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When composing the Constitution in 1789, the Founding Fathers were anxious to stress that the executive branch of the new republic was to be subordinate to the peoples’ representation, the Congress. They achieved this through the Separation of Powers, a theory of government thought up by the French philosopher Montesquieu to prevent over-mighty or tyrannical government.
The elaborate system of ‘checks and balances’ introduced greatly reduced the traditional authority of the executive, leaving some to argue that U. S. presidents have been left with very little power, if only the power of persuasion.
However to what extent is this true? Theodore Roosevelt famously stated that he was both “king and prime minister”, even though other presidents, such as Johnson and Truman have stressed the weakness of the presidency. The argument that presidents have only the power to persuade can be seen in many of the formal powers of the president laid out in Article II of the Constitution.
This can perhaps best be seen in his powers of nomination, both for federal judges and executive branch officials.
The president has only the power to suggest appointments to these positions; the final confirmation of the president’s choice lies with Congress. This will sometimes mean lengthy negotiations between the branches of government, with the president using his ‘pork barrel’ in an attempt to win over Senators. In 1987, Reagan’s nomination of Robert Bork was rejected by a Senate vote of 42 to 58, resulting in embarrassment for both the president and his nominee.
Reagan was unable to do anything about this, other than to suggest a new nominee in the hope that they would be accepted instead. The president’s power of persuasion is also illustrated by his role as chief diplomat for the United States. In this position, he negotiates major treaties with foreign countries, such Carter’s Panama Canal Treaty or Bush Snr. ’s Chemical Weapons Ban. Even so, it is the job of the Congress to ratify the treaty; it has no legal authority until it has been accepted by the Senate with a two-thirds majority.
As such, the president can only persuade the Senate to accept it, arguing for its merits or using his limited access to patronage. For instance, the Treaty of Versailles drawn up President Wilson in the aftermath of the First World War was rejected by the Senate, resulting in America being unable to join the League of Nations, a ‘pet-project’ of the President. Later in the C20th, the Senate refused to ratify a further six treaties, which presidents such as Eisenhower (1960) and Clinton (1999) had worked hard on the international stage to achieve.
Similarly, the president’s powers to submit the annual budget and propose legislation both require Congressional action if they are to have any authority. The president’s State of the Union address comprises key pieces of legislation which the president would like to be introduced (such as more green jobs and banking regulations seen in Obama’s 2010 address). However, this is meaningless unless they are introduced to and accepted by Congress, a process that requires the president to act tactfully using bipartisanship to persuade Congressmen and Senators to follow his proposals.