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The American people have had high expectations for their president, but rarely has he been able to fulfill them. Pledging to downsize government after two decades of enormous expansion, Ronald Reagan entered and left office barely able to slow its growth. Refractory foreign problems such as Vietnam and the Iran hostage situation haunted and drove out of office Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Jimmy Carter. Government scandals such as Watergate and Whitewater plagued the presidencies of Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. Part of the problem may be that lesser men occupy the office than in its early days. Part may be the increasing complexity of government, the country, and the world. As Forrest McDonald points out in The American Presidency: An Intellectual History, another part of the problem is the Constitution of the United States itself. In some measure, it was purposely designed to hamper the president (as well as the other branches of government), so that no person or group could wield excessive power and thus threaten liberty. McDonald’s book provides a history not only of the American presidency but also of the ideas about power and governance that influenced its creation.

McDonald divides his study into three parts: “Roots,” “Establishment,” and “Evolution.” The first traces the ideas and assumptions with which the Founding Fathers were familiar and which underlay their conceptions of the presidency. For example, an obvious model was the English form of limited monarchy, a “mixed” form of government combining monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy. Since many of the framers were trained in the English law, they were aware of the distinguished legal commentaries written through the centuries by such men as Henry Bracton (thirteenth century), Sir John Fortescue (sixteenth century), Sir Edward Coke and Sir Matthew Hale (seventeenth century), and Sir William Blackstone (eighteenth century). From each of these men, the American founders gained some justification for declaring their independence and, later, common ground on which they could debate their own constitution.

Bracton, for example, expounded on the dual nature of the king of England’s power. The power of governance was by divine right and absolute, but the power of jurisdiction (the power to decide legal issues) bound the king to laws enshrined in custom. This qualification of absolute power was a crucial precedent for the colonists, for in the Declaration of Independence they could not have listed the various violations of law committed by King George III if they had not thought a king bound by law. Another concept that provided justification for the colonists’ declaration of independence was that of the ancient constitution, articulated by Fortescue: that is, the notion that England, even through various conquests, revolutions, and abuses, was ultimately governed by a set of customs that traced their lineage as far back as Rome. This powerful myth gave the Americans another pretext for revolution, for they believed that they were called upon to restore that ancient and valid constitution rather than continue to serve the one corrupted by George III. Coke also invoked the mysterious and sacred power of the ancient constitution to defend the judiciary from kingly encroachment, and Blackstone articulated the notion that the English constitution balanced and checked the interests of king, lords, and commoners, a clear precedent for the system of checks and balances adopted by the framers of the U.S. Constitution.

Many of these same questions of power and governance were expounded by political theorists as well. Eighteenth century Americans were the beneficiaries of the vast literature written in the preceding century in response to the English Civil War. The “commonwealthmen” who seized control from the monarchy in the mid-seventeenth century wrote of the desirability of a mixed government, of separation of powers, and of checks and balances. On the other side of that debate were monarchists such as Sir Thomas Hobbes, who argued that the only reliable solution to individual clashes of will was a compact with a sovereign in which each individual’s will was absolutely subject to the will of the sovereign, and Sir Robert Filmer, who argued that patriarchy—authority and the duty to obey it—preexisted government and that there had never been an egalitarian golden age. John Locke’s “Two Treatises of Government,” which refuted Filmer and glorified the English revolution, was very popular among the colonists, because it justified a people’s declaring independence if the compact of government was broken.

After treating the roots of the presidency, McDonald devotes part 2 of his study to the establishment of the office. This section includes discussion of the constitutional conventions, the ratification, and the presidencies of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, which had as much impact on subsequent thinking about the office as had the Constitution itself.

Limiting the president but still allowing for an effective executive was a central problem the Founding Fathers faced as they framed the Constitution. The very notion of a chief executive is ambiguous. The phrase implies that the president merely executes the will of others (Congress), but the Framers knew from history that discretionary powers were needed to allow the executive to rule situations over which no law governs, even to rise above the law should an emergency occur. Their fear of executive tyranny is epitomized in the difficulty they had deciding on a name and a form of address for their chief executive. During the eighteenth century, McDonald points out, “president” was a particularly innocuous term, and perhaps this is why it was chosen. Although “his excellency” was settled upon as the form of address used for the president, this provision was removed by the drafting committee because it might be offensive to a ratifying populace stirred by the antimonarchical rhetoric of Thomas Paine.

Among those who favored a strong executive were men who had been frustrated during the revolutionary war by the ineptitude of the Continental Congress. Alexander Hamilton, a military aide to George Washington, was one of them. Others, such as Gouverneur Morris and James Madison, sought a strong executive because they feared legislative tyranny. Morris sought to separate the executive and the legislative into two independent branches of government. Ultimately, however, although the convention aimed to follow the doctrine of the separation of powers, it did not do so precisely. It created separate branches of government, but their powers were intermingled. For example, the president’s right to recommend legislation, the vice president’s role as president of the Senate, and the presidential veto gave the executive branch a hand in the legislative process. Similarly, although the president was charged with executing war, only Congress had the power to declare it. This mixing of powers was justified in The Federalistby Madison as necessary checks and balances.

The Constitution as written was not as explicit in its designation of the duties of the president as in its enumeration of the duties of Congress. McDonald maintains that this silence on the powers of the presidency was a result of both the framers’ ambivalence about investing power in a single person and the universal expectation that Washington would be the first president and that he could be trusted to fill the gaps left in the description of the office. Indeed, McDonald stresses an adjective used by other historians in discussing Washington’s role in creating the new country: “indispensable.” His selflessness and honorable conduct during the revolution and after it made the office of president “thinkable” and relieved many of the anxieties about possible abuse of power.

