The American Presidency: A Brief History by David Kennedy

David Kennedy framed our discussion with David Plouffe and Mike McCurry on October 6 with a beautiful and brief history of the American Presidency as an institution. Below is his transcript.


David M. Kennedy

Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History Emeritus

Stanford University

I’d like to get us started this evening with a bit of historical perspective on the unique institution that is the American presidency. I’ll begin with some observations about the constitutional architecture of the presidency, and then briefly discuss a set of changes that began to appear in the early twentieth century — involving new expectations about the presidency, technologically driven changes in the media, and the emergence of primary elections.

But first, some numbers:

There have been 44 presidencies, but only 43 presidents (thanks to Grover Cleveland). All 44 have been males. All but two have been white Protestant males. Seventeen have been elected to second terms.

Twenty-six had been lawyers, 18 previously served in the House of Representatives, 17 as governors, 16 as U.S. Senators, 14 as vice-president, and 9 had been generals. Just two — and not a particularly happy two, I’m afraid — could be described as having had careers as “businessmen” — Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter. Eight have died in office, 4 of them assassinated. Two have been impeached (Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton), and one (Richard Nixon) has resigned.


But here’s the single most important number: the president is just one — 1 — of the 536 federal elected officials in Washington DC. (For these purposes I am treating the president and vice-president as a single, unified political unit.) It’s worth repeating that: the President is but one of 536 elected officials in Washington, D.C. The others, of course, are the 100 members of the Senate and the 435 members of the House of Representatives. As Theodore White, once said, “The supreme duty of the President is to protect us from each other’s Congressmen.”[i] That remark actually points to some persistently problematic attributes of the Presidency, indeed, problems with the entire American political system.

The constitutional Framers in Philadelphia in 1787 actually invented the presidency. Colonial governors had been not elected but royally-appointed — and usually royally resented. The Articles of Confederation made no provision whatsoever for an executive department. So, knowing the weaknesses of the Articles, the framers wanted an effective executive. But, remembering the abuses of those much-disliked royal governors, they also feared the concentration of executive authority. How to strike the balance?

The result was the famous (or infamous) system of “checks and balances” that American students have learned about ever-after in their high-school civics classes. The Framers gave the president the power to make treaties and to oversee the executive branch — and simultaneously hedged that power by requiring the advice and consent of the Senate on treaties as well as on high-level executive appointments. Conversely, the Framers conferred some legislative power on the president in the form of the veto. And they mixed both presidential and congressional prerogative into the judiciary branch by making the president responsible for nominating persons to the federal judiciary, but only subject to final confirmation by the Senate.


The delegates to the Constitutional Convention who advocated most strongly for a robust executive were Alexander Hamilton, and James Wilson, delegate from Pennsylvania.

Here’s what Hamilton had to say about the “executive” branch in Federalist Number 70:

A feeble executive implies a feeble execution of the government. A feeble execution is but another phrase for a bad execution: And a government ill executed, whatever it may be in theory, must be in practice a bad government.[ii]

For his part, Wilson wanted direct popular election of the President — and for good reason. In his view, the Presidency was the sole locus in the entire political system where responsibility for the nation as a whole resided — as distinguished from the parochial interests of representatives from local congressional districts or senators from individual states. (This was Theodore White’s point as well.)

Wilson’s conception of the presidency was what I will call “plebiscitarian” — that is, an office to which persons should be elected directly by the entire citizenry, and therefore directly beholden to the national at-large electorate. But it was not to be. Instead we got the decidedly odd and distinctly American apparatus of the Electoral College. But — just to look ahead for a moment — James Wilson’s aspiration for a more plebiscitarian presidency would in the fullness of time get a kind of second wind.

Some further numbers from that constitutional moment can serve to make a cardinal point. Article I of the Constitution addresses the role of the Legislative Branch. It comprises 51 paragraphs, and contains language about “Powers Denied to the Government,” suggesting an elision in the Founders’ minds between “government” and “legislature.”

Article II addresses the Executive Branch. It contains just 13 paragraphs, eight of which lay out the mechanisms for electing the president, and 4 of which detail his “powers.” One provides for his impeachment.

