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The presidency is an exclusive club, and its members are not above bending the rules. Over time, however, the executive branch has tried to consolidate its own power at the expense of the Constitution.

In October 2002, both houses of Congress voted overwhelmingly to authorize the use of military force against Iraq. The measure originated with President George W. Bush and allowed him complete discretion to decide whether, when and how to attack the regime of Saddam Hussein. The president had rejected any change in the resolution’s wording that would impose the slightest limitation upon his prerogatives, and his legal advisers insisted that he did not need congressional authorization. Scarcely any members of Congress objected to this apparent usurpation of their constitutional power to declare war. Outside observers in the media saw an administration “contemptuous” of Congress and a Congress “timorous” in the face of presidential demands.

Bush is hardly the first president to start a foreign war on his own initiative. James K. Polk claims that distinction. But the contrast between Polk’s war and Bush’s helps to reveal how drastically the dynamics of presidential power have changed. The ostensible objective of Polk’s war with Mexico was the annexation of the independent Republic of Texas. Since a majority of Texans supported annexation, Polk might have accomplished it with less bloodshed and political grief if he had fixed the southern boundary of Texas at the Nueces River, where the Mexican government seemed willing to draw it. Instead, Polk ordered General Zachary Taylor to take up a position 150 miles to the south, on the left bank of the Rio Grande. Mexican troops attacked a U.S. reconnaissance patrol there, killing or capturing about 40 men. The news reached Washington on the evening of May 8, 1846. Earlier that afternoon, Polk and his cabinet had already decided to ask Congress for a declaration of war. Now they could justify the request as a response to the Mexicans’ invasion of the United States to “shed American blood on American soil.”

Polk’s implausible justification for the war called up a chorus of dissent, some of it from members of his own party. Even his constitutional role as commander in chief was not secure. In an era of political generals, the Democratic Polk found himself trying to control two Whig commanders—Winfield Scott and Zachary Taylor— whom he suspected of having designs on the presidency. Polk dismissed General Scott and lost the support of the military. Although the war was a resounding success—the country gained California and New Mexico along with Texas—Congress censured Polk for military action “unnecessarily and unconstitutionally begun by the President of the United States.”

The great paradox of the modern American presidency is that even when individual presidents fail, the institution of the presidency flourishes. In the midst of the lurid scandal that brought him to impeachment, President Bill Clinton refined the use of executive orders and administrative regulation to circumvent Congress’ statutory powers. Clinton was adding to a repertoire of executive initiatives developed in part by Ronald Reagan, while Congress was investigating his administration’s misdeeds in the Iran-Contra scandal. As members of his own party in Congress sought to distance themselves from George W. Bush, and congressional Democrats called for investigations of his administration’s conduct, the president ignored Congress and used his executive powers to govern. Together, Bush, Reagan and Clinton contributed to the onward march of executive power in the face of a Congress that seems to retain only the power to complain and harass.

Harding Changes the Game

Executive autonomy occasionally has advanced in dramatic responses to war, terrorism or nuclear threat, but its path runs more frequently through the fine print of public business. Consider, for example, the presidency of Warren G. Harding, who came to office in 1921 promising to return the country to “normalcy” after World War I. Chief among the wartime disruptions were the sweeping powers that Congress had ceded to President Woodrow Wilson. The National Defense Act of 1917 authorized the president to procure needed military hardware by any means necessary. The Lever Food and Fuel Control Act gave him the power to regulate the transportation, production and storage of wartime necessities, and the power to fix prices, to requisition needed materials and to take over the operation of factories and mines. In 1920, despite Wilson’s opposition, Congress repealed 60 of the wartime measures, and Republican presidential nominee Harding pledged that he would abjure “executive autocracy.”

Harding, however, was not indifferent to executive power. His administration, in fact, achieved the most substantial enhancement of the president’s budgetary powers since the ratification of the Constitution—the 1921 Budget and Accounting Act. With few exceptions, presidents prior to Harding had been ignorant bystanders in the budget making process. Each executive department presented its annual request directly to the congressional committee that oversaw its budget. Congressional appropriations committees scrutinized the proposals and drew up legislation that specified, to the last dollar, how funds were to be spent.

In 1921 out-of-control federal spending prompted Republican congressional leaders to reach an accommodation with the new Republican president. Harding would submit a unified executive budget for congressional approval, but Congress stipulated that it be prepared by an agency distinct from the Office of the President. A new Bureau of the Budget (BoB) would be housed in the Department of the Treasury, which Congress regarded as the federal department most responsive to congressional influence.

