Monday, November 08, 2004

All the presidents' roles

Question: What are the different roles that a modern president has?
From: Walter A. of Portland, ME
Date: November 8, 2004

Gleaves answers: "My God, this is a hell of a job!" exclaimed President Warren G. Harding, who died during his first term, perhaps in part due to the mounting stress of his work. Harry S. Truman described the job using a vivid comparison: "Being a president is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep riding or be swallowed."[1]

"The American presidency," observes the splendid Smithsonian exhibit on the subject, "has the brutal power to line a face with age, and to do so more swiftly than ever in an age of instant communication and nuclear arsenals. It is a position for which no training can be adequate, no preparation complete, no counsel sufficient -- an office that outstrips anyone's capacity to negotiate the ever-widening circle of its responsibilities."[2]

No doubt about it, the president has the toughest job in the world. Citizens expect their man in the White House to be a miracle worker; to do everything from ginning up jobs to winning wars to congratulating people on making it to a hundred years old. True, the presidency has changed with the times and with the men who have served in the office, but throughout U.S. history the office has been "a glorious burden."[3]


Nowadays we speak of an "imperial presidency," and it is true that the office looks and feels a lot like an elected monarchy. Already at the dawn of the new republic, John Adams tried to convince George Washington that he should act like a king. Adams suggested that the indispensable man should wear robes instead of plain clothes and be addressed as "Your Excellency" instead of "Mr. President." Washington demurred; his one monarchical tendency was that he loved big cars. His canary-colored coach, pulled by six white horses and attended by a bevy of black slaves, must have made quite an impression in New York City, site of the nation's first capital.
Despite some monarchical vestiges that persisted at the creation of the presidency, the U.S. Constitutional is really rather modest about what a president is charged to do. Article II specifies only a half-dozen duties for the chief executive must perform:
(1) As a citizen like the rest of us who himself must live under the law, "he shall take [an] Oath or Affirmation" to uphold the Constitution.
(2) As our chief executive, "he shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed," and "shall commission all the Officers of the United States."
(3) As the head of the nation's armed forces, he "shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States."
(4) As head of state, "He shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties...."
(5) He shall nominate, with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, "Judges of the Supreme Court." Additionally, "he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls ... and all other Officers of the United States." On a related note, "he shall receive Ambassadors and other public Ministers."
(6) As a kind of legislator in chief, "He shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient."[4]

Look at the verbs that express the chief executive's power. A president can ... take, take care, commission, be, have, make, nominate, appoint, receive, give, recommend, and judge. Not a cipher of an office, to be sure, but executive action is bounded by constitutional, legal, bureaucratic, and political restraints, as well as by custom, media influence, and popular opinion. You would hardly know from the foregoing that the president of the United States is the most powerful man in the world.


It is in the framework of restraints and responsibilities that we can begin to understand the "glorious burden" of the presidency. By looking at a president's roles in greater depth, we will see how the office has evolved since George Washington was sworn in some 215 years ago. Following are some of the roles the modern president is expected to fill:

Chief Executive. At the top of the president's job description is making sure the laws passed by Congress are faithfully executed. No small task, given how busy Congress is. That's why the president has a staff of 3,400 people who not only work in the Old Executive Mansion and West Wing, but also out in the bureaucracies.

One of the most important tasks of any president is to nominate outstanding jurists to the federal bench and Supreme Court. That may be the most important legacy presidents leave the nation. If they are in power long enough to shape the judiciary, they can also contribute significantly to the culture of the nation.

Chief Diplomat. In his Farewell Address, George Washington advised future presidents to maintain good relations with other nations. A state of peace would allow the United States to grow and prosper and build up the armed forces necessary to defend herself. We were the world's first large republic -- an experiment in ordered liberty -- and maintaining good relations with other nations would require exceptional diplomatic skills.

One of the greatest diplomatic coups in human history was the Louisiana Purchase. Never in human history had a large republic doubled its territory by diplomacy rather than by war. That in itself was a magnificent legacy bequeathed by Thomas Jefferson.

Since Jefferson's time, the president of the U.S. has acquired disproportionate burdens in the global arena. In the first place, we are the world's lone hyperpower, capable of projecting more power and influencing more people than any other nation in history. Second, we have the world's greatest arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, capable of destroying more people than any other nation in history. Third, in contrast to most ancient and modern empires, we do not think it enough merely to exert our will abroad in the national interest -- we put a premium on using power morally. This has made some of our presidents not just chief diplomats, but chief crusaders or chief missionaries.

