Chapter eleven: the presidency

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Party leadership in Congress is every president’s principal task when countering the natural tendencies toward conflict between the executive and legislative branches.

3. The bonds of party.

a. For most senators and representatives, being in the same political party as the president creates a psychological bond.

b. Presidents remain highly dependent upon their party to move their legislative programs.

c. Representatives and senators of the president’s party usually form the nucleus of coalitions supporting presidential proposals.

4. Slippage in party support.

a. Presidents are forced to be active in party leadership and to devote their efforts to conversion as much as to mobilization of members of their own party: Presidents can count on their own party members for support no more than two-thirds of the time, even on key votes.

b. The primary obstacle to party unity is the lack of consensus among party members on policies, especially in the Democratic party. This diversity of views often reflects the diversity of constituencies represented by party members (illustrated by the frequent defection of Southern Democrats known as “boll weevils”).

5. Leading the party.

a. Although party leaders in Congress are predisposed to support presidential policies and typically work closely with the White House, they are free to oppose the president or lend only symbolic support.

(1) Party leaders are not in a position to reward or discipline members of Congress on the basis of presidential support.

(2) The White House provides many amenities to congressional party members in an attempt to create goodwill (such as “photo opportunities”), but there is little the president can do if party members wish to oppose the administration.

b. One way for the president to improve the chances of obtaining support in Congress is to increase the number of party members in the legislature.

(1) The term presidential coattails refers to voters casting their ballots for congressional candidates of the president’s party because those candidates support the president. Thus, the symbolism was that the candidates would “ride into office on the president’s coattails.”

(2) However, most recent studies show a diminishing connection between presidential and congressional voting.

(3) In midterm elections—those held between presidential elections—the president’s party typically loses seats; in 1994 the Democrats lost eight Senate seats and 53 House seats, losing control of both houses in the process. The 1998 election was an exception: the Democrats gained five seats in the House.

c. A major impediment to party leadership is the fact that the president’s party often lacks a majority in one or both houses of Congress.

  1. The president usually has to solicit help from the opposition


(2) Although only a few votes may be obtained, that may be enough to bring the president the required majority.

C. Public support.

1. Presidents who have the backing of the public have an easier time influencing Congress. Members of Congress closely watch two indicators of public support for the president—approval in the polls and mandates in presidential elections.

2. Public approval.

a. Public approval is the political resource that has the most potential to turn a situation of stalemate between the president and Congress into one that is supportive of the president’s legislative proposals.

(1) Widespread support gives the president leeway and weakens resistance to presidential policies.

(2) Lack of support strengthens the resolve of those inclined to oppose the president and narrows the range in which presidential policies receive the benefit of the doubt.

(3) Low ratings in the polls may create incentives to attack the president, further eroding an already weakened position.

b. Public approval gives the president leverage, not control; presidents’ leadership resources do not allow them to dominate Congress.

3. Mandates.

a. An electoral mandate—the perception that the voters strongly support the president’s character and policies—can be a powerful symbol in American politics. It accords added legitimacy and credibility to the newly elected president’s proposals.

  1. Merely winning an election does not provide presidents with a mandate.

(1) It is common after close elections to hear claims—especially from the other party — that there was “no mandate.”

(2) Even large electoral victories carry no guarantee that Congress will interpret the results as mandates, especially if the voters also elect majorities in Congress from the other party.

D. Legislative skills.

1. Presidents influence the legislative agenda more than any other political figure.

a. No matter what a president’s skills are, however, the “chief legislator” can rarely exercise complete control over the agenda.

2. Presidential leadership skills include bargaining, making personal appeals, consulting with Congress, setting priorities, exploiting “honeymoon” periods, and structuring congressional votes.

a. Bargaining—in the form of trading support on two or more policies or providing specific benefits for representatives and senators—occurs less often and plays a less critical role in the creation of presidential coalitions in Congress than is often implied.

b. Presidents may improve their chances of success in Congress by making certain strategic moves.