The asymmetry of those numbers — 51 paragraphs devoted to the legislature, and just 13 to the executive — strongly suggests that the Framers conceived of the president as largely the creature of the legislature. To be sure, unlike in so-called “parliamentary systems,” where the prime minister is the head of the majority party in the legislature, he was to be independently elected, and would have a measure of autonomy and some power of initiative — but, in practice, he would be substantially subordinated to the will of the legislative branch. In fact, down to 1832, presidential candidates were chosen by congressional caucuses, not party conventions.

But toward the end of the 19th century, several people began to question the centrality of Congress in our political system. Among them was a young graduate student at Johns Hopkins University. In 1885 he published his doctoral dissertation under the title “Congressional Government.” It remains to this day one of the most trenchant treatises ever written about American political institutions.

That bright young graduate student was Thomas Woodrow Wilson. He was, of course, destined some three decades later to become the twenty-eighth president of the United States.

Wilson intended his title, “Congressional Government” to be understood as ironic, even oxymoronic. His central argument was that Congress was inherently, structurally, incapable of anything resembling coherent, effective government. As he wrote:

Nobody stands sponsor for the policy of the government. A dozen men originate it; a dozen compromises twist and alter it; a dozen offices whose names are scarcely known out of Washington put it into execution…. Policy cannot be either prompt or straightforward when it must serve many masters. It must either equivocate, or hesitate, or fail altogether. [The] division of authority and concealment of responsibility are calculated to subject the government to a very distressing paralysis.”[iii]

You have to pinch yourself to remember that those words were written not in 2016 but 131 years ago, in 1885.

Wilson’s voice was an early one in a chorus of similar commentary over the next few decades, all lamenting the chronic dysfunctionality of Congress and fragmentation of political power now that the United States was a big, mature, industrialized, urbanized, increasingly networked and interdependent society of nearly 100 million people, with the capacity to assert its influence on a global scale.

As Alexander Hamilton had said, a feeble executive, implying a feeble execution of Government, had become both an embarrassment and a danger in the modern world.

So when he assumed the presidency in 1913, Wilson represented both newly emerging expectations about the president’s role — and a new style of presidential leadership. As he said: “The President is at liberty, in law and in conscience, to be as big a man as he possibly can.” [iv]

Along with his contemporary, Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson introduced two significant innovations to the presidency.

The first is evident in the fact that with Roosevelt we have the first publicized slogan — the “Square Deal” — that described a comprehensive, coherent policy program for which the President was to stand as champion. No such thing existed before the twentieth century. But Americans have long since become accustomed to — indeed, have come to expect — presidentially-sponsored policy packages, along with their headline slogans — from Theodore Roosevelt’s “Square Deal,” to Woodrow Wilson’s “New Freedom,” FDR’s “New Deal,” Harry Truman’s “Fair Deal,” JFK’s “New Frontier,” Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society ” — and today’s ORDEAL.

That succession of presidential programs bespeaks the felt need in modern American society for the type of coordinated, articulated, national policies for which the president — as the singular, solitary national political officer — can be held accountable. But of course, while the president proposes, Congress disposes, and it has many, many avenues of disposal. Here is where constitutional realities of what Francis Fukuyama calls the American “vetocracy” come frustratingly into play. As the young Woodrow Wilson observed, Congress to this day remains the place where presidential policy initiatives go to die — or to be disemboweled or dismembered.

The second innovation whose outlines, at least, we can see in the era of Roosevelt and Wilson recalls that plebiscitarian dream of James Wilson back in 1787. Both Roosevelt and Wilson began to develop a political technique whose significance would grow exponentially as the twentieth century went forward: using publicity as a tool of governance.

By publicity I mean reaching over and beyond the formal institutions of government, Congress in particular, to appeal directly to the public at large in order to advance the presidential agenda. The eight-dollar word for this is “disintermediation.”

The emergence of inexpensive mass-circulation newspapers around the turn of the century — papers like William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal and Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World — first made this possible. Wilson used them to secure passage of tariff, banking, trade, and anti-trust legislation in his first term, and tragically broke his health in a failed attempt to do the same with respect to passage of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.

That shift has been precisely quantified. In the twentieth century presidents spoke directly to the public — in one medium or another — six times more frequently than in the nineteenth century. Conversely, Presidents in the twentieth century spoke exclusively to Congress one-fourth less frequently than in the preceding century.

The emergence of mass electronic, instantaneous communication — beginning with the radio — powerfully accelerated that trend. Franklin D. Roosevelt, of course, with his renowned Fireside Chats, fundamentally re-defined the president’s relationship to the public. John F. Kennedy took things a step further when he began televising news conferences, rendering the next morning’s print accounts, or event that evening’s news broadcasts, utterly redundant.