The Smithsonian exhibit on the presidency puts it this way: "To the outside world, the United States president is both a national spokesman and a world leader. As a representative of a nation of immigrants with cultural and economic ties around the globe, the president is not only expected to defend the country's national security and economic interests but also to promote democratic principles and human rights around the world."[5]

Commander in Chief. The Preamble to the Constitution observes that one purpose of government is to "provide for the common defence." The framers of the Constitution believed that civilian control of the military is a cornerstone to liberty in times of war and peace. General George Washington demonstrated this commitment at Newburgh, New York, when he had to bring to heel insubordinate officers who wanted to march on Congress.

The nation was still in its youth when a series of crises forced our first four presidents to act in the role of commander in chief. Washington had to put down the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania. John Adams had to wage the Quasi War against the French in the Caribbean. Thomas Jefferson had to go after the Barbary Pirates in the Mediterranean. And James Madison had to finish the War for Independence from Great Britain by waging the War of 1812 (America's first congressionally declared war). Our first presidents sported swords on ceremonial occasions; now they go to rallies with the "football," the briefcase that contains nuclear codes and other information needed in a military crisis.

No other duty has caused our presidents more anguish than being commander in chief in time of war. Every president has said the most wrenching decisions he faced, by far, involved sending men into battle knowing that somebody's son, brother, or father wouldn't make it home. A stark photograph of Lyndon Johnson captures the agony of being a wartime commander in chief. LBJ is slumped over in a chair in the Cabinet Room, his head down; a reel-to-reel tape recorder is in front of him. The photo captured LBJ listening to a recording by his son-in-law, Charles Robb, who was a captain in the U.S. Marines serving in Vietnam. "When I left for Vietnam," Captain Robb explained, "the president gave me a small battery-operated tape recorder ... so that I could send Lynda occasional recordings. I think [those tapes] gave him some of the texture of the war at company levels."[6] And that photograph gives Americans some of the texture of being a wartime commander in chief.

There is often an idealism to which presidents appeal to justify American war-making. While Jefferson, a passivist, spoke of expanding the Empire of Liberty, it was Abraham Lincoln who truly infused war with transcendent aims. To Lincoln it was not enough to preserve the Union; by 1863 he also meant to emancipate all black slaves on American soil. To Woodrow Wilson it was not enough to go to war to defend United States interests against German aggression; we had to "make the world safe for democracy." To Ronald Reagan it was not enough to maintain detente with the Soviet Union; communism was an evil system destined for the dustbin of history; we had to help liberate the people in its shackles. To George W. Bush it is not enough to defend the U.S. against jihadists; we have to establish democratic governance in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Imagine if the president were Ghengis Khan, a law unto himself. His ability to make war would be infintely easier than a U.S. president's ability, hemmed in as he is by constitutional, institutional, legal, and democratic restraints. Indeed, the commander in chief cannot appropriate the funds to wage war; for that he must work with Congress. The commander in chief cannot be indifferent to the law when he wages war; he has federal courts with which to contend and ultimately the threat of impeachment and removal from office. The commander in chief cannot have a tin ear when it comes to public opinion in times of war; as the people exercise their sovereignty every four years, he must respect the public and the media who help shape their opinion, assuming he or his party wants to stay in power. (See the Ask Gleaves column, "Wartime presidents," for historical trends regarding wartime presidents running for re-election.)

The following story illustrates the limits on a president's power, even during wartime. Since 9/11, President George W. Bush has been leading the fight against Al Qaeda. He wanted terrorist detainees at Guantanamo to be tried as war criminals. But shortly after Bush's re-election, a "federal judge ruled ... that President Bush had both overstepped his constitutional bounds and improperly brushed aside the Geneva Conventions in establishing military commissions to try detainees at the United States naval base here [at Guantanomo Bay] as war criminals."

It was a blow to the president, who is trying to win a war. A spokesman at the U.S. Department of Justice explained the administration's position: "The process struck down by the district court today [November 8, 2004] was carefully crafted to protect America from terrorists while affording those charged with violations of the laws of war with fair process, and the department will make every effort to have this process restored through appeal.... By conferring protected legal status under the Geneva Conventions on members of Al Qaeda, the judge has put terrorism on the same legal footing as legitimate methods of waging war."[7] (See the Ask Gleaves column, "Bush Doctrine and Roosevelt Corollary," for pre-emptive wars in U.S. history.)

Manager of the Economy. Among the reasons the founders called delegates to Philadelphia in May of 1787 were that a number of economic problems had arisen under the very imperfect Articles of Confederation."[8] The framers knew that a leadership position had to be created that gave more power to execute the laws of the land. There were enormous economic consequences to that decision back in 1787.

The Preamble to the Constitution observes that one purpose of government is to "promote the general welfare." What that means in a free-market system is that the president does not create jobs; rather, he fosters the conditions in which jobs are created. Despite limitations on presidential power, citizens have high expectations of what the CEO of America can do in the economic arena. He must endeavor to keep the country prosperous and make sure markets are functioning well by pursuing a responsible fiscal policy, negotiating treaties that are fair to American workers, resolving disruptive strikes, and appointing judges whose jurisprudence is sound and predictable and not unsettling to markets.

