Major Sources of Presidential Power

Since the twentieth century, the executive branch has become the central institution of the United States government. The President of the United States is one of the most widely known, powerful, and respected political figures in the world- an icon of America. The constitution defines the presidency as head of state. He is the commander in chief, has the power to grant pardons, and has strong diplomatic powers. The president is an essential part of the government today.

There are several major sources of presidential power. These sources can be divided into two different types: institutional and political. Institutional sources of power are the formal tools used by, and allotted to the president. One source of political power is patronage. Patronage is the ability to appoint members of the same party to offices, and to do special favors for supporters. Patronage gives the president power by filling high management positions with political allies and powerful interest group leaders. Along with this is the appointment of the cabinet, the major department heads; White House staff, made up of advisors and analysts; and the Executive office of the President, a.k.a. the institutional presidency. The EOP was created by FDR to help perform management tasks for the president. Major agencies in the EOP include the National Security Council, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Council of Economic Advisors. Yet another minor institutional source of power is the vice presidency. The VP presides over the Senate and casts tie-breaking votes, and succeeds the president in the case of death or other vacancy.

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There are also several informal sources of presidential power. These political sources are elections, mandate and popularity, mass public opinion, party politics, the media, and interest groups. Elections can be a source of presidential power in that they reflect the President’s popularity. Presidents who win by a considerable margin have more public support for their programs, and this also makes congress tend to go along with them. Presidents who win by a large majority are also likely to have a majority of their party in congress. For current President George W. Bush, this is not a significant source of power because he won the election by such a small margin. Some people might even argue that he is not the rightful president. Closely related is public opinion. Mass public opinion, according to Lowi & Ginsberg, is the president’s most potent resource of power. Public opinion can give insight into public interests, but can also be dangerous because the president can end up making decisions based on public opinion, rather than trying to shape public opinion.

The media is also another key source of presidential power. Television gives people a chance to witness live debates and press conferences. Television gives the public a more intimate relationship with the president. They can see live action, rather than only hear or read carefully crafted speeches and slogans not usually written by the President himself. Success with the media can make a large impact on popularity, regardless of actual political skill, and has a major impact on the outcome of elections. Presidents can gain public support just because they appear to be a “likeable guy.”Party politics, another source of power, is most significant when it comes to the make up of congress. Although parties are not a dominant political force like they are in the British Parliament, a congress that is made up of a large majority of the same party as the president will be much more likely to vote in favor of the president’s proposed legislation. In cases where the majority of congress is of opposite party as the president can hinder successful legislation. An example of this is Harry Truman and the “do nothing 80th congress.” Divided government leads to more RIP politics, and each party tries to ruin the other’s reputation instead of creating successful legislation.

The presidency has changed a great deal in the 20th century. Especially in the last 60 years. Since FDR, the presidential branch has gained a considerable amount of power. It has now become the most dominant and visible branch of American Government.

Early American Government was congressionally dominated. The Speaker of the House and the Majority Leader of the Senate were more powerful than the president. But beginning with the Great Depression, to WWII and through Vietnam, Korea, and the Cold War, power has shifted towards the President. After the Great Depression, it was evident that some major economic regulation was needed in business and in domestic issues. FDR’s “New Deal” began many new domestic programs, initiated by the President and not Congress, and brought the national government into more aspects of life from which it was previously excluded.

The changing economy has led to changes within the government. With the advance of technology, the economy has expanded globally. Beginning with WWII, the United States could no longer use isolationism as a foreign policy. It’s strength and success as a political entity entitled it to become involved with and to aid struggling nations. Also, the anti-communism crusade sparked by the destruction of many major European political systems changed the traditional system of American foreign policy. The president took over as chief diplomat. FDR’s exchange of ambassadors with the Soviet Union, and Nixon’s recognition of the People’s Republic of China showed how the United States was beginning to accept other political ideologies. Many decisions involving recent wars have been executive only. In Us vs. Pink, the Supreme Court upheld the president’s ability to use executive agreements, which are basically treaties without congressional approval. This gave the executive broader powers in dealing singly with other nations and ambassadors.

The Presidency gained further power when it was granted use of the line item veto in 1996 as part of the republican Contract with America. Although reversed two years later, it was used 11 times by President Clinton to remove 82 spending items. By giving the president this power, one can argue that the president was given too much authority to be balanced by the constitutional checks and balances. It makes the president more like a Prime Minister in that he has the final edit over what is to become law. It can also give a politically weak president with little mandate undeserving power.

The U.S. Presidency and the separation of powers system of government is different from the British Prime Minister and parliamentary system of government in several ways. In the House of Commons, the only real seat of power in British government, there are about 650 members of parliament, each representing about 60,000 voters. In the U.S., each member of the House represents 600,000 voters. Although the House of Commons is a larger body, it represents an electorate about one-fifth the size of the U.S. electorate. Even though this requires the MC’s in the U.S. to represent a larger, more diverse population, small interest groups and localities are better represented.

In the parliamentary system the Prime Minister is a Member of Parliament; he is the majority leader. The majority party clearly dominates. The senior members have the most power, and there is no divided government. The majority decides when to hold elections, whereas in the U.S. elections are held on a regular basis. This heavily partisan form of government leaves the majority party clearly responsible when legislation is unsuccessful. In the U.S. junior members of congress have considerable power, and the president is completely separate from the legislative branch. When there is not a clear majority, no one single president or party can be held responsible for failure or success. No president is guaranteed support- even from members of his own party or his appointeesAlthough the framers of the constitution designed many checks and balances into the U.S. government so that no party would completely dominate, they probably never intended the political stalemate that we have today. Politics has become more of a career than a duty to serve the people. The RIP politics that now plague the American national government has lead to a government that does not actually govern. The minority party now instead of trying to mobilize the electorate for the next up and coming election, uses their power to undermine the policies and programs of the majority party. This constant power struggle distracts politicians from the real national problems.

If the president and congress were ever to combine, this would greatly reduce RIP politics. The minority party would have so little power it would not be able to successfully dramatize minor corruption and scandals in the operation of government. Combining would not, however, reduce the sensationalism in the media today, and that is one of the major reasons that RIP politics is successful. Instead of using RIP as an institutional form of partisan combat, the minority party would work to mobilize their constituencies to take control in the next election. This does not mean that there would be no scandals and corruption, but that there would be more focus on gaining and maintaining political power. Successful legislation might be created, and the government may actually return to governing.

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Major Sources of Presidential Power. (2018, Dec 20). Retrieved from