(1) It is wise for a new president to be ready to send legislation to the Hill during the first year in office in order to exploit the “honeymoon” atmosphere that typically characterizes this period.

  1. It is important to establish priorities among legislative


3. In general, presidential legislative skills must compete with other, more stable factors that affect voting in Congress, such as party, ideology, personal views and commitments on specific policies, and constituency interests.


A. Constitutionally, the president has the leading role in American defense and foreign policy (often termed national security).

B. Chief diplomat.

1. The Constitution allocates certain powers in the realm of national security that are exclusive to the executive.

a. The president alone extends diplomatic recognition to foreign governments (and the president can also terminate relations with other nations).

b. The president has the sole power to negotiate treaties with other nations, although the Constitution requires the Senate to approve them by a two-thirds vote.

c. Presidents negotiate executive agreements with the heads of foreign governments; unlike treaties, executive agreements do not require Senate ratification.

2. As the leader of the Western world, the president must try to lead America’s allies on matters of economics and defense.

a. Presidents usually conduct diplomatic relations through envoys, but occasionally they engage in personal diplomacy.

b. As in domestic policymaking, the president must rely principally on persuasion to lead.

C. Commander in chief.

1. Because the Constitution’s framers wanted civilian control of the military, they made the president the commander in chief of the armed forces.

2. Today the president is commander in chief of nearly 1.5 million uniformed men and women, with commitments to defend nations around the globe.

3. The president commands a vast nuclear arsenal; “the football”—a briefcase that contains the codes to unleash our nuclear capabilities—is never more than a few steps from the president.

D. War powers.

1. Although only Congress is constitutionally empowered to declare war and vote on the military budget, Congress long ago became accustomed to presidents making short-term military commitments of troops or naval vessels.

2. In recent years, presidents have committed U.S. troops to action without seeking congressional approval (as in Korea and Vietnam).

3. As a reaction to disillusionment about American fighting in Vietnam and Cambodia, Congress passed the War Powers Resolution (1973) over President Nixon’s veto.

a. It required presidents to consult with Congress, whenever possible, prior to using military force, and it mandated the withdrawal of forces after 60 days unless Congress declared war or granted an extension. Congress could at any time pass a concurrent resolution (which cannot be vetoed) ending American participation in hostilities.

b. All presidents serving since 1973 have deemed the law an unconstitutional infringement on their powers, and there is reason to believe the Supreme Court would consider the law’s use of the legislative veto to end American involvement a violation of the doctrine of separation of powers.

  1. Presidents have largely ignored the law and sent troops into hostilities.

4. Questions continue to be raised about the relevance of America’s 200-year old constitutional mechanisms for engaging in war.

a. Some observers are concerned that modern technology allows the president to engage in hostilities so quickly that opposing points of view do not receive proper consideration.

b. Others stress the importance of the commander in chief having the flexibility to meet America’s global responsibilities and to combat international terrorism.

E. Crisis manager.

1. As chief diplomat and commander in chief, the president is also the country’s crisis manager.

2. A crisis is a sudden, unpredictable, and potentially dangerous event.

a. Most occur in the realm of foreign policy; quick judgments are often needed despite sketchy information.

b. Crises are rarely the president’s doing, but they can be the president’s undoing if badly handled.

3. With modern communications, the president can instantly monitor events almost anywhere.

a. Because situations develop more rapidly today, there is a premium on rapid action, secrecy, constant management, consistent judgment, and expert advice.

b. Since Congress usually moves slowly, the president has become more prominent in handling crises.

F. Working with Congress.

  1. Congress has a central constitutional role in making national security


a. The allocation of responsibilities for such matters is based upon the founders’ apprehensions about the concentration and potential for abuse of power.

b. The founders divided the powers of supply and command: Congress can thus refuse to provide the necessary authorizations and appropriations for presidential actions, while the chief executive can refuse to act (for example, by not sending troops into battle).