"Even though they have very limited power to control the economy, woe to the president who governs during an economic downturn and is perceived as not doing enough."[9] Herbert Hoover will forever be remembered in an unfavorable light because of Hoovervilles, the shantytowns built on the outskirts of cities in the early years of the Great Depression. (See the Ask Gleaves columns on the presidency and jobs.)

Party Leader. This is an example of a modern-day presidential role that is nowhere prescribed in the Constitution. In fact, George Washington in his Farewell Address urged fellow citizens not to succumb to faction or party. As a fallback position, if parties developed, he wanted presidents to remain above the fray -- to no avail. No sooner had George Washington retired than presidents became the leaders of their parties. And that fact has made them much more effective executives.

Some might quip that the development of political parties has led to the opposite of domestic tranquility -- one of the purposes of government in the Preamble of the Constitution -- but in historical perspective, our parties have served America well. As I've said in another Ask Gleaves column, parties "are the way Americans have long organized and channeled political disputes. They certainly beat the alternatives seen elsewhere around the globe -- little things like tribal wars, putsches, revolutions, assassinations, and mobs at the barricades. We should be grateful that our politics are so relatively genteel."

The men who have been ambitious for their parties have also, on occasion, been ambitious and effective presidents. As the Smithsonian puts it, "Several presidents rose to the office by building political parties or reshaping those that already existed. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison organized the Democratic-Republican party in the 1790s to counter the Federalist party of John Adams and Alexander Hamilton. Andrew Jackson created the new Democratic party in the 1820s and won the presidency in 1828 by consolidating the remnants of the Democratic-Republican party and attracting newly enfranchised voters. Others such as Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan reshaped their party structures, establishing new coalitions and bringing in new supporters."[10]

Ceremonial Head of State. At his Inauguration, the president takes an oath before fellow citizens and before the divine that he will uphold the laws of the land. This is appropriate, considering that the Preamble states that a purpose of government is to "secure the blessings of liberty." The operative word is "blessings." Americans expect presidents to govern, to be sure. But they also want them to inspire, console, comfort, and even lead the nation in prayer when the situation warrants -- in other words, to be their high priest. Think about it: no other individual in America can effectively call the entire nation to prayer when there is a D-Day Invasion, a Challenger tragedy, or a September 11th. And not just in crises -- the president also leads Americans when laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and at the annual National Prayer Breakfast. Moreover, through the years many of our presidents have called for days of "fasting and prayer." We have even had a preacher become president: James A. Garfield.

These symbolic events provide occasions when a president can connect with the American people. They are a vital source of presidential power.[11]


From the above, we see that there is a correspondence between the six presidential roles set out in Article II of the Constitution, and the six general purposes of government set out in the Preamble:

(1) The president is to take care that the laws passed by Congress are faithfully executed; this is necessary to "insure domestic tranquility."

(2) The president is to nominate judges; this is necessary to "establish justice."

(3) The president is to serve as commander in chief and make treaties; this is necessary to "provide for the common defence."

(4) and (5) The president is to give Congress information about the state of the Union and recommend measures to improve it; this is necessary to "promote the general welfare" and "to form a more perfect union."

(6) The president is to take an oath at his Inauguration; this is necessary to confirm that ours is a system of laws over men, which in turn is necessary to "secure the blessings of liberty."

[1]Harding quoted in Lonnie G. Bunch, Spencer R. Crew, Mark G. Hirsch, adn Harry R. Rubenstein, The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden, Introduction by Richard Norton Smith (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000), pp. 67, 70.

[2]Bunch, et al., American Presidency, p. xii. The Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies and Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum teamed up to host the Smithsonian Institution's exhibit, "The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden," on October 2, 2003.

[3]Bunch, et al., American Presidency.

[4]For a good overview of Article II, see Linda R. Monk, The Words We Live By (New York: Hyperion, 2003), pp. 62-88.

[5]Bunch, et al., American Presidency, p. 76.

[6]Photograph and caption in Robert Dallek, "Lyndon B. Johnson," in To the Best of My Ability: The American Presidents, ed. James M. McPherson (New York: DK, 2001), pp. 264-65.

[7]Neil A. Lewis, "U.S. Judge Halts War-Crime Trial at Guantanamo," New York Times, November 9, 2004, p. A1.

[8]Bunch, et al., American Presidency, p. 83.

[9]Bunch, et al., American Presidency, p. 83.

[10]Bunch, et al., American Presidency, p. 85.

[11]Bunch, et al., American Presidency, p. 81.


Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

u did not make that yourself. that plaijorism or wut ever u call it!

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