In addition to the veto, which is essentially a negative power in the lawmaking process, the Constitution also gives the president an agenda setting role (Article II, Section 3). The President “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.” But up until the twentieth century, presidents relied mainly on the veto to affect legislation. As Steven Wayne points out: “The framers of the American Constitution did not expect the president to be a chief legislator. They did not expect the president to set Congress’s policy agenda except in times of crisis, particularly when Congress was not in session…Legislative draftsman, congressional lobbyist, and coalition builder—there is little indication that the framers expected or wanted the president to assume any of those roles on a regular basis.”
After 1801, when President Thomas Jefferson decided he would not make an address to Congress, and through the nineteenth century, presidents mainly gave Congress administrative reports on executive actions. In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson delivered a State of the Union address to Congress, and from that point it has become the primary means through which the president seeks to set the legislative agenda.
Wilson’s use of the State of the Union address was one of the first signs of the emergence of the “modern president,” a term used to define the expectations we have of the president today. The modern president should have a dynamic personality; exert legislative leadership by setting the policy agenda and cajoling Congress to address the nation’s challenges; use the media to project an image of strength in national and global affairs; broadly interpret the Constitution’s executive power; and have the institutional capacity to handle the responsibilities of a world power and modern welfare state. All of the essential elements of the modern president came together under Franklin Roosevelt, who set a standard for his successors.
The modern president was advanced by changes in technological, economic, and international conditions:
First, mass communications, beginning with the radio in the 1930s, allowed the President to speak directly to the American people. Beginning with Roosevelt’s fireside chats, the president has deployed mass media to announce the nation’s priorities and challenges, shape public opinion, or to pronounce the will of the American people. Of course, the capability has grown substantially since the 1930s. Today, television and social media give the president the means to communicate ideas and information to a mass audience, creating a near constant campaign for public approval.
Second, economic changes, beginning with the Great Depression, elevated the role of the president. Roosevelt sought to use the federal government to spur economic growth and, henceforth, the president would be deemed responsible for advancing the nation’s fiscal policy, the use of taxes and spending to stabilize the economy. A growing role for government during and after the Depression and World War II facilitated the rise of the modern welfare state. Ultimately, industrialization, innovations in transportation, communications, technology, and demands from population growth created a complex economic system that, in turn, increased demand for regulatory policy and government programs. Those developments fueled a large growth in government that regular executive oversight.
Congress itself has also contributed to the increase in executive power by delegating some of its powers in the areas of the economy and national security to the President. In 1921, the Congress passed the Budget and Accounting Act, which made the President responsible for submitting an annual budget proposal to Congress. A quarter century later, in the wake of the Great Depression, Section 3 of the Employment Act of 1946 made the President responsible for proposing methods to Congress for promoting full employment nationally. Similarly, the National Security Act of 1947 delegated significant authority to the executive branch in the aftermath of World War II by creating the modern national security apparatus, including the National Security Agency, with reporting responsibility to the President. With World War II and later the Cold War, the United States emerged as a world power, thrusting the president, as commander-in-chief, into a preeminent position in international and foreign affairs. The national security infrastructure grew dramatically during and after World War II, and the president is at the head of it all.
As Neustadt put it, in the post-World War II era, “Everybody now expects the man inside the White House to do something about everything.” The modern presidency has far more authority in the legislative process than the framers envisioned. Several questions arise as a result: where does the rise of presidential power leave Congress? How has the modern presidency affected Congress’ ability to perform the lawmaking function? Has the president replaced Congress as the primary branch of government? Does the Constitution still enable Congress to check executive encroachments on its power?
The debate over the balance of power between the Congress and the Presidency is enduring and unresolved, and we shall not attempt to engage the issue fully here. Rather, we should consider the concepts that affect our understanding of the constitutional separation of powers and checks and balances in the contemporary Congress. We will review two theories of presidential-congressional interaction contingent on the role of political parties: (1) the imperial presidency and responsible party government model, and (2) the separated presidency and diffused responsibility perspective.