The Informal Powers of the President
The job description for president of the United States seems pretty straightforward. When it comes to domestic political issues, the president, as the head of the executive branch, is supposed to put into action the laws passed by Congress. This job of running the government on a daily basis is a very powerful one, but it also has serious limitations. In theory, the president is stuck implementing laws passed by others, and if he or she attempts to use a certain amount of leeway in determining how to enforce the laws or chooses to act independently through executive orders, both the Congress and the Courts have mechanisms in place to do something about it.
The president has a bit more autonomy when it comes to foreign policy as our nation's commander and chief of the armed forces and chief diplomat. But the framers of the Constitution made sure that there were limitations here as well. Only Congress can declare war, and any treaty negotiated by the president must be ratified in the Senate. Still, the president has the ability to push foreign policy in a certain direction while the Congress is largely limited to the power of approval. But when it comes to passing legislation, the president is the one in approval mode. Through the veto, presidents can make it more difficult to get laws passed, but they have no formal means at their disposal to make legislation happen.
If you had little knowledge of the Constitution and were to follow a presidential election, you would probably not realize that the president had no formal ability to pass laws. When candidates are not engaged in attacking one another, they spend a great deal of time laying out all of the things they would theoretically get done when elected. They talk about issues like taxes, health care, education, the environment, and a variety of other subjects. The problem is that it takes legislation to make any major changes in these areas. So a presidential candidate can make all the promises in the world about what he or she will accomplish, but if Congress does not cooperate, little is going to happen.
Still, many Americans expect presidents to lay out an agenda and make it happen. Many also tend to give the president the credit or the blame for the current situation in the country, regardless of whether or not any of this president's agenda was actually carried out. Today, it seems perfectly natural that the president is the central political figure in the United States, but it has not always been that way. For much of the 19th century, the government at all levels, by modern standards, did not do very much. If people paid attention to politics at all, they tended to focus on the local level. What happened in mayoral or city council elections seemed more relevant to their lives than what was happening in Washington DC. It wasn't until the early 20th century that the political focus began to shift to Washington DC in general and to the president in particular.
The early 20th century is typically referred to as the Progressive Era. Progressives were reformers who were largely responding to the problems created by the Industrial Revolution: factories with terrible work conditions, polluted and crowded cities, poor quality and even dangerous products, and massive corporations that monopolized entire industries. They believed that the laissez faire style of governing that had been followed since the founding of the country was inadequate in this new industrial world and that the government needed to step in and bring some order to the chaos. Since large corporations that played a part in causing many of these problems operated nationwide, progressives increasingly came to believe that only the federal government had the power to rein them in.
Theodore Roosevelt, the first of the President Roosevelts, is often given credit for bringing the progressive style of governing to Washington DC. While he was president, the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed, some monopolistic corporations were broken up, the federal government began regulating the rates charged by railroad companies, and tens of millions of acres were set aside as national forests and parks. One could argue that Roosevelt does not deserve all of the credit for this. As explained earlier, presidents do not have the power to single handedly get legislation passed. Theodore Roosevelt, however, was not a president who just waited around to see what laws Congress might give him to enforce.
Roosevelt understood that the president, in addition to the formal powers granted to him by the Constitution, also had several informal powers at his disposal which he could use to push Congress to pass the legislation that he wanted. Presidents can hire and fire people for various government posts. When Congress has authorized money to be spent on a federal project, presidents can have some influence on where in the country this project might be carried out. During election season, a president may (or may not) campaign on behalf of a congressional candidate who finds himself in a tough race. So if a congressman had a friend looking for a job, was looking to bring some money to his district, or could use a photo op with the president to show how much political clout he possessed, the president might do the congressman a favor if said congressman agreed to support legislation that the president wanted to happen.
While President Roosevelt was happy to wheel and deal when necessary, this was not his greatest skill as a leader. What truly set him apart from others who have been in the White House was his ability to get the public behind him. Roosevelt was more than just a politician. He was a celebrity in the modern sense of the word, an energetic, charismatic, hyperactive, cartoon character of a man who could get people behind him through sheer force of personality. And perhaps more importantly, Roosevelt understood the power of personality, and he carefully crafted this public image of being a larger than life character. Donald Trump, for instance, can learn a lot from Roosevelt about the power that comes when you get much of the press corps to like you as opposed to describing much of the media as the "enemy of the people." Positive press coverage can get much of the public to like you, and when public opinion is on your side, Congress needs to pay attention. Congressman understand the impact of being either praised or criticized by a popular president.
Roosevelt understood what is common knowledge in politics today. The President of the United states has a "bully pulpit," an ability to talk to the American people directly that no other politician has. Only the President today can give a national address at any time on radio, television or the internet and expect people throughout the country to listen. Only the president has non-stop press coverage on a national level. So if he can make his case effectively to the American people, he then has the clout to push the federal government in the direction he wants it to go.
Today, we expect presidents to lay out an agenda and do what it takes to make it happen. Most Americans look to Washington DC first for solutions to their nation's problems. While Theodore Roosevelt signed many important pieces of legislation, his greatest legacy was his impact on the presidency itself. The job of being president was more powerful when he left office than when he began. Other progressive presidents, most notably Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson, would expand the role of the federal government and the power of the presidency even further.
The ongoing question today is whether or not the president and the federal government in general have gotten too powerful. It is likely that the men who wrote the Constitution would hardly recognize the modern executive branch that they created more than two centuries ago. But then again, they would also hardly recognize the modern American economy. I imagine that many of them, once they gained an understanding of how the modern American economy was different from their time, would also understand why leaders like Roosevelt pushed the country into a more progressive direction. As we found out the hard way in the 19th century, laissez faire can lead to some serious problems. But as we have also learned in the 20th and early 21st centuries, there are dangers that go along with giving the federal government in general and the president in particular too much power: higher taxes, government debt, potentially less personal freedom, and an over dependence on the decision making abilities of one (not necessarily competent) person.