Harding seized the opportunity and issued an executive order requiring agencies to submit their proposed budgets to the BoB for the 1922 fiscal year. He worked closely with General Charles G. Dawes, the BoB’s first director, to introduce the principle of central legislative clearance. Agencies had to get BoB approval for all requests and recommendations submitted to Congress, not just budget requests. The agencies at first resisted this challenge to their independence, but after Harding’s death in 1923, President Calvin Coolidge ignored congressional and agency objections and mandated a central clearance procedure.

The president’s war powers have expanded recently in much the same way as his budgetary powers. Congress last exercised its constitutional authority to declare war during World War II, and subsequent attempts to curb executive authority have backfired. The War Powers Act of 1973 was intended to prevent a president from carrying the country into the quagmire of some future Vietnam. In fact, it gave the president more discretion in the deployment of military forces than the Constitution had granted. Under the War Powers Act, the president on his own initiative may commit American military forces to combat abroad for up to 90 days. But as a practical matter, once troops have been committed, both military and political considerations make it difficult for Congress to pull them back.

Prior to 1973, other presidents acted as though they did not recognize any limits to their war-making powers. In 1950, for example, President Harry Truman deliberately refused to ask Congress for a declaration of war before sending troops to Korea. Leaders of both houses volunteered to enact a joint resolution approving his action, but Secretary of State Dean Acheson advised Truman that it was best not to create the impression that Congress had anything to say about the exercise of the president’s powers as commander in chief.

The Presidency and the Parties

Presidentialism has risen as popular participation in politics has declined. Americans, in short, are no longer as much a part of American politics as they used to be. Their absence has been most pronounced in congressional and local elections, but it is evident in presidential elections as well, where turnout never again attained the peak it reached in 1896. As one might expect, representative assemblies such as the House and Senate, whose influence derives from popular mobilization, have suffered politically. But institutions that do not depend on public participation in order to achieve their objectives have become more powerful by comparison.

In the 19th century, political parties were essential to public mobilization and critical to the nomination and election of American presidents. With few exceptions, the politicians who the major parties chose to elevate to the White House held views and ambitions that posed little threat to party dominance or solidarity. Near the start of the 20th century, however, presidential aspirants began to run for office on their own account instead of waiting to be called by their parties. To make oneself president required a powerful, driving ambition, and the ability to break the parties’ control of the presidential nominating process was a sign of party weakness. The gradual unraveling of party organization made it more difficult for congressional leaders to impose party discipline. When powerfully ambitious presidents faced a Congress with a reduced capacity to achieve unity, the stage was set for a steady shift of power toward the executive branch.

Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt all managed to reach at least some of their objectives and to enter the pantheon of presidential greatness because they were party leaders. Perhaps Jefferson’s chief strength as a party leader was the weakness of the party that opposed him. Andrew Jackson was in much the same position, except that his party did manage to mobilize voters more effectively than the Jeffersonians. In 1832 Jackson became the first president to win an election in which turnout exceeded 50 percent, but just barely.

Parties make presidents great, it seems, when the president’s party is the only one in the field. When Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860, most of the opposition seceded, and for the remainder of his presidency, he headed a single party state. But Lincoln’s experience also illustrates the unreliability of party as a source of presidential power. When the supply of congressional Democrats diminished, Republican legislators turned their fire on the president. To the extent that Lincoln depended on his party, he relied for the most part on Republican governors, not congressional Republicans, and his principal political strength was probably the Union Army. He ordered his generals to furlough regiments whose votes were needed in critical state elections and used Union troops to supervise balloting.

Franklin Roosevelt was clearly a different sort of partisan president. He orchestrated a vast extension of the Democratic Party’s electoral base, reaching out to constituencies of the dispossessed. He sealed their loyalty to the party with hundreds of thousands of federal jobs and millions of dollars in loans and benefits. His reward was the landslide reelection of 1936.

Yet it was after this stunning victory that FDR encountered Democratic opposition. Congress, dominated by Democrats, rejected his first reorganization plan for the Office of the President, a plan that would have extended his powers significantly. Conservative Democrats opposed his new social policies. Roosevelt tried to purge the party of his most annoying critics during the congressional elections of 1938 but emerged a chastened loser. After that rebuff, says presidential historian Sidney Milkis, FDR was “firmly persuaded of the need to form a direct link between the executive office and the public.”

