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The president is naturally the focus of US politics. Media coverage will of course always focus on the President. The position is undoubtedly the most significant in world politics and the president of the United States is commonly recognised as the most powerful person in the world. In addition to this, executive organisation is organised in a pyramidal fashion towards the oval office and within the executive the President is a dominant figure. However, form this brief explanation of the Presidency the true complications that it is marked by are unclear. The president is in a position where negotiation and compromise are necessities.
A president that makes government work is one that has a program and uses his resources to get it enacted. A good president is an activist: he sets the agenda, is attentive to the progress being made, and willingly accepts responsibility for what happens. However, the President must also accept that others have resources and responsibility and incorporate this into his actions and decisions. The United States has a separated, not a presidential system and no one least of all presidents can be entrusted with excessive authority.
The true nature of the Presidency; and the powers endowed to the occupant of the White House; is actually a lot more complicated than it appears on the surface. It may seem that the directly elected president who holds such a strong position and image in world politics is ensured a smooth passage to achieving the policies they want to. However, whilst a lot of the resources of power expected to be possessed by someone of such a high global standing are enjoyed by the American President, there are constraints to which a successful election guarantees political dominance.
Presidents learn many refrains on the job, if they don’t know already. Bill Clinton learned the difficulties of split party control by having to battle Republican majorities in congress. George W Bush had witnessed firsthand his father’s problems of governing with a Democratic congress. He also learnt about the limitations of executive power on the job as governor of Texas.
There is never a guarantee that election by a wide margin ensures a powerful president throughout his term in office. Likewise, having high public approval ratings doesn’t necessarily ensure a free rein for the President. Johnson remarked how winning power doesn’t guarantee a President with executive power. He has to establish what is the ‘right to govern’ by inspiring confidence on the people and fulfilling the leadership roles expected. Every president has to develop a moral underpinning to his power and assert a style and authority on the President, or he soon discovers that he has no power at all.
Obviously, public and media focus is always on the President and as a result, expectations of a President often far exceed the individual’s personal, political, institutional or constitutional capacities. Focusing too much on the Presidency can lead to a seriously distorted picture of how national government works. The resources and authority of the president, although large, are not as clear cut as it initially seems.
To begin with, a President’s relationship with congress is obviously crucial to him exercising a strong level of power. However, the president’s political status and strategic positioning does not end with the state of congress. The public interpretation of strength associated with the election results, the exact number of seats possessed by the President’s party in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, midterm election results, the nature of public and media opinion and the contentiousness of the issues all affect the strategic behaviour of the President.
The importance of change and the dynamic nature of American politics cannot be overlooked. Even a President who commands government on the back of a convincing election and high public ratings have been unable to protect their apparent legitimacy against changing conditions. For example, President Nixon demonstrated that even though he had been mandated, misuse of his position and resources caused his downfall. Public trust is a huge resource of presidential authority and something that cannot afford to be jeopardised.
I believe the authority of the president can be broken down into two sections. He has the strategic capacity to set the nation’s political agenda, predominantly by using the powers endowed to him by the constitution. He also has the tactical capacity to negotiate and bargain with other political actors in order to win over both congress and public opinion, two crucial groups to keep satisfied in order to properly implement his policy agenda. There is then a subset of factors that influence the extent to which the president can carry out the above activities. These influences make up the president’s resources of power and how they are used will determine how powerful and dominant he can become.
There is no doubt that the largest resource of authority available to the president is the constitution. It is certainly the most important area to consider when analysing the authority of the president. Article 2 of the constitution demonstrates why the position of the American president is so huge. The explicit grants and limitations of power awarded to the president in this article of the constitution are the basis on which the contemporary American president is built.
Executive power of the federal government is vested in the president. He has the power to appoint ambassadors, members of the cabinet, Justices of the Supreme Court and Judges of lower federal courts, with the advice and consent of the senate. He can propose legislative measures and veto bills emerging from congress. In terms of the armed forces and foreign policy, the president in America is similar to that in France in the sense that he regards this as his reserved domain.
The above clauses therefore make up the basis of the president’s power. However, it is clear from this that whilst it obviously makes the president the primary actor in the American political system, there is room for manoeuvre and this alone cannot give us all the information we need in learning about the president’s resources of authority. The fact that there is a lot of gaps to be filled in article 2 of the constitution mean that the position of power in the American political system is of a dynamic nature. A lot of the presidents other resources of power outside of the prerogative powers endowed by the constitution are circumstantial and possess the potential to change at any moment.
Presidents will claim that there are some powers endowed to them that are inherent in the constitution that are not explicitly stated. These are interpreted by different presidents in different ways. This seems to be interpreted from the statutory delegation of power by congress to the presidency. The best example of this is Lincoln declaring martial law during the civil war under emergency powers. The constitution’s generality and ambiguity requires gaps to be filled so various presidents can appeal to this ambiguity in asserting that they possess unwritten constitutional provisions.
