The 21st century dawned on a very different presidency than the one created at the end of the 1700s. Constitutional provisions limited the early presidency, although the personalities of the first three — George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson — shaped it into a more influential position by the early 1800s. However, throughout the 1800s until the 1930s, Congress was the dominant branch of the national government. Then, in the past seventy years or so, the balance of power has shifted dramatically, so that the executive branch currently has at least equal power to the legislative branch. How did this shift happen?
Article II of the Constitution defines the qualifications, benefits, and powers of the presidency. The President must be at least 35 years old, and must have resided in the United States for no fewer than 14 years. Presidents must be a "natural born" citizens. The Constitution states that the President should be paid a "compensation" that cannot be increased or decreased during a term. Congress determines the salary, which increases in 2001 to $400,000, doubling the salary that was set back in the 1960s.
Before he enter on the Execution of his Office, he shall take the following Oath or Affirmation:--"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.''
The President shall have Power to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session.
Section 3. He shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient; he may, on extraordinary Occasions, convene both Houses, or either of them, and in Case of Disagreement between them, with Respect to the Time of Adjournment, he may adjourn them to such Time as he shall think proper; he shall receive Ambassadors and other public Ministers; he shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed, and shall Commission all the Officers of the United States.
The Constitution assigned the following powers to the President:
Because the Constitution gave the President such limited power, Congress dominated the executive branch until the 1930s. With only a few exceptions, Presidents played second fiddle to Congress for many years. However, those exceptions — Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson — provided the basis for the turning point that came with the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s.
Andrew Jackson, greatly loved by the masses, used his image and personal power to strengthen the developing party system by rewarding loyal followers with presidential appointments. Jackson also made extensive use of the veto and asserted national power by facing down South Carolina's nullification of a federal tariff law. Jackson vetoed more bills than the six previous Presidents combined.
Abraham Lincoln assumed powers that no President before him had claimed, partly because of the emergency created by the Civil War (1861-1865). He suspended habeas corpus (the right to an appearance in court), and jailed people suspected of disloyalty. He ignored Congress by expanding the size of the army and ordering blockades of southern ports without the consent of Congress.
Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson each expanded the powers of the presidency. Roosevelt worked closely with Congress, sending it messages defining his legislative powers. He also took the lead in developing the international power of the United States. Wilson helped formulate bills that Congress considered, and World War I afforded him the opportunity to take a leading role in international affairs.
Franklin Roosevelt, who was elected four times to the presidency, led the nation through the crises of the Great Depression and World War II. Roosevelt gained power through his New Deal programs to regulate the economy, and the war required that he lead the country in foreign affairs as well.
So, the powers of the modern presidency have been shaped by a combination of constitutional and evolutionary powers. The forceful personalities of strong Presidents have expanded the role far beyond the greatest fears of the antifederalists of the late 1700s.