The broad language of the second article of the Constitution left many
questions about the power and authority of the President and the Executive
branch of the Federal Government. Since George Washington, each Chief Executive
has come to the position with different beliefs on the responsibility and power
of the President. However the performance of the president is often shaped by
outside factors which control how he must act as a Chief Executive. The
behavior of presidents come from a number of different criteria. A president’s
personal character, his approach to the position and circumstances during his
term all contribute to presidential behavior.
Presidents have approached the office from two vague positions. They
have believed, to varying degrees, that either the president has a strong
leadership position and broad powers to direct the nation in one direction, or
that the president has very limited powers dictated by the Constitution and
should act like a chief administrator for the Federal Government. These beliefs
were reflected in their behavior while in the White House. Franklin Roosevelt
believed that the Federal Government had an obligation and interest in bringing
the nation out of the depression. In order to do this he initiated a number of
agencies and projects to employ people. In the first “Hundred Days” of
Roosevelt’s first term he initiated a number of programs which increased the
size of the Federal Government and the power of the President. He did all that
he could to see that his proposals were put into place. This included a failed
court packing scheme to have a more friendly Supreme Court to find his programs
constitutional (Lowi and Ginsberg
230.) In contrast to this belief in broad presidential authority by Franklin
Roosevelt was Howard Taft. Taft believed that Presidential authority was very
limited the constitution and had to be specifically granted to the President by
Congress or the Constitution (Lowi and Ginsberg 220.) Another example of a
passive approach to the presidency to is George Washington. While he is often
seen as a very influential president, his position as the first President
require that he had to set many standards. In fact President Washington hoped
that the presidency would not be dominate. In his inaugural address he argued
for a strong legislature which he received (Lowi and Ginsburg 227.) However,
personal beliefs on the role of the president have been minor in the behavior of
a President. When required all Presidents have assumed power to quickly deal
with a situation.
A President’s personality and beliefs are also a factor in determining
his actions as a President. Barber argues that a person’s personality is shaped
by his character, world view, and style all of which are established at
different times in his life. He argues that a person’s character is established
early in life, world view is shaped adolescence, and style in early adulthood.
These broad areas of personality come together to establish a style of
leadership and presidential character. Barber goes on to establish four
categories of Presidential Character which are; active-positive, active-negative,
passive-positive, passive-negative. Jefferson was clearly an active-positive
president who was proactive and enjoyed the power which he had. Barber
explains this by his Enlightenment education and good humor. Adams would fit
into his category of active-negative presidents who had a strong work ethic (a
result of his Puritan heritage) but a harsh disposition. Madison can be fit
into the place of passive-positive. He bowed to political pressure, but enjoyed
his position because of his past in framing and support for the Constitution.
Finally a passive-negative president would be President Washington who was more
or less forced into the office. He hoped for stability in the new government
and allowed others to take an active role in forming the institutions of the
government. His military background and obligation to perform community service
explain this approach to community service (Woll 291-300.)While Barber is
successful is placing presidents into these categories, he gives very vague
examples of character which explain their behavior as a president. It would be
difficult to successfully predict how future presidents would fit into his
categories and they are too broad to explain behavior of presidents.
Presidential behavior can also be seen in historical terms that the
stature and power of the president has increased with the growth of the Federal
Government. Since the early twentieth century through the present day the
Federal Government has grown in scope and size with almost each President. This
is also true with the United States in the area of international relations.
Presidents in the last century have taken a much larger part in legislature
leadership because of the nature of their election process. Presidents such as
Reagan and Clinton ran on specific programs which they would implement. Reagan
acted in an active legislative way by proposing a tax cut and increased military
spending, both of which he achieved. Clinton tried to accomplish health care
reform as well as welfare reform. Both of these types of legislative leadership
were different from the actions of Madison who was viewed as a “chief clerk”
(Lowi and Ginsburg 228.) Since Franklin Roosevelt the Federal Government has
provided a wide array of services and regulations for the American public. This
has resulted in a growth of the executive branch. The President has had to
increase his role in developing policy as leader of the executive branch. The
growth of the United States into a global power has also changed the behavior of
the President. His almost complete control over foreign policy has made him the
most powerful diplomat in the world. This explanation, however, only shows the
difference in the character of the office of the presidency in the past century.
How each individual president fits into this pattern is left unexplained.
The most important consideration in explaining presidential behavior is
outside circumstances and events. The nature of the office is for the president
to be a reactionary on many different fronts. For the most part the legislation
that the president proposes is in response to a problem or concern by the public
or the media. The president must react to international events which may effect
American interests. Presidents who want to take a proactive approach to
problems are often bogged down with problems which derail their plans.
President Kennedy was forced to devote most of his time to Cold War issues
during his presidency than domestic affairs because he found himself in power
during two of the biggest events of the Cold War. The failed Bay of Pigs
Invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis forced Kennedy away from domestic issues
which he promised to tackle. Hoover’s presidency was completely derailed
because of the depression. Lincoln focused himself completely at the task of
keeping the Union, even if this meant blatant violations of civil liberties.
While circumstances may dictate what a President must deal with, it does not
necessarily explain how he comes to a position on issues and deals with problems.
The behavior of a President can only be explained as a combination of
many factors. His personal politics and approach to the power of the Presidency
will explain if he will try to lead the whole government and beyond that the
whole nation, or if he will act as a clerk, putting into action the orders of
Congress. A Presidents character and style of leadership are an important
factor in his approach to leadership. The size and duty of the Federal
Government also effect a President’s behavior and the priorities of his office.
Finally a President must react to events at home and abroad which are out of his
control. The pressures that these events and the public reaction to them
probably have the greatest influence over his behavior and decisions.
Actions and behavior of a President are the result of a complex set of
circumstances. No one criteria can be used to explain the behavior of the
president in any event. Explaining actions on the basis of one criteria is
futile and should be reserved to talk radio hosts.