President of the United States of America is granted
significant powers by the Constitution and exercises
others by tradition and precedent. However, success exercising
these powers has varied widely from one President to
the next. Harnessing the powers of the presidency and
managing the sprawling executive branch take a great
deal of skill and determination.
Presidents face a host of challenges as they attempt
to lead the nation and its people. They must work with
others in the separated system of American government.
They must constantly deal with a wide range of complex
domestic and foreign policy problems which tend to arise
at the worst possible times. They must try to organize
and lead an executive branch which often does not want
to follow (see "Bureaucracy").
And the must try to lead a nation with an aversion to
strong leadership.1 That
some Presidents are strong and effective leaders in spite
of these obstacles is a testament to their talents, skills
The Transition from Campaigning to Governance
one of the most difficult transitions in politics is
from the campaign trail to holding office and governing.
Many observers and scholars of the American Presidency
have suggested that the skills required to run a successful
campaign are quite different from those required to be
a successful President.
win an election, a presidential candidate must win a
majority of Electoral College votes. There have been
several Presidents who have won the electoral college
vote with less than a majority of the popular vote, including
Bill Clinton who won 43% of the vote in 1992 and just
under 50% in 1996. (See Presidential QUICK
FACTS for a table of Presidential candidates and
their electoral and popular vote totals.) Leading the
nation, especially on controversial matters, often requires
broader public support than the bare minimum required
to win an election. (PHOTO at Right: President Clinton
Visiting with Veterans)
President must also be careful in the transition from
campaign to governance to avoid the temptation to simply
convert the campaign organization and staff into a White
House staff. The people that are successful and effective
campaign personnel are very often not good White House
staff material. President Clinton, whose victory was
a surprising upset in 1992, faced particularly harsh
criticism from both Republicans and Democrats for appointing
energetic but inexperienced campaign workers to significant
White House positions. Said one Democrat, "Working in
the White House should not be your first job."2
the difficulties that attend the transition from the
campaign trail to the White House, most newly-elected
Presidents enjoy broad popular support during the first
few months after the election that eases the transition
considerably. During this so-called "honeymoon" period,
the public is generally more forgiving of Presidents
than they are later in their terms. The people are inclined
to, at least for a short time, allow the new President
to get acclimated and implement his agenda. However,
as will be discussed below, there are pitfalls even during
a President's honeymoon.
Governance through Delegation and Coordination
like the Chief Executive Office of any large corporation,
the President cannot personally oversee every activity and
program of the Executive Branch. The President must rely
on a large number of people, many of whom are presidential
appointees, to implement the President's goals and programs.
Among the President's most trusted advisors are the members
of the President's "Cabinet," which consists of
the Vice-President, the appointed heads of each major Executive
Branch Department and a handful of other leaders (see below).
Most Presidents work closely and meet regularly with at least
some Cabinet members. Presidents are free, however, to entirely
ignore particular cabinet members if they choose, and may
have in fact done so. (PHOTO at Right: President Bush
at a Cabinet Meeting)
addition to the members of the Cabinet, the President
is also advised by the Council of Economic Advisers,
the National Security Council, the Council on Environmental
Equality, the Office of National Drug Control Policy
and several other councils and agencies.
the Cabinet and the White House staff can be a time consuming
and distracting job for a President. Each occupant of
the Oval Office has adopted his own style of managing
the people who work for and advise him. Generally the
President's Chief of Staff is the most important enforcer
of the President's chosen management style, including
who gets access to the President and how often. Whatever
arrangement is settled on, the way a President organizes
and manages the White House staff will, to a large extent,
determine the overall effectiveness and success of his
or her tenure in office.3
Presidents, by virtue of the office they hold, tend to
intimidate most people who come into their presence,
Presidents often go out of their way to encourage candor
and criticism from their staff. There is a fine line,
however, between being a trusted, outspoken advisor and
a disloyal critic. It has not been unusual for a President
to fire a staff member who spoke out too much, especially
The President's Cabinet
Secretary of State
Secretary of Treasury
Secretary of Defense
Attorney General (Justice Department Head)
Secretary of Interior
Secretary of Agriculture
Secretary of Commerce
Secretary of Labor
Secretary of Health & Human Services
Secretary of Housing & Urban Development
Secretary of Transportation
Secretary of Energy
Secretary of Education
Secretary of Veteran Affairs
Chief of Staff of the White House
Director of the Office of Management & Budget
Legal Counselor to the President
U.S. Trade Representative
addition to managing the Executive Branch, the President must also
work closely with the Congress to build support for his or her legislative
agenda. To be effective, the President must also maintain good relations
and open communication channels with the Press and with the people.
