The Idea of the Presidency


Under the Constitution, the president is vested with executive power. Article II outlines the presidency, including how the president is to be selected and the powers of the executive office. There has been a significant debate throughout our history as to the nature and extent of those executive powers. Among the most problematic of these discussions is the appropriate relationship and interaction of the executive with both the legislative and judicial branches of government. In some ways, the president exists merely functionally to carry out the will of Congress—enforcing the laws passed by the legislative and providing the necessary administrative structure to carry them out. On the other hand, the president has come to be expected to set an agenda, working with and influencing Congress to pass the legislation the president feels is most needed, while also setting significant policy through executive departments. 

The Executive Power in the Colonial Era and the Articles of Confederation

The executive power, prior to the American experiment, had been closely identified with kingship, and so it is no wonder that this office was treated with suspicion by many of the former colonists. The earliest political arrangements in the United States – whether under the Articles of Confederation or the state constitutions – were framed with the intention of enfeebling the executive power.

They either had no executive at all; or one that could act only with the acquiescence of a council; or they had an executive office that was actually administered by a number of co-executives; and almost all executives at that time had very short tenures. These earliest experiments in weak, republican executives generally led to enfeebled government or overweening legislatures.

Creating the Office

The United States Constitution was the first real attempt to fashion a strong executive that was not a king. The delegates to the Constitutional Convention decided that American presidency would be administered by one person, and that person would wield considerable power. The president would be elected for four years (a long term by early American standards), and he could be reelected in perpetuity. 

Under the Constitution the presidency was expected to be a powerful office, and so the Framers were naturally interested in finding ways to contain it. Nevertheless, it was impossible to limit that power by simply enumerating it (as was done with congressional power), since executive power, by its nature, is less susceptible of precise definition. Therefore, the greatest disagreements over the office at the Convention centered on how best to constrain the presidency to appropriate authority. The delegates gave significant attention to how the chief executive should be selected; the tenure in office; and whether the office should be occupied by a single person, divided among a number of people, or whether a single executive should be bound to the advice of a body of councilors. The most vexing of these debates was over the best mode of election for the president.