2. Despite the constitutional role of Congress, the president is the dominant force behind national security policy.

a. The role of Congress has typically been oversight of the executive rather than initiation of policy.

b. Commentators on the presidency often refer to the “two presidencies”—one for domestic policy and the other for national security policy. By this they mean the president has more success in leading Congress on matters of national security than on matters of domestic policy.


A. Perhaps the greatest challenge to any president is to obtain and maintain the public’s support. Because presidents are rarely in a position to command others to comply with their wishes, they must rely on persuasion.

B. Going public.

1. Public opinion can be an important resource for presidential persuasion.

2. The necessity of public support leads the White House to employ public relations techniques similar to those used to publicize products.

3. In America, the jobs of head of state (ceremonial) and head of government (executive authority) are combined.

C. Presidential approval.

1. The president’s standing in the polls is monitored closely by the press, members of Congress, and others in the Washington political community: the higher the president stands in the polls, the easier it is to persuade others to support presidential initiatives.

2. Presidents frequently do not have widespread public support, often failing to win even majority approval.

3. Presidential approval is the product of many factors.

a. Many people are predisposed to support the president.

(1) Political party identification provides the basic underpinning of approval or disapproval.

(2) Presidents usually benefit from a “honeymoon” with the American people after taking office.

b. Changes in approval levels appear to be due primarily to the public’s evaluation of how the president is handling policy.

(1) Contrary to conventional wisdom, citizens seem to focus on the president’s efforts and stands on issues rather than on personality or simply how presidential policies affect them.

(2) Job-related personal characteristics of the president—such as integrity and leadership skills—also play an important role.

(3) Sometimes public approval of the president takes sudden jumps, often stimulated by “rally events” that relate to international relations (illustrated by President Bush’s 18-percentage-point rise immediately after the fighting began in the Persian Gulf War in 1991). Such occurrences usually have little enduring impact on a president’s public approval.

4. The modern White House makes extraordinary efforts to control the context in which presidents appear in public and the way they are portrayed by the press. The fact that presidents nevertheless are frequently low in the polls is persuasive testimony to the limits of presidential leadership of the public.

D. Policy support.

1. Commentators on the presidency often refer to it as a “bully pulpit,implying that presidents can persuade or even mobilize the public to support their policies if they are skilled-enough communicators.

a. Presidents frequently do attempt to obtain public support for their policies with speeches over the radio or television or speeches to large groups.

b. All presidents since Truman have had media advice from experts on such matters as lighting, makeup, stage settings, camera angles, and even clothing.

2. Despite these efforts, presidential speeches designed to lead public opinion have typically been rather unimpressive.

3. The public is not always receptive to the president’s message, and the public may misunderstand or ignore even the most basic facts regarding presidential policy.

E. Mobilizing the public.

1. Mobilization of the public may be the ultimate weapon in the president’s arsenal of resources with which to influence Congress.

a. Mobilizing the public entails the double burden of obtaining both opinion support and political action from a generally inattentive and apathetic public.

b. There are certain risks involved: If the president attempts to mobilize the public and fails, the lack of response speaks clearly to members of Congress.

2. Perhaps the most notable recent example of the president mobilizing public opinion to put pressure on Congress was Ronald Reagan’s televised plea for support of his tax-cut proposals, which resulted in a massive outpouring of phone calls, letters, and telegrams.

a. Reagan’s success appears to be a deviant case (even for Ronald Reagan).

b. Despite high levels of approval for much of his presidency, Reagan was never again able to arouse many in his audience to communicate their support of his policies to Congress.

A. The press has become the principal intermediary between the president and the public, and relations with the press are an important aspect of the president’s efforts to lead public opinion.

1. It is the mass media that provides people with most of what they know about chief executives and their policies.

2. The media also interprets and analyzes presidential activities, even the president’s direct appeals to the public.

B. Presidents and the press tend to conflict.

1. Presidents want to control the amount and timing of information about their administration.

2. The press wants all the information that exists, without delay.

C. Because of the importance of the press to the president, the White House goes to great lengths to encourage the media to project a positive image of the president’s activities and policies.