To accomplish these objectives, the White House staff also includes
legislative affairs personnel, a Press Secretary and a Public Affairs
The President as Party Leader
addition to the President's duties as the formal head of the Executive
Branch, the President is also the leader of his or her political party.
As the highest elected leader in the land, the President becomes both
a symbolic and functioning party leader. Presidents routinely work
more closely with members of their own party in Congress than they
do with members of the opposite party. They also work to support members
of their own party in congressional elections by making appearances
at campaign rallies and fundraisers. For Presidents to succeed in the
separated system, they generally recognize the need to win and keep
the support of members of their party. Presidents who do not have good
working relationships with the members of their party in Congress,
or those who are forced to work with congressional majorities of the
opposite party, generally have more difficulty enacting their policy
The Power of Persuasion
all the powers of the Presidency, the most important power of all
may be simply the power to persuade. Given the numerous obstacles
to the exercise of presidential power, from the separation of powers
to a recalcitrant bureaucracy to public opinion, Presidents that
cannot persuade others in the political system to support them and
their agendas are likely to have little, if any, success.
noted presidential scholar and historian Richard Neustadt has observed
that presidential power is the power to effectively bargain with other
political actors and to persuade them to support the President's agenda.4 During
a presidential campaign, a candidate must persuade the public that
the agenda he or she offers to the nation is the best being offered
and that he or she is best prepared to implement it. Once elected,
a President must persuade members of Congress, the public (again) and
even members of the Executive Branch that the agenda he or she campaigned
on ought to be made law.
The Bully Pulpit
The Framers were fearful that
a particularly popular but ill-intentioned President might whip
the masses into a frenzy and instigate a tyranny of the majority.
The checks and balances and auxiliary precautions built into
the Constitution were, at least in part, aimed at limiting a
President's ability to do so.5 The
rough and tumble Teddy Roosevelt (as well as many Presidents since
him), however, purposely sought to use the office of the Presidency
and the "bully pulpit" of the White House to build public opinion
for the policies he supported.
do Presidents acquire the power to persuade? Presidents who win by
large margins or those who have consistently high public approval
ratings are bound to be more persuasive than those who do not. When
Ronald Reagan won by a large margin in 1980, he utilized his overwhelming
popular support to persuade the Democratic majority in the House
to cut taxes and increase defense spending. Presidents who have won
by smaller margins have had more difficulty enacting their agendas.
electoral and popular support are indispensable, Presidents who truly
hope to be great, and not just liked, must also be able to convince
people to see things their way, to support their goals and plans
for America. Doing so is far from easy, especially when tough decisions
must be made. Matters are further complicated by the fact that persuading
politicians and bureaucrats is generally and entirely different matter
from persuading the public. Some Presidents have been good at one
but not the other and have stumbled through their presidencies. Lyndon
Johnson, the consummate "inside the beltway" persuader, ultimately
chose not to run for reelection because be felt he had lost the ability
to persuade the public. A rare few Presidents, like Lincoln and Franklin
Roosevelt, have been skilled at persuading both politicians and the
people and have been overwhelmingly successful. An unfortunate handful
have been adept at neither and have gone into the history books as "failed" Presidents.
American political system in which the American President is situated
is complex and filled with barriers to the exercise of power. Presidents
who want to lead cannot simply coast on their electoral successes.
As Lyndon Johnson appropriately observed:
President has to establish with the various sectors of the country
what I call "the right to govern." Just being elected to the office
does not guarantee him that right. Every President has to inspire
the confidence of the people. Every President has to become a leader,
and to be a leader he must attract people who are willing to follow
him. Every President has to develop a moral underpinning to his
power, or he soon discovers that he has no power at all.6
Thomas E. Cronin and Michael A. Genovese. The Paradoxes of the American
Presidency (New York: Oxford, 1998), 4.
Quoted in Charles O. Jones. Passages to the Presidency.
(Washington, D.C.: Brookings, 1998), 106.
See John P. Burke. "The Institutional Presidency," in The
Presidency and the Political System, Michael Nelson, ed.
(Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 1998), 429-32.
Richard E. Neustadt. Presidential Power. (New York:
Jeffrey K. Tulis. "The Two Constitutional Presidencies," The
Presidency and the Political System, Michael Nelson, ed.
(Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 1998), 93-6.
Quoted in Charles O. Jones. The Presidency in a Separated
System. (Washington, D.C.: Brookings, 1994), 1.