Presidents as Policy Makers

The politics of policy making are vast, the institutional expectations of policymaking are clearly stated in the constitution. The Constitution was a document written exactly 227 years ago. It is unacceptable to think that those same ideas written 227 years ago are also the ideas of our time. The Constitution allows for no leeway. The constitution is clear that a president cannot act as a legislator; they cannot introduce bills to Congress. This idea is wrong, the president should act if not as a legislator, but at least as a policy maker. He quite possibly should be able to act as a legislator.

If the president could act as a legislator, it would ensure that the president would no longer be hiding behind the office of the executive. It would ensure for greater transparency not only within the office of executive, but also greater transparency with Congress. The president’s party already votes for the president’s initiatives, so what would be the big issue giving both the president and Congress more power. It would allow for the American people to view presidential policymaking in a better light, it might even boost the people’s view of his or her congresswoman or congressmen. Presidential policymaking is a good thing for American political life. However the president and other members of his cabinet should quit hiding behind a façade and embrace it. Alexander Hamilton believed that there needed to be energy in the executive. By allowing the president to make policy, and allowing him to introduce bills in the House and Senate, the role of the presidency would be expanded greatly how the Hamilton and our first president would agree. “The general doctrine of our Constitution Hamilton, argued is that the executive power of the nation is vested in the President, subject only to the exceptions and qualifications which are expressed in the instrument.” (Milkis, Nelson 221)

We’ve seen presidential policymaking since the very beginning of the office of the executive. George Washington fought for policies that he thought would help the nation, Thomas Jefferson fought for his policies. The peak of presidential policymaking and coming out of the closet policymaking by the executive started with Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It continued on after FDR’s tenure in office, and it’s a good thing.

George Washington believed that in order for America to be successful, their needed to be a strong national government. George Washington issued the Neutrality Proclamation in 1793. “Washington sided with Hamilton on the neutrality issue…” (Milkis, Nelson 83) “In foreign affairs, the explicit constititutional restrictions on presidential power exteneded no further than the right of the Senate to ratify treaties and of Congress to declare war. These rights of the legistlature, Hamilton insisted, did not hinder the executive in matters of foreign policy, which ‘naturally’ were the domain of the president.” (Milkis, Nelson 83–84) To the average reader this may not seem like a “big” policymaking deal but it is, Congress has the power to ratify treaties. President Washington just ratified his own treaty. It may not seem like a treaty but it is, because they aren’t going to go to war, nor are they going to choose sides in the battle. But what Washington is really meant by this proclamation, was a guarantee to the French and the British that American forces would not attack them.

Andrew Jackson took a radically different view of the executive and institutions. Jackson felt that he needed to level the playing field. “The most important political theme of the Age of Jackson was the widespread desire for equality of opportunity, born of the conviction that no one should have special privileges at the expense of anyone else.” (Milkis, Nelson 127) Andrew Jackson would radically reshape American political institutions. “The Jacksonians’ political philosophy encouraged a much bolder assault on national institutions and programs than the generally more flexible Jeffersonian had undertaken. Jackson withdrew the federal government from the realm of internal improvements such as subsidized highways and canals. He kept the armed forces, especially the army to a minimum. Jacksons’ fiscal policy was to hold down expenditures. The Bank of the United States, which Jeffersonian had learned to live with, was dismantled, and its deposits were reinvested in selected state banks.” (Milkis, Nelson 127–128) Andrew Jackson felt that Jefferson gave up on the war of the bank, he also was not happy about the power that the judiciary stole from Jefferson. Andrew Jackson also radically changed how Americans and presidents view the veto power. “… Presidents alike had agreed that a veto should be cast only when the president believed a piece of legislation was unconstitutional. In forty years under the Constitution, presidents had vetoed only nine acts of Congress, and of these only three dealt with important issues. Jackson, in contrast, successfully vetoed twelve bills in eight years, even using the ‘pocket veto’ for the first time.” (Milkis, Nelson 131–132) Jackson felt that a veto should be used if the president thought that it was the wrong idea for the country. President Jackson set a strong policy by using the veto so many times, and he also set the agenda for what we know as the veto of today. Every president today believes that they can and have the power to use the veto power as a weapon.

The presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the peak of presidential policy making. Delano Roosevelt was brought into office at a time when the office of the executive had a lot of leeway; it was at the time the worst economy in modern American history. “Roosevelt also wanted to show his party and the nation that he would not hesitate to break traditions if they stood in the way of his vision and progress. ‘I have started out on the tasks that lie ahead by breaking the absurd traditions that the candidate should remain in professed ignorance of what had happened for weeks until he is formally notified of that event many weeks later,’ Roosevelt told the convention on July 12, 1932.” (Milkis, Nelson 290) Roosevelt is not going to sit around and wait for the issues to arise, rather he is going to come out swinging before the issue has the chance.

His presidency will be one of great success, and will show the nation what happens when the president takes a very hand on approach to the issues facing America. At this time we are seeing the preventable issues presidency, or the time when the president from whichever party, tries to prevent issues before they arise. The preventable issues presidency stakes out a more moderate political leaning so that he will be able to work with whoever wants to help him.

FDR told members of his party exactly what he wanted, and they knew not to go against him. He signed the social security act, which ensured that seniors would be taken care of after they retired. FDR expanded social programs so far, that some even questioned his loyalty to America.

Lyndon Baines Johnson passed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. “It empowered the federal bureaucracy — especially the Department of Justice, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and the newly formed EEOC — to assist the courts by creating parallel enforcement mechanisms for civil rights. These mechanisms proved to be effective; and in four years the Johnson administration accomplished more desegregation in southern schools than the courts had in the previous fourteen.” (Milkis, Nelson 343–344) LBJ transformed the presidency from a time when most thought that the courts should solve issues, however LBJ showed just like FDR, and those who came before him that the office of the presidency could be used as a policymaking machine.

President Barack Obama is a great example of a policy-creating president. He was able to pass the landmark Affordable Care Act (ACA, Obamacare) through Congress. This was the president’s signature piece of legislation, and now it’s a landmark piece of legislation.

The presidency has been evolving since the first president George Washington, Washington was a policymaker, as was Andrew Jackson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Lyndon Baines Johnson and Barack Obama. They all were successful in either achieving their policy agendas, or in some minute area of their specific philosophy. In Washington’s, time it was the Neutrality Proclamation, In Jacksons time it was ensuring that most federal dollars wouldn’t be used on infrastructure. In Franklin Roosevelt’s time it was the landmark social security act, in Johnson’s time it was the Civil Rights Act. Obamacare was President Obama’s landmark piece of policy legislation. For every great piece of legislation, it was the President who acted first, who set the agenda for Congress. Most of the legislation passed by Congress had/s the support the party who controls the office of the president.

This was an essay I had to write about a year ago for a college course. The question posed was Should President’s acting as Policy Makers. The book used for the course can be found here.

Let me know your thoughts on the essay.

Nick can be found on twitter @NickSones

Read Next:

In Defense of the Supreme Court