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The Growth of Presidential Power

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  • Pages: 6
  • Word count: 1345
  • Category: President

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The twentieth century, the political and social events that unfolded in this modern era, and America’s involvement in such affairs, both domestic and foreign, brought about a significant shift in the balance of power within U.S politics. Notwithstanding the framers original design of a distinct system of checks and balances that called even for a bicameral legislature so as to further restrict the power of the legislative, the executive branch has nevertheless expanded exponentially its reach and influence in government.

The growth of the presidency and its overarching presence over the judiciary and the legislative is more a consequence of a shift in the dynamics of social culture, political ideology, and technological advances than a mere effect of the actions, identities and personas of those who have held office. This distinct ability of the executive to inevitably extend its power can thus be attributed to the vague nature of the Constitution regarding the Presidency, the emergence of the president as a cultural icon, the polarization of the two controlling political parties and ultimately the need for a unitary and decisive force leading the nation during times of war and desperation.

America’s withdrawal from a policy of isolationism during the twentieth century, its endurance through domestic and foreign crises, its fortitude through a new age of liberalism and civil equality, and its Presidents’ ambitions and agendas through such political and social upheaval serve as a testament to the growth in power and size of the executive branch.

The framers’ deliberately ambiguous and vague design of the enumerated powers of the executive branch acts as a gateway in allowing the presidency to expand in both size and influence in government. Whereas Article I of the Constitution was drafted to safeguard against Madison’s fear of an all-powerful legislative and hence delineates every power of Congress in great detail, Article II leaves the powers of the presidency more undefined and open to interpretation (Federalist 51). This indeterminacy, highlighted with phrases such as “The executive Power” or the Presidential duty to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States”, grants the President a unique ability to adapt to circumstance, and with it granting the Presidency the authority to extend its power far beyond what is enumerated in constitutional text (Constitution, Article II).

It is thus often argued that the framers creation of a three-branch government that inherently maintains a delicate system of checks and balances prevents any branch, including the executive, to gain dominance over the remaining two. It is conversely an almost uncontestable notion that the Presidency has expanded in power and influence, more so in the twentieth century than ever before. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency and his New Deal restructuring of the executive branch stands at the apex of such expansion of power.

Having inherited the nation during the turmoil of the Great Depression and the imminence of a Second World War, Roosevelt succeeded in passing through Congress “New Deal” legislation that expanded the Federal Bureaucracy to create and give agencies within the executive new powers on domestic affairs. These agencies often bypassed Congressional oversight and thus had no check on their authority. Furthermore, Roosevelt’s “New Deal” economic reform plans often faced great opposition in courts. His notorious “court packing scandal”, which threatened to alter the makeup of the Supreme Court under the Judiciary Reorganization Bill of 1937, successfully countered these challenges and further solidified his predominant expansion of Presidential power.

Because of the absolute devastation of the Great Depression and Hoover’s failure to revive the economy, Roosevelt faced little opposition from Congress in instituting such a profusion of executive orders that expanded and redefined the extent of Presidential power. Roosevelt’s presidency set a precedent for those who later held office that under dire circumstance and necessity the unitary force of the President can expand and assert its power as he sees fit.

The power of the presidency and the respect of its authority have been amplified greatly with the advent of media technology in the modern era. Media coverage highlights the President as an iconic figure in the center of American identity. The introduction and dominance of televised coverage of the President has redefined the dynamic of his role in American culture and has ultimately fused the Presidency to the identity of the nation as a whole. Because the President’s unitary voice represents all of America, his image carries a unique respect of authority and credibility. Media coverage thus allows the President to appeal to masses and call for immediate attention, a power not realized by the framers and not equally given to either Congress or the Courts.

The President, in a larger sense, is imbued with a distinct power to manipulate public opinion to further his political agenda. This is due solely to the glorification of the Presidency by the media in popular culture. It is to this end that the President’s popularity surges after election, during times of desperation and crisis, and most notably, at the beginning of any war during the modern era. Such a phenomenon was best witnessed in Lyndon B. Johnson’s Presidency and his stance against the growth of Communism in the Vietnam War.

Media coverage allowed Johnson to initially gain public approval and rally the nation behind his anti-communist sentiment in Vietnam, a war later described as the most unpopular war in US history. Such an extension of executive power highlighting the President as an iconic symbol of American power in popular culture has existed since the days of Washington yet has only been escalated exponentially with the advent of television media in the Twentieth century.

The emergence of a highly polarized two-party system in the US further extends the power of the president and in turn bypasses a check on the presidency when President’s party holds a majority in Congress. This age of polarization, ushered in by Teddy Roosevelt’s Presidency, creates a conflict between party loyalty and political integrity. In a sense, it is more beneficial for government officials to stay loyal to their political party and advance the agendas of that party than to stay true to their position and collaborate with the opposing party to achieve a bipartisan compromise.

Party loyalty has, in a sense, shifted the balance of power in US government allowing at times for a single party to guide the nation in both the legislative and executive branches. From 1961 to 1967, the Democratic Party held both the Presidency, through Kennedy then Johnson, and both houses of Congress. Consequently both Kennedy and Johnson achieved great success in extending their presidential powers. Kennedy’s involvement in Cold War turmoil, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Bay of Pigs Invasion, extended his power as Commander in Chief and brought the nation to the brink of its existence under threats of nuclear warfare.

Johnson achieved even greater success in forcing legislation through Congress. In addition to escalating the War in Vietnam, Johnson enacted a series of “Great Society” legislations that were meant bring domestic social reform. The extent and scope of these legislations are often compared to FDR’s New Deal legislations. The polarization of the two-party system thus allows for such a growth in Presidential power.

Presidential power has, since the framing of the Constitution, had a unique ability to grow, expand, and adapt to situations by design. The social, cultural and technological revolutions of the twentieth century have in turn given rise to an even greater expansion in Presidential power, one not intended by the framers.

This imbalance of constitutional power, inspired by an indeterminacy of powers in Article II, kindled by the emergence of the president as a cultural icon, and supported by the inevitable polarization of the two party system, has imbued the presidency with an overarching dominance. The far-reaching effects of such extension of power have been realized through many presidencies in the twentieth century. Ultimately, the balance of power within the United States evolves and adapts with time, with social, political and cultural changes.

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