As important as Washington in the shaping of the office was Thomas Jefferson. One of the leaders of the first opposition party in the new republic, Jefferson opposed Hamilton, Washington’s secretary of the treasury, and what he believed were monarchical tendencies in the Washington and Adams administrations. A man of the people, he downplayed the ceremonial aspects of the office (which Washington had stressed), and he also took a more activist role in directing the legislative agenda in Congress than his predecessors had.

McDonald notes that the balance of power between the three branches of government has shifted over the years. Sometimes Congress has been stronger, sometimes the president, sometimes the courts. Part 3 of The American Presidency traces the evolution of the office from Andrew Jackson to the late twentieth century. Rather than organizing by individual presidents, McDonald divides this section into subjects: the president and the law, the president and administration, the president and Congress, and the president as symbol and myth.

Historically, the plan that Congress makes the laws, the president enforces them, and the courts interpret them has never been neatly realized in practice. Reagan believed that the judiciary was effectively overstepping its bounds and making laws rather than interpreting them; thus he sought to restrain it by selecting judges interested in the original intent of the Constitution who would exercise judicial restraint. Robert Bork was such a candidate, but his nomination was refused by Congress. Gerald Ford was convinced that Congress was enacting laws with excessively expensive price tags, so he simply refused to spend the money appropriated. In response to this practice of impoundment, Congress made expenditures mandatory, a factor contributing to the runaway budget deficits of the 1980’s and early 1990’s.

One of the radical changes in government since Washington’s day has been its enormous increase in size and complexity. Civil service, once welcomed as a reform of the spoils system, has in fact created a nightmare, effectively a fourth branch of government, known as the bureaucracy, which is not responsible to an electorate. The regulatory function of government, which the bureaucracy controls, has expanded enormously. From 175 bureaus and agencies in 1923, there were 767 in 1992. By 1991, the Code of Federal Regulations consisted of nearly 200 volumes and more than 100,000 pages. One of the central tasks of the twentieth century president has been managing the massive bureaucracy that controls these regulations. Nixon’s response was to surround himself with a counterbureaucracy in the White House of some 4,000 staffers.

The president, with the help of his staff, has become the “legislator in chief,” primarily responsible for introducing legislation. Just as regulatory agencies have increased in size and complexity, so has Congress. A congressional staff of 4,300 in the 1950’s grew to 32,000 in 1990. In 1861, when Lincoln complained to Congress about the size and redundancy of the bills the legislature had passed during its seventy-two-year history, he was talking about fewer than one hundred bills and resolutions a year, averaging less than one page each. As McDonald ironically notes in contrast, a 1986 tax code simplification act passed by Congress consisted of 925 pages and was only one of 424 bills passed that year. As many as ten thousand bills are introduced yearly. The result is that elected legislators cannot begin to read the bills on which they vote, and apparently they do not even try. More concerned with constituent services and getting reelected, modern legislators have simply abdicated their legislative duties to their staffs.

The president has some power over bad legislation. He can veto it. Yet this is an all-or-nothing approach that can create what was called “gridlock” in the Bush Administration. Denied the line-item veto, which was proposed as early as the Grant Administration, the president has not been able to trim bills of wasteful riders. The result has been a bloated, inefficient, and expensive government.

McDonald notes that in addition to his executive duties, the president is the symbolic leader of his country. Although image has always been an essential aspect of the presidency—witness the importance of Washington’s—creating images in the popular mind in order to sway an election did not begin until the standoff between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson in the controversial elections of 1828. Prior to that time, the president was largely chosen through congressional caucuses, that is, by insiders. The concept of negative campaigning, when neither candidate explained what he would do in office but chose only to denigrate the opposition, seems to have begun in 1828.

In the twentieth century, mass media became critical to purveying the presidential image. Theodore Roosevelt was the first to use the press fully. Disliked by reporters and editors from the major newspaper chains, his cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt gained and retained popularity through his effective use of radio “fireside chats.” Since 1960, television’s role in creating or destroying the presidential image has become critical. From John F. Kennedy’s strong image in the debates with Richard Nixon, to the picture of a nuclear explosion to frighten voters from Barry Goldwater, to Ross Perot’s “infomercials,” which helped him draw 19 percent of the popular vote, television has had an increasingly powerful influence. McDonald notes that although image creation has become a necessary means to election and retention of office, it consumes too much time and often trivializes the office. Like the bureaucracy, which was once designed to aid in the process of governance, it has become an end in itself.

Although the job is nearly impossible and is complicated by the public’s election of often poorly qualified individuals, and despite its inefficiencies and the extraordinary number of presidents who have not been reelected, the presidency has remained stable for more than two hundred years. As McDonald asserts both at the outset and at the end of his remarkably detailed book, the American presidency may be the most powerful secular institution in the world, and it has done much more good than harm.

Sources for Further Study

America. CLXX, March 19, 1994, p. 25.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIX, February 20, 1994, p. 28.

Presidential Studies Quarterly. XXIV, Summer, 1994, p. 619.

The Times Literary Supplement. June 10, 1994, p. 6.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIV, April 10, 1994, p. 9.

The Wilson Quarterly. XVIII, Autumn, 1994, p. 97.