1. The White House monitors the media closely.

2. The president’s press secretary conducts daily press briefings, giving prepared announcements and answering questions.

3. Press secretaries and their staffs arrange private interviews with White House officials, photo opportunities, and travel arrangements for reporters when the president leaves Washington.

4. The best-known direct interaction between the president and the press is the presidential press conference.

a. Despite their high visibility, press conferences are not very useful means of eliciting information.

b. Although press conferences may appear spontaneous, presidents and their staffs can anticipate most of the questions that will be asked and prepare answers to them ahead of time.

D. Most of the news coverage of the White House comes under the heading of “body watch,” which means that reporters focus on the most visible layer of presidents’ personal and official activities rather than on the substance of policies or the fundamental processes operating in the executive branch.

E. Bias is the most politically-charged issue in relations between the president and the press.

1. A large number of studies have concluded that the news media is not biased systematically toward a particular person, party, or ideology.

2. Some observers believe that news coverage of the presidency often tends to emphasize the negative; George Bush’s handling of the economy during the 1992 election campaign is an example.

3. To conclude that the news contains little explicitly partisan or ideological bias is not to argue that the news does not distort reality in its coverage of the president.

F. One could also argue that the press is inherently biased toward the White House.

1. A consistent pattern of favorable coverage exists in all major media outlets, and the president is typically portrayed with an aura of dignity and treated with deference.

2. The White House can largely control the environment in which the president meets the press (as when Marine helicopters revved as President Reagan approached them so that he “could not hear” reporters’ questions).


A. The presidency and democracy.

1. Because the presidency is the single most important office in American politics, there has always been concern about whether the president is a threat to democracy.

a. During the 1950s and 1960s, it was fashionable for political scientists, historians, and commentators to favor a powerful presidency.

b. In the wake of the Vietnam War and Watergate, many felt differently; the war and the Watergate scandal led to public distrust and caused people to reassess the role of presidential power.

2. Concerns over presidential power are generally closely related to policy views: those who oppose the president’s policies are the most likely to be concerned about too much presidential power.

3. In an era of divided government, some observers are concerned that there is too much checking and balancing and too little capacity to act to meet pressing national challenges. However, the best evidence indicates that major policy change is not hindered by divided government—that it is as likely to occur when the parties share control as when party control of the executive and legislative branches is divided.

B. The presidency and the scope of government.

1. Supporting an increased role for government is not inherent in the presidency; leadership can move in many directions.

2. It is often said that the American people are ideologically conservative and operationally liberal.

a. In the past generation, the public has chosen a number of presidents who reflected their ideology and congresses that represented their appetite for public service.

b. It has been the president more often than Congress who has objected to government growth.


Cabinet: the group of presidential advisors who head the executive departments.

Council of Economic Advisors: members advise the president on economic policy and prepare the Annual Report of the CEA.

Crisis: a sudden, unpredictable, and potentially dangerous event.

Impeachment: the political equivalent of an indictment for removing a discredited president.

Legislative veto: a clause which allows Congress to override the action of the executive.

National Security Council: a committee that links the president’s key foreign and military advisors.

Office of Management and Budget: responsible for preparing the president’s budget and assessing the budgetary implications of legislative proposals.

Pocket veto: this occurs when Congress adjourns within ten days after submitting a bill and the president takes no action to sign it or veto it.

Presidential coattails: where voters cast their ballots for congressional candidates of the president’s party because those candidates support the president.

Twenty-fifth Amendment: passed in 1967, permits the vice president to become acting president in the event that the president is temporarily disabled.

Twenty-second Amendment: passed in 1951, limits presidents to two terms.

Veto: sending the legislation back to Congress with reasons for rejecting it.

War Powers Resolution: passed in 1973, requires presidents to consult with Congress prior to using military force and mandates the withdrawal of forces after 60 days unless Congress declares war or grants an extension.

