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.

Today, the people have a much more direct say in who becomes President than was originally intended by the Framers. (See the "Electoral College" and "Voting & Elections").

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.

Informal Requirements

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:

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 Presidency in the Separated System

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. 

Divided Party Government

National government time is measured in "congresses." Each congress lasts two years. The First Congress convened in 1789 and adjourned in 1791. The Congress that began after George W. Bush's reelection was the 109th Congress. The table below summarizes the political party control of the House, Senate and Presidency since the Civil War. Note that during the 71 congresses since that time, 30 have been characterized by divided-party government.

Democratic Party
Republican Party
Occupied White House
Majority in House
Majority in Senate
Majority in Both Houses
Unified Party Control of House, Senate & White House

Since World War II, eight of eleven Presidents have worked with a Congress that that was at least partially controlled by the opposing party for at least one Congress. 

Truman (Democrat)
Republican during second half of first term.
Republican during second half of first term.
Eisenhower (Republican) Democratic during entire presidency. Democratic during entire presidency.
Nixon (Republican) Democratic during entire presidency. Democratic during entire presidency.
Ford (Republican) Democratic during entire presidency. Democratic during entire presidency.

Reagan (Republican)

Democratic during entire presidency. Democratic during last Congress in Office (1987-1989).
Bush (Republican) Democratic during entire presidency. Democratic during entire presidency.
Clinton (Democrat) Republican after first half of first tem. Republican during second term. Republican after first half of first tem. Republican during second term.
Bush (Republican) Republican Democratic for most of the first half of first term.*

*The Senate was evenly split 50-50 after the 2000 election. In June of 2001, however, Republican Senator James Jeffords (Vermont) changed his affiliation to "Independent" and began voting with the Democrats. This shift gave the Democratic Party a 50-49 majority. The Republicans reclaimed the majority (by a margin of 51-48) for the 108th.

House Data Source:
Senate Data Source:
President Date Source:

The consequences of the separated system are significant. For example, it is not uncommon for members of Congress from solidly Democratic congressional districts to oppose Republican Presidents at every turn. (The reverse is equally true.) The resulting lack of cooperation between members of Congress and the President can make it difficult for Presidents to accomplish their goals. Even more profoundly, conducting congressional elections on a state-by-state and district-by-district basis raises the possibility that the Congress and the President will be of opposite parties. In fact, since World War II, divided-party control of the legislative and executive branches has become the norm, not the exception. When a Republican President faces a Democratic Congress or a Democratic President faces a Republican Congress, the prospects for cooperation and consensus building between the two are diminished.

The Growth & Evolution of the Presidency

The Executive Branch and the Office of the President have grown significantly since George Washington first took office in 1789. He purposely downplayed the status of the office, not wanting the people to revere him as anything but a patriotic man willing to serve his country. He dealt personally with the Congress and the Courts, not relying on intermediaries to carry his messages for him. Jefferson employed a staff of two--a messenger and a secretary. By 1900, the White House staff had grown to a dozen. The explosion of activity in the White House during Franklin Roosevelt's administration highlighted the need for additional staff and the number of people working for the President has steadily increased since that time. The Executive Office of the President now employs more than five hundred people.5

The President's "Cabinet," comprised of the various Department Secretaries, has also grown substantially over the years. The Congress originally created the Departments of State, War and Treasury. Washington's original Cabinet, then had three members. The Cabinet today includes the Secretaries of the Departments of State, the Treasury, Defense, the Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Labor, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Energy, Education and Veterans Affairs. The head of the Justice Department, the Attorney General, is also a member of the Cabinet.

In addition to these individuals, the President consults regularly with the National Security Council, the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Armed Forces, the Council of Economic Advisors, the Office of Management and Budget, the Office of Policy Development and several other advisors and staff members. The President also oversees the activities of the White House Legislative Liaison Office and other more informal communications with the legislative branch. The Executive Branch has become a large, sprawling and increasingly difficult to manage organization. While the huge staff and vast resources of the office have the potential to strengthen the presidency, Presidents are just as likely to feel overwhelmed and constrained by the size and scope of the Executive Branch as they are liberated by it. For more on the Executive Branch, see the "Bureaucracy."

Assessing Presidents

Presidents are generally perceived as "under-delivering" on their promises. Several factors converge to prevent presidents from meeting the expectations that are placed on them. First, expectations are generally much higher than a President's ability to perform. Presidents, although, powerful, have limited resources. They cannot force the Congress to cooperate with them and they cannot lead the nation without public support.

Washington anticipated the difficulties that would attend all Presidents in living up to the expectations of the office:

I greatly apprehend that my Countrymen will expect too much from me. I fear, if the issue of public measures should not correspond with their sanguine expectations, they will turn the extravagant (and I may say undue) praises which they are heaping upon me at this moment, into equally extravagant (though I will fondly hope unmerited) censures.6 (Portrait at Right: "George Washington" by John Vanderlyn. Source: U.S. House of Representatives.)

Washington's fears were misplaced. He is almost uniformly included by presidential scholars and historians on their lists of the best presidents who have ever served. And though he faced serious criticism during his second term, he left public office a national hero. In truth, how presidents are remembered has at least as much to do with things outside of their control as it does things within it. The most widely respected presidents are those who have faced a national crisis and brought the nation safely through, such as Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. Others, by luck of the draw, have served in relatively quiet times and made little impact on America's history or collective memory. Some presidents, however, because of their dishonesty or ineptitude have earned the scorn of history. Nixon, Ford and Carter are all considered unsuccessful presidents, in large part because of their personality failures in office.

1. Thomas E. Cronin and Michael A. Genovese. The Paradoxes of the American Presidency (New York: Oxford, 1998), 4.
2. Ibid., 23-6.
3. Linda L. Fowler and Robert D. McClure. Political ambition: Who decides to run for Congress? (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989), 133.
4. Charles O. Jones. The Presidency in a Separated System (Washington, D.C.: Brookings, 1994), 1.
5. John P. Burke. "The Institutional Presidency," in The Presidency and the Political System, Michael Nelson, ed. (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 1998), 412-5.
6. Quoted in Forrest McDonald. The American Presidency: An Intellectual History (Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas Press, 1994), 211.