How Presidents Connect With the Public

A number of presidents have attempted to make the same connection, although few have been as successful as Franklin Roosevelt. Speaking directly to the people, over the heads of Congress and party, has emerged as a favored tactic of presidential leadership in the age of television, but it had its beginnings even before the age of radio. William McKinley was the first White House occupant to set aside a room for the press, and he had run for office in 1896 as the candidate of “The People Against the Bosses,” the bosses of his own party.

Jefferson and Jackson, though great party builders, made few speeches or public appearances. Lincoln, en route from Springfield, Ill., to his inauguration, greeted crowds along the way, but he spoke only briefly at each stop, saying that it would be inappropriate to offer public views on the pressing issues of the day. All three held office during a time when it was considered bad form for presidents to address the people directly except on ceremonial occasions. Congress apparently regarded any more tendentious communication from president to people as an impeachable offense. Just such a charge was included in the bill of impeachment against Andrew Johnson.

Prohibitions on presidential speech were fully broken during the administrations of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Roosevelt personally appealed to the public in 1906 to achieve passage of the Hepburn Act, which prohibited railroads from offering discounted rates to large shippers and authorized the Interstate Commerce Commission to set maximum freight charges for railroads. Roosevelt also pioneered the use of White House leaks, making sure that favored reporters got information damaging to the railroads and their political champions. The strategy succeeded. Public opinion put pressure on Congress, and the effort brought a railroad regulation bill to Roosevelt’s desk that included virtually every feature he had sought.

Wilson refined Roosevelt’s techniques for rallying the public. Not only did he embark on speech-making expeditions around the country, he also invented the press conference so that he could exercise similar influence without leaving Washington. Wilson met regularly with correspondents from major newspapers and invited them to ask him questions about political issues in the news. Sometimes he even provided friendly reporters with the questions that he wanted to answer.

Wilson was also the first president to make use of professional public relations consultants. After winning the 1916 election on the slogan “He kept us out of war,” Wilson asked New York publicist George Creel to design a public relations campaign that would swing American opinion to the view that the country’s interests demanded that it support Britain and France. When the United States finally entered the war, Wilson named Creel to head the new Committee on Public Information, whose mission was to mobilize the entire civilian population for the industrial and agricultural production essential to sustain the Allies’ war effort in Europe. The committee recruited its staff largely from major advertising agencies, and its assignment, according to Creel, “was to sell the war.”

Franklin Roosevelt’s fireside chats on the radio during the 1930s made him a personal and welcome presence in millions of homes. In the 1950s, Dwight Eisenhower’s press conferences—the first to be televised—convinced the public, according to political scientist Fred Greenstein, that Ike was “solid and full of common sense.” John Kennedy’s press conferences radiated wit and charm. Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon lacked Kennedy’s poise but made an impact with prepared speeches. Johnson used a televised speech to a joint session of Congress to frame his administration’s response to a violent attack by Alabama officials on civil rights demonstrators in Selma. His address is credited with gathering sufficient public support for voting rights legislation to overcome congressional resistance. Johnson also used television appeals to build public support for his War on Poverty.

Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton both preferred the televised town meeting as a format for personal contact with the public. It was less formal than the prepared speech, but since the “town” included only invited participants, it was less likely to produce hostile questions. Under Clinton the White House Communications Office assumed a role similar to Wilson’s Committee on Public Information. Its job was no longer simply to respond to reporters’ inquiries, but to mount a coherent communications strategy—promoting the president’s policy objectives, responding to unfavorable media coverage and projecting a positive image of the president. George W. Bush’s first communications director, Karen Hughes, worked to keep her office “ahead of the news” by constructing stories that would dominate the headlines and preempt critical coverage.

The shortcomings of party leadership and public appeal have led presidents, especially the most recent of them, to pursue their objectives through the administrative capabilities of the executive branch itself. Presidents must realize the same three conditions that serve as criteria of criminal culpability in the courts—motive, means and opportunity. The means are not always available because presidents do not always command the executive agencies needed to achieve their ends. The opportunity to exercise bureaucratic power depends on the ability or willingness of the other branches of government to resist presidential initiatives. The motivation is not simply a matter of personal inclination. It is at least in part a product of unnatural selection. Today’s candidate centered campaigns tend to favor aspirants who are driven, aggressive, tenacious and perhaps even ruthless. Conventional political wisdom holds that those who lack the requisite “fire in the belly” should not even apply for the job.

Understanding the presidency begins with a consideration of how politicians become presidents. Presidents of the past were created in an evening’s deliberation at party conventions, and they were expected to make as little trouble as possible. We now expect presidents to make history.

—This story was originally published in American History Magazine