American politics, since the beginning, has viewed the President as an important contributor of ideas, policies and programs. The rise of the President as Chief Legislator, a development that did not occur until the 20th Century, was attributable to the President’s role as party leader and the consequent willingness of party members of Congress to advance his legislative agenda. Various Presidents, particularly Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson, were effective “executive leaders” in engineering congressional passage of policies and programs, including the New Deal and Great Society programs, respectively.
The vision of the President as a legislator is owing, principally, to three constitutional cornerstones: the State of the Union provision, the Recommendation Clause and the veto power. We have discussed the duty of the President to inform Congress about the state of the Union, as well as the President’s veto power. Let us consider the Recommendation Clause which, simply put, directs the President to recommend to the consideration of Congress “such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”
Article 2, Section 3 of the Constitution provides that the President “shall” recommend to Congress for “their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” The Recommendation Clause received little attention in the Constitutional Convention. The principal issue of debate surrounded the issue of whether the President “may” or “shall” recommend measures to Congress. While some delegates supported the use of the word, “may,” as a means of providing the President with discretionary authority, others harbored concerns that “may” might suggest an imperious intrusion into congressional deliberations. As a consequence, the Framers settled on the word, “shall,” to “make it the duty of the President to recommend, & thence prevent umbrage or cavil at his doing it.” This language—a command—provided the President with some cover to make recommendations without offending Congress. In Federalist Papers No. 69 and 77, Alexander Hamilton briefly mentioned the Recommendations Clause, but did not elaborate.
The shift toward presidential leadership on legislative matters really began under the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, whom scholars refer to as the first “modern president.” As the United States moved from a predominantly agricultural nation to an industrial nation, the front burner issues of the day – corporate monopoly, child labor, food and drug purity, monetary policy, and railroad transportation – became national in scope. The expanding role of the federal government and the emergence on the national scene of an energetic executive like Roosevelt, who relished the opportunity of placing his hands on all of the issues, produced an increased executive role in legislation to govern increasingly complex problems. The president, Roosevelt, reminded legislators, was the only national officer in the American governmental configuration, and only the Chief Executive could marshal the formidable economic, technological, and social forces necessary to achieve solutions to these challenges.
Congress seemed to acquiesce in the conclusion that it was ill-equipped to handle these issues and it deferred to the president. Congress, it was said, was better positioned to handle issues that could be broken down into district or state lines, that those that escaped constituency boundaries. With that concession, an energetic presidency was launched on a trajectory that would dramatically change the dynamics of power between the legislative and executive branches.
Roosevelt pushed through Congress The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, as well as the program for the creation of the national parks system, programs that cut across several traditional classes of private and public interests. Roosevelt’s cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, elevated the concept of the president as legislative leader to even greater heights in the perilous period of his presidency. Indeed, Roosevelt’s presidency became the model for the contemporary presidency.