Watergate: a political scandal involving President Nixon’s abuse of his powers.


  • Commentators on the presidency often refer to it as a "bully pulpit," implying that presidents can persuade or even mobilize the public to support their policies if only they are skilled enough communicators. Ask your class to try to determine the skills that are needed to make a president an effective communicator. How has the concept of the "bully pulpit" changed since Theodore Roosevelt referred to the idea?

  • How has the public changed? The office of the president? Have your class write short essays in which students explain why voters choose presidents and congresses that appear to reflect different policy positions. Is this a negative or a positive factor of the American form of government?

  • Ask students to use the Internet to locate a recent presidential speech. Describe the speech’s main points and its intended audience. Discuss whether the speech is consistent with the broad policies and values espoused by the president.

  • For a class discussion, have students debate the different ways vice presidents can be used to enhance the president's opportunities for advancing his agenda in Congress. In particular, have them examine the concept of a co-presidency or the abolition of the vice presidency position. What would be the consequences?

  • For a reading and writing connection, have students keep a clipping file of newspaper coverage of the president for at least one week. Have them categorize the articles into stories about the president's (domestic and international) roles and personality. Then have them assess the tone and nature of the coverage. Once they have analyzed their clippings, have them write an analytical essay concerning the presidential news coverage and bias in the media.

  • Have students choose the State of the Union address delivered by one president, and determine the extent to which the president’s speech successfully set the Congressional agenda. What factors enhanced the President’s ability to lead Congress? What factors hampered his ability to lead?

  • Divide students into groups assigned to recent presidents. Ask each group to access The White House Project at and provide a summary of how “this” president organized the White House. Ask them to comment on whether such organizational details matter, and why or why not.

Bond, Jon, and Richard Fleisher. The President in the Legislative Arena. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

Cameron, Charles. Veto Bargaining: Presidents and the Politics of Negative Power. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Campbell, Colin, and Bert A. Rockman, eds. The Clinton Presidency: First Appraisals. Chatham, NJ: Chatham House, 1995.

Edwards, George C. III. At the Margins: Presidential Leadership of Congress. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989.

Jones, Charles O. The Presidency in a Separated System. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution,

Kernell, Samuel. Going Public: New Strategies of Public Leadership, 3rd ed. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 1997.

Neustadt, Richard E. Presidential Power and the Modern President. New York: Free Press, 1991.

Van Tassel, Emily Field, and Paul Finkelman. Impeachable Offenses: A Documentary History from 1787 to the Present. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 1998.

Eisinger, Robert M. The Evolution of Presidential Polling. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

American President. PBS Video depicts 41 of our nation’s leaders and how they left indelible marks on our nation.

Executive Privilege and the Delegation of Power. Part of "The Constitution: That Delicate Balance" series from Films Incorporated examining the powers of the president.

Modern Presidency. A five-part video series distributed by Enterprise Media examining the problems and issues of the past five presidential administrations from Nixon to Bush.

Politics in Action, Chapter 4: Presidential Leadership. Includes clips of Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton.

Powers of the President: The Constitution and Congress. This show focuses on various issues relating to the Constitutional relationship between the president and Congress, and includes interviews with former presidents Carter, Nixon, and Ford. Films for the Humanities & Sciences.
The President vs. The Press. Hosted by Hedrick Smith, this program features interviews with editors, news correspondents, press secretaries and presidential advisors on the relationship between the president and the press. Includes some discussion of presidential character, as well as the effect that the press has on public opinion. Films for the Humanities & Sciences.

Role of the Chief Executive. 1994. This program examines the various roles of the president and analyzes the factors that have contributed to changes in presidential power and influence over time. Insight Media.

Role of the First Lady. A new program distributed by Films for Humanities and the Sciences which examines the traditional and perceived role of the first lady.

War Powers and Covert Action. Part of "The Constitution: That Delicate Balance" series from Films Incorporated examining the war powers and foreign policy role of the president.

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