Evolution of the Presidency

More than any other branch of government, the presidency has undergone a remarkable transformation during the past 200 years. Though the framers did not provide the presidency with many powers, and George Washington tried to keep it that way, the balance of power between the presidency and Congress began to shift over the decades.

The Era of the Caretaker Presidents

The nineteenth century was the era of great legislators, not presidents. The initial wave of founding father presidents (Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison) quickly gave way to a collection of relatively weak and forgettable officeholders.

The group of presidents often referred to as the caretaker presidents includes Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, James K. Polk, Zachary Taylor, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, Chester Arthur, Grover Cleveland, and Millard Fillmore, whom many historians consider the most unmemorable president of the era.

The presidency was looked upon mostly as a source of federal patronage jobs, and a platform from which to fight the Indians. In fact, the president spent much of his time actually interviewing and appointing thousands of federal workers, which included mail carriers, census officials, and patent reviewers. The dominant issues of the day — slavery and states' rights — were debated in Congress. In fact, it wasn't uncommon for the great legislators, including Henry Clay, John Calhoun, Daniel Webster, and Stephen Douglas, to enjoy greater celebrity and popularity than did the president. However, two presidents from this era do stand out: Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln.

Andrew Jackson

“Old Hickory” believed that the presidency should be the dominant force in American government. He asserted the right of the president to replace any federal officeholder without consulting Congress, and wasn't shy about putting his cronies in key government positions (thus creating the patronage system). He stood up to the members of Congress who opposed tariffs, and threatened to use the military to enforce federal law.

Abraham Lincoln

Regarded by many as our greatest president, Lincoln's election led to the secession of the Confederate states from the Union. Faced with the greatest crisis the country had encountered up to that point (and arguably since), Lincoln understood that only the president could keep the country together. Citing the implied emergency powers of the Constitution, he freed the slaves, suspended civil liberties, and imposed marshal law, even though he lacked the explicit authority to do so. His most important act, however, may have been his decision to hold the election of 1864 during the midst of the Civil War, even though he probably could have suspended it.

The Modern Presidency

The modern presidency bears little resemblance to its nineteenth-century antecedent. As the federal government has grown in size and influence, so has the presidency. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, the president has been the dominant force in American government and politics. This seemingly irreversible trend was pioneered by some of the twentieth century's most prominent presidents.

Teddy Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt established the notion of the “bully pulpit” — using the prestige and reach of the White House to rally the American people to certain ideas and legislation. Roosevelt took an activist approach to both domestic and international affairs. He believed that America should pursue an expansionist foreign policy and a populist domestic policy. During his presidency, Roosevelt proved that the White House could be a platform for extraordinary change.

Franklin Roosevelt

FDR responded to the challenge of the Great Depression with the New Deal, a series of landmark laws that transformed the role of the federal government and solidified the presidency as the epicenter of American government. During his thirteen years in office, Roosevelt dramatically expanded the powers of the presidency to combat the Great Depression and wage war against Germany and Japan. By the end of World War II, the presidency was a much stronger office than the one that Roosevelt had inherited.

The Cold War Presidents

The cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union may have done more to enhance the powers of the presidency than any single event during the twentieth century. America's role in the world became the primary preoccupation of the president, and consequently spurred an unprecedented growth of the executive branch and presidential powers. While the Congress remained instrumental in domestic affairs, it acquiesced to the president on matters of foreign policy and war powers.

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and the end of the cold war, the Congress began to reassert itself, particularly following the 1994 midterm elections. But with the terrorist attacks of September 11 and the ongoing war against terrorism, the president has a renewed mandate on both domestic security and international issues.

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