However, this process of filling gaps is untidy, intellectually inconsistent and highly contentious. Not confined to the judicial branch of government, it incorporates the executive, congress, interest groups and public opinion. Therefore, presidents have to develop other resources of authority available to them in order for them to be able to abuse the apparent unwritten elements of the constitution. Whilst the principle of inherent powers of the president possessed in the constitution is now accepted by the majority, then extent to which they exist remains a matter of dispute.
The media is a huge resource for the president. The media have over the course of the 20th century changed the nature of the presidency through the introduction of both radio and television. The media has been enhanced as a significant source of strategic leadership in an otherwise fragmented political system. Media attention naturally focuses on the White House and that doesn’t show any sign of changing. The Oval Office is where the prestige of American politics lies. Therefore, the president is showcased through a proportion of the media as the only significant part of the political system. This in general acts to strengthen the president’s political authority and journalists are generally treated well by the president in order to guarantee this strengthening. However, inherent in this action is an acceptance that the media always have been and are now more than ever a threat to presidents.
The legitimacy received by the president through being directly elected and no one in the American system being mandated in the same way is a great resource for the president. The elected part of the executive branch of American system is singular, not collective, and the president is in consequence, a prominent national figure: his constituency is his nation and he therefore enjoys a singular electoral legitimacy. Both Congress and the Supreme Court are institutions with multiple memberships whereas the presidency is a strictly one member group. Having no rival in this sense helps the president appeal directly to the heart of the American people and makes them the foremost person in American politics. This is essentially the American president’s greatest political asset.
Political skill is certainly an important factor in the success that presidents have in asserting leadership. Lyndon B Johnson was able to exert more authority than he was constitutionally defined to do so because he had particularly good persuasive skills. Additionally, Ronald Reagan possessed strong strategic skills that enabled him to manipulate his position effectively. President’s can exercise neither strategic nor persuasive leadership by relying upon their limited resources of authority; much depends upon the skill with which a president is able to bring political influence and persuasion to bear.
However, the most important controlling factor of the president’s level of authority is his relationship with other key political actors. He can maintain high standing with the public if his cabinet is appointed sensibly and he has a healthy working relationship with congress. Therefore, other political actors are an important resource of the president’s authority.
By making clever decisions about who to be in his cabinet, a president can accomplish a number of goals. He can reward significant supporters, as Bush did with his appointment of James Baker as secretary of state. In addition to this, he can build support amongst other factions of the country by keeping his cabinet diverse. This tactic can especially be used to strengthen links with racial groups and women. All recent presidents have appointed at least one black person and one woman to their cabinet. Finally, cabinet is essential to maintaining a good relationship with congress, the key obstacle at times to presidential authority.
It is necessary for a president to be successful that he exercises strategic and tactical leadership of congress. Presidents such as Jimmy Carter who do not reliably achieve legislative leadership are generally regarded as having failed. It tends to be crucial for a president to be authoritative with congress to fully accomplish his goals and take full advantage of the resources available to him. Taking on the role of chief legislator is an important aspect of a president’s authority.
Maintaining a good relationship with congress tends to bring together all the important resources available to the president and if carried out effectively culminate becoming the chief legislator and that is effectively when the president is at his most powerful. A president’s political skill and ability to handle other key political actors is exemplified in his relationship with congress. Furthermore, maintaining a higher standard with the public enables him to be more dominant in regard to congress.
This is the area where the US executive differs mainly from that of parliamentary systems. The following problem is encountered by the French president as well as the American. Managing congress can be difficult, especially when the majority party is different to that of the president. Congress loses its degree of significance as a political resource when the party of the president do not enjoy a majority and it becomes a lot more difficult for the president to act as the chief legislator.
The president in America does not have the backing of a party whose main responsibility is to sustain government. This is significantly different to parliamentary systems where the primary function of parliament is to maintain government. Therefore, parliament in the UK takes on a less significant role in analysing the dynamic nature of institutional power as it tends to stay relatively constant through a term than Congress in the US. This is made even more complicated by midterm elections. However, what is similar in the management of the two executives is how crucial political skill and management of relations is. Neither a President nor a Prime Minister is able to overlook relations with key political actors around him.
In conclusion, the principal sources of presidential authority are like most issues in world politics. They are dynamic and dependent on the nature of the president and the circumstances he finds himself in, he can add to the obvious constitutionally defined roles as president through smooth management of colleagues, congress and public opinion. Whilst the constitution remains the most significant resource, there is a lot of scope for extra authority through effective management of the situation the president is in. This is true of all political systems, whilst there is usually a constitutionally defined role for executive leadership, political skill will determine the extent to which this leadership is implemented.