The internet and social media of our own time take this process of disintermediation to its inevitable conclusion. They not only provide presidents (and presidential candidates) with direct access to citizens, but also enable citizens to communicate directly and swiftly with leaders — and, even more importantly, with each other, free from editorial curating or fact-checking or even the protocols of civil speech. We live in a radically disintermediated world, for better or worse.

One more development with powerful consequences in our own time also has its origins in the early twentieth century — the proliferation of primary elections. Oregon held the first delegate-binding presidential primary election in 1910, and California and a handful of other states soon followed suit. They did so in the name of “direct democracy” — taking politics out of the hands of the “bosses” and “machines” and putting power squarely into the hands of the people.

In American political culture, it’s hard to argue that more democracy is not better than less democracy; but the actual workings of the primary system might prompt us to re-think that apparently benign proposition.

The fact is that as late as 1968 only a dozen states held presidential primary elections. A decade or so later, virtually every state had a primary — or its near-equivalent, a caucus.

Here is yet another form of “disintermediation.” While the electronics revolution has severely reduced the influence of the established press and other media, in more or less the same time frame primary elections have enormously reduced the role of political parties in performing their usual tasks of identifying, vetting, recruiting, grooming, and supporting candidates. Now, any political entrepreneur with a fat check-book or a few fat-cat supporters can seek to “rent” — or maybe better say “high-jack” — a party as the vehicle of his or her candidacy — a consideration that helps explain why the Republican field in the 2016 election cycle had seventeen contenders well into the campaigning season, many of whom had sufficient funding to hang on well beyond their sell-by date.

So here is where history has deposited us: Americans have come to have increasingly extravagant expectations not only that the President will protect them from each other’s congressmen but will also be the paladin of coherent nationally-scaled policies, domestic and foreign, responsive to the realities and the responsibilities of an advanced post-industrial society of 322 million people. And we have come to expect, even demand, something that amounts to a personal, unmediated relationship with presidents and wannabe presidents, inquiring even into the minutiae of their most personal and intimate lives. The media that once reported and interpreted the news have lost much of their authority and credibility — not to mention their audience. And the political parties that once did the work of selecting and proposing candidates have lost much of their power to control that process in the age of ubiquitous primary elections.

But remember those other 535 people in Washington D.C. Congress retains all its prerogatives to obstruct and to veto. It continues to operate as a ramshackle confederation of local interests rather than a truly national institution. The resulting stalemate feeds public frustration, disillusionment, distrust, and resentment and breeds the political attitude we call Populism. It is not a pretty picture.

A recent book by Stanford’s Terry Moe and William Howell of the University of Chicago, Relic: How Our Constitution Undermines Effective Government — and Why We Need a More Powerful Presidency resurrects much of Woodrow Wilson’s lament about congressional inefficiency in 1885.[v] Moe and Howell propose a quite specific remedy: granting the president across-the-board “fast track” authority, with respect to all legislation, such as he now enjoys with respect to trade negotiations. If their recommendation is adopted, presidential initiatives would have to be voted up or down, without amendments or riders. In their view, this arrangement would better align the hopes invested in the presidency and the realities of presidential leadership by meaningfully attaching presidential accountability to presidential promises — as Alexander Hamilton and James Wilson wanted — and would introduce more transparency and efficiency to the legislative process — as Woodrow Wilson wanted.

Whether this is a realistic, or a sufficient, or even an appropriate, solution to the political paralysis that besets the United States today I can’t say. But any diagnosis of our current situation must take account of the mighty weight of constitutional architecture, the technologies of communication, the ways in which primary elections have weakened the political parties — and, just to add another layer of complexity — the oceans of money on which our electoral system now floats — that have brought the American political system to its present pass. Those will be among our subjects this evening and in the weeks to come.

[i] Theodore White, The Making of the President 1960 (Atheneum, 1961), 222.

[ii], accessed 13 August 2016.

[iii] Woodrow Wilson, Congressional Government: A Study in American Politics (Houghton Mifflin, 1885), 318.

[iv] Wilson, speech at Columbia University, 1908,, accessed 13 August 2016.

[v] Terry Moe and William Howell, Relic: How Our Constitution Undermines Effective Government — and Why We Need a More Powerful Presidency (Basic Books, 2016)

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