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We the People Book Cover
We the People: A Concise Introduction to American Politics, 4/e
Thomas E. Patterson, Harvard University

The Presidency

Chapter 12 Summary

The presidency has become a much stronger office than the Framers envisioned. The Constitution grants presidents substantial military, diplomatic, legislative and executive powers, and in each case presidential authority has increased measurably. Underlying this change is the president's position as the one leader chosen by the whole nation and as the sole head of the executive branch. These features of the office have enabled presidents to claim broad authority in response to increased demands on the federal government by changing world and national conditions.

During the course of American history, the presidential selection process has been altered in ways that were intended to make it more responsive to the preferences of ordinary people. Today, citizens vote not only in general elections but in selection of nominees. To gain nomination, a presidential hopeful must gain the support of the electorate in state primaries and open caucuses. Once nominated, candidates receive federal funds for their general election campaigns, which are based on televised appeals.

Although campaigns tend to personalize the presidency, the responsibilities of the modern presidency far exceed any president's personal capacities. To meet their obligations, presidents have surrounded themselves with large staffs of advisers, policy experts and managers. These staff members enable the president to extend control over the executive branch while providing him with information necessary for policymaking. All recent presidents have discovered, however, that their control of staff resources is incomplete and that some tasks done by others on their behalf actually work against what the president is trying to accomplish.

As the nation's sole chief executive and top elected leader, a president can expect that his policy and leadership efforts will receive attention. However, other institutions, particularly Congress, have the authority to make this leadership effective. No president has come close to winning approval for all programs he has placed before Congress, but presidents' records of success have varied considerably. Factors contributing to a president's success include national conditions requiring strong White House leadership and having the president's party hold a majority in Congress.

To retain an effective leadership position, presidents depend on the backing of the American people. Recent presidents have made extensive use of the media to build support for their programs. Many have had difficulty maintaining that support throughout their terms of office. A major reason is that the public expects far more from its presidents than they can deliver.