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USA - President - Introduction

The voters of each state select a slate of presidential “electors,” equal to the number of senators and representatives that state has in Congress. Although the citizens of each state vote for the presidential and vice-presidential candidates of their choice, the results of the election are not final until the electors of each state cast their votes for the candidates who won. The presidential term of four years begins on January 20 (it was changed from March by the Twentieth Amendment, ratified in 1933) following a November election. The president starts his official duties with an inauguration ceremony, traditionally held on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, where Congress meets.

The Presidents have ranged from strong and distinguished individuals, sharply attuned to the times in which they served, to average men who coped as best they could with the problems of their eras. Some were rich, some were poor; some intellectuals, some poorly educated; healthy and infirm; bold and vacillating; outgoing and reserved; compromising and unyielding; revered and scorned. Some seemed ideally suited for the position, some miscast; some enjoyed personal happiness, some suffered tragedies. They have been men of diverse talents, backgrounds, strengths, and limitations.

Until the end of the 19th century, the Government was relatively small and easy to administer. The Presidents received little secretarial-clerical assistance, and many of them personally drafted and even penned state papers in longhand. If special help were required, a few clerks or specialists might be borrowed from the various agencies and departments of the executive branch. For advice, the incumbent relied mainly on his Cabinet and friends or colleagues.

A few men guarded the Chief Executive, who did not begin to receive any sort of Secret Service protection until after Abraham Lincoln's assassination in 1865, and he was quite accessible to the public. His principal direct communication with the people was through speechmaking tours of the country.

Political party mechanisms were simple. Campaigns required relatively small amounts of funds; and State organizations, supplemented by a few congressional managers, performed most of the work. Some nominees, such as William McKinley, conducted "front-porch" campaigns, during which the people came to the candidate instead of vice versa.

One of the first sobering realities a new president discovers is an inherited bureaucratic structure that can be difficult to manage and slow to change direction. The president’s power to appoint extends only to some 3,000 people out of a civilian government workforce of about 3.5 million. The president finds that the machinery of government often operates independently of presidential interventions, has done so through earlier administrations, and will continue to do so in the future.

The day-to-day enforcement and administration of federal laws is in the hands of the various executive departments, created by Congress to deal with specific areas of national and international affairs. The heads of the 15 departments, chosen by the president and approved by the Senate, form a council of advisers generally known as the president’s “cabinet.” In addition to departments, there are a number of staff organizations grouped into the Executive Office of the President. These include the White House staff, the National Security Council, the Office of Management and Budget, the Council of Economic Advisers, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

The cabinet developed outside the Constitution as a matter of practical necessity, for even in the days of George Washington, the country’s first president, it was impossible for the president to discharge his duties without advice and assistance. Cabinets are what any particular president makes them. Some presidents have relied heavily on them for advice, others lightly, and some few have largely ignored them. Whether or not cabinet members act as advisers, they retain responsibility for directing the activities of the government in specific areas of concern. Each department has thousands of employees, with offices throughout the country as well as in Washington. The departments are divided into divisions, bureaus, offices, and services, each with specific duties.

Paralleling the growth of the country, especially in the 20th century, has been a tremendous increase in the scope and influence of the Presidency. This has occurred for a variety of reasons. To accomplish desired national ends, some Chief Executives have vigorously exerted powers that are implied but not stated in the Constitution. The unique talents of certain Cabinet members and special assistants and advisers have also strengthened the Presidency. Demands for the Government to provide various public services have swelled the executive branch. Then, too, the complexities and expansion of the economy have brought about the creation of a number of major regulatory agencies.

Pertinent also is the increased role of the Nation in international affairs, particularly during the nuclear age, in which the President's functions as commander in chief of the Armed Forces and as chief diplomat give him exceptional power and visibility. Also enhancing the strength of the office are all the tools of modern technology.

By the late 20th Century there emerged an unabashed willingness by Congress to micromanage foreign affairs and executive branch internal deliberations. For example, detailed provisions intrude into internal executive branch deliberations, including specific directives to a particular executive agency to solicit and consider comments or recommendations from another agency and to make certain recommendations to the President. It also required that the President consider these recommendations. Similarly, bills that require a particular executive agency to be excluded from a policy or executive decision unconstitutionally infringe upon the unitary executive and must, therefore, be resisted. Finally, bills that prohibit executive agencies from taking actions to reorganize or consolidate offices within their agencies or that prohibit agencies from expending funds on activities that are clearly part of the agency’s mission constitute an indefensible interference with the day-to-day management of the executive departments.

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Page last modified: 07-10-2017 17:47:47 ZULU