A History of the Presidency - The presidency at work

Combining today the roles of head of government and chief of state, the president is the very symbol of the United States, its premier statesman, and its resounding voice in the family of nations. From the White House flow the major initiatives for domestic and foreign policies. As titular head of the party in power, the president is likewise the chief politician of the country, the designated unifier of the competing constituencies and regions. He is also incomparably the principal newsmaker. But what the world takes for granted about the stability of America's presidential system of government was by no means assured when George Washington (1789–1797) took the oath of office on 30 April 1789. Its words spoken by him—and by presidents-elect every four years since—are a sample of republican simplicity, then an unfamiliar concept in the governance of nations. His hand on the Bible, the chief executive-to-be pledges: "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

For many years, people the world over wondered how the United States would fare under a president, often referring to the remarkable provision and powers of its chief leader as the "American experiment." From time immemorial, monarchies—many of them absolute in power—had been almost universally the preferred form of government. Few people, indeed, would have guessed that the success of the American presidency would become an inspiration for peoples throughout the world.

Washington had no wish to be a king and did not act like one, but republics were rare in history and there were no guides to how a president ought to conduct himself. Washington was acutely conscious of the novelty of his position as the first of its kind in the history of the world, and he understood that almost every step he took would set a precedent for those who filled the office after him. The public also was keenly aware that the country was breaking fresh ground. Even how to refer to President had to be decided. One Senator suggested: "His Highness the President of the United States of America and Protector of their Liberties"; another proposed: "His Elective Highness." In the end the simple "Mr. President" seemed august enough.

The presidency has continued to grow in complexity along paths that the founding fathers could not have imagined. Washington altered the conduct of the office as laid out in the Constitution through the creation of the cabinet, a body of advisers who also head the administrative subdivisions of the government. The cabinet was in its way the equivalent of the council of state that Madison had proposed at the Constitutional Convention for the purpose of keeping a watchful eye on the president. The cabinet that Washington established was not a monitor above him but, on the contrary, being his appointees, the members were subservient to him.

The cabinet arrangement began when Washington directed that the heads of the executive depart-ments—state, treasury, and war—meet in his absence from the capital city. They met in this way only once, but beginning in 1793 these officials along with the attorney-general began to meet with Washington periodically. James Madison, then a member of the House of Representatives, was the one who first referred to the group as the cabinet. Washington had in mind taking votes on public issues at the cabinet sessions in order to establish that he was not an authoritarian. But the conflict between Jefferson, the secretary of state, and Hamilton, the secretary of the treasury, was so intense that the idea died quickly.

Because the cabinet has no constitutional foundation, presidents have used it variously. It has grown in size as new federal departments have been created, and is accordingly unwieldy as a vehicle for making decisions. Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953–1961) found it useful for vetting policy proposals, but John F. Kennedy (1961–1963) regarded it as of little value. Some presidents have used it chiefly for political purposes: James K. Polk (1845–1849) filled its places with possible successors; Abraham Lincoln (1861–1865), on the other hand, filled it with four members of his party who had been his rivals for the nomination in 1860. When it was suggested to him that they would eat him up, he replied that they would eat each other up. By the end of the Civil War he was not consulting the cabinet at all, to the dismay of the members. This has increasingly been the history of presidential cabinets.

Presidents have come to rely on groups of intimates for their advisers. Andrew Jackson's coterie of cronies, mostly journalists, were designated the "Kitchen Cabinet" because they met in the kitchen of the White House. Theodore Roosevelt's (1901–1909) insider group of friends and agency heads was his "Tennis Cabinet" because they discussed public business on the White House tennis court. Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933–1945) had as his closest aides a "brain trust," a designation describing the scholars, economists, and lawyers who played significant roles in shaping New Deal policies. In conducting the Vietnam War, Lyndon B. Johnson (1963–1969) brought together his principal associates for lunch on Tuesdays in the private quarters of the White House. This group has been referred to as the Tuesday Cabinet. George W. Bush relies heavily on a group of "insiders," some of whom had their first national political experience in the administration of his father.

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