The Media
a. When the president says it, it is news, simple as that
b. The White House is required coverage for any major news organization


The term mandate means "An official order or commission to do something". The first President to claim a mandate was Andrew Jackson (which basically meant that by virtue of his election he had received direct instructions from the people of the United States to carry out certain policies). Modern presidents (and Congress) use this idea of the mandate to carry out policies advocated during their campaigns. This is especially important in relation to presidential elections because the President has the largest constituency of any elected official.

Test Your Knowledge

How well do you understand the U.S. Presidency? Check your understandings using the flashcards below!



For Further Reading

Please see Chapter 8 References on pages 242-244 of the textbook for primary sources and readings.

When Presidents Invoke Executive Privilege by Sarah Childress.

The American Presidency Project: Executive Orders by John Woolley and Gerhard Peters.