Office of the President
Most children in this nation have heard it said that "Anyone Can Grow up to Become the President." Indeed, America's presidents have come from all walks of life, some from the most humble of circumstances. Abraham Lincoln was born in a log cabin. Harry Truman was less than successful in the clothing business. Jimmy Carter was a peanut farmer. Ronald Reagan co-starred with a monkey in one of his biggest motion pictures.
Most of the men who have become President of the United States of America, however, have had distinguished business, political or military careers before assuming the highest office in the land. Can anyone become President? What are the constitutional requirements of the office? Are there other "informal" requirements which presidential aspirants must meet?
Formal Eligibility for Office
The Constitutional requirements for presidents are brief. Article II simply requires that a President be a "natural born Citizen" of the United States, at least thirty-five years of age and a "Resident within the United States" for fourteen years.
Unlike members of Congress, Presidents are not elected directly by the people. Instead, they are chosen by the Electoral College, one of the least-understood institutions in American politics. The Framers created the Electoral College to prevent the election of an unfit candidate. In Hamilton's words:
It was desirable that the sense of the people should operate in the choice of the person to whom so important a trust was to be confided. This end will be answered by committing the right of making it, not to any reestablished body, but to men chosen by the people for the special purpose, and at the particular conjuncture.
It was equally desirable, that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations.
Once a candidate is selected, he or she (there has never been a female President or Vice President elected in the United States) is sworn in to serve for a period of four years. Other than Franklin Delano Roosevelt, no President has served more than two terms. Before FDR, no President had sought a third term, largely out of respect for George Washington, who served two terms before retiring from public life. The 22nd Amendment, ratified after Franklin Roosevelt left office, now formally limits presidents to two terms, or a maximum of ten years. See QUICK FACTS about the Executive for a list of the men who have served as President of the United States of America. (PHOTO at Left: George Bush Taking the Oath of Office).The 22nd Amendment's ten year-limit is intended to allow a Vice President who assumes office half-way through a President's term to run for office two more times. Lyndon Johnson, who succeeded John F. Kennedy after Kennedy's assassination in 1963, ran for President and won in 1964. He was eligible to run again in 1968 but chose not to seek a second full term. In addition to Johnson, eight other Vice Presidents have assumed the highest office in the land upon the death or resignation of the previous President. John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Chester Arthur, Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson all became President after the sitting President died. Gerald Ford succeeded to the Presidency after Richard Nixon's resignation. (PHOTO at Right: LBJ Taking Oath of Office on Air Force One After Kennedy's Death).
Gerald Ford became President without being elected to be Vice President. Nixon's running mate in 1972 was Spiro Agnew. Agnew resigned after allegations of financial irregularities were raised and Ford was appointed to replace him. When Nixon resigned, Ford became the President of the United States. There has never been a case in which both the President and Vice President were simultaneously disqualified for service. If that were to happen, the Congress, in accordance with the Constitution, has established a line of succession.
While the Constitutional requirements to become President are minimal, Americans have a "tough, unwritten code" of what they expect of their Presidents. Many of these expectations are actually contradictory. We expect a President to be powerful and popular, but we are suspicious of someone who has too much power. We want a "common person" with uncommon, heroic and visionary characteristics. We want someone who is compassionate and caring but who is also cunning and ruthless when necessary. We want our President to unify diverse interests and opinions, but we also want the President to take tough stands on issues.1
Presidential hopefuls must also be willing to campaign non-stop for almost two years before election day, raising millions of dollars and traveling tens of thousands of miles. Both during the campaign and after the election, Presidents also give up much of their privacy, facing questions about their character, family life and personal, political and business experiences. Once in office, the President is expected to be:
- A political leader who is above politics
- The nation's chief economic manager
- Someone who can unify the nation in spite of its deepest differences
- A moral leader
- A world leader and peace-builder
- A morale builder, counselor and cheerleader
- A crisis manager
Obviously, the expectations placed on Presidents are more than any one individual can meet. Indeed, some have argued that the skills required to run a successful presidential campaign might even be different from those necessary to be a good President and that finding both sets of skills in the same person is unlikely.2 The President has become the image of American government and even of American society, but the demands of a presidential campaign and of presidential service may be too high to attract the best candidates for the job. One Presidential scholar has succinctly articulated the problem:
We are making the price of power too high in this society. I worry that we are making the conditions of public life so tough that nobody except the people really obsessed with power will be willing finally to pay that price.3
The Constitution of the United States does not grant to the President unlimited authority to run the national government. In fact, it gives only limited powers to the President and grants both the legislative and judicial branches powers that allow them to check and frustrate Presidential power.
While many observers and political scientists have suggested that the Presidency has grown so much in importance and power that the United States political system is presidentially-centered and dominated. However, "the President is not the presidency. The presidency is not the government. [And] ours is not a presidential system."4 Indeed, presidential authority is exercised in the context of a separated system, in which the powers of the national government are divided between three branches, each branch holding "checks" against the others.
Further complicating the exercise of power is the fact that elections for national office holders are staggered. Presidential elections are every four years, Senate elections every six and House elections every two. Because only one third of Senate seats are contested every two years, it is impossible for all of the members of Congress and the President to be elected at the same time. The voters who select the President, the members of the House and one-third of the Senate in one election are not likely to have the same concerns and preferences as the voters who select new House members and another third of the Senate two years later. Moreover, because the President is elected by the entire nation while members of Congress are elected by the voters in the states or districts from which they come, members of Congress and the President do not represent the same constituencies.