The President of the United States, no other single person or position represents more fully, for good or ill, the United States government as well as the United States as a whole.
But what role does the President fill? What is his job?
A more perfect union
On July 4, 1776, the thirteen American colonies declared their independence from England. At the same time, it was decided that they would ally, or form a confederacy, together to work together in the fight for independence.
Of course, England didn't see eye to eye on this until the end of the revolutionary war in 1783. It then became 100% official, the thirteen colonies were now thirteen nation-states.
Problem was, at war's end this confederacy was showing signs that it simply wasn't up to the job. A group of people, called Federalists, saw that a stronger union, a federation, was the key to the problems. A federation is a way for states to work together by delegating some of their roles to a federal government while keeping the rest for themselves.
And thus, we have the United States Constitution.
The Big Cheese – well, maybe not
The workhorse of the new federal government is the Congress. In the Congress representatives from across the federation can discuss, debate, and come to a consensus on matters that affect the federation as a whole.
This is at the heart of a republican form of government.
Young America by Thomas Le Clear, 1863
The problem, as anyone who follows the workings of Congress knows, is that all this takes time and can be a very slow, drawn-out process at best. What is needed is someone who can make quick, decisive decisions; be the commander in chief and the point-man for negotiating with foreign governments and so on.
The federal government needs an executive to be, … well, … executive.
Enter the President of the United States.
The electoral college
OK, so we clearly need a president.
And yet, does anyone see the danger in all this?
The danger is that giving one person sole, undiluted authority like this is a potent recipe for the creation of kings.
The Bully of the Neighborhood, John George Brown
Yet the need is there. So the framers of the Constitution decided they had to tickle the dragon a bit, but put in all the safeguarding chains on it they could.
One safeguard lies in how the president is selected. History tells us selecting by popular vote is no good – there are countless examples of the silver-tongued folks who can work the population into supporting them as they seek total power (Can we say Adolf Hitler, for example?).
So instead of the presidency being the path of opportunity for the would-be kings, it needs to be the call to duty for the patriot. This is where the Electoral College comes in – at least in its original inception.
The steps – in principle – are as follows:
Each state forms a nominating committee, the number for each state is equal to the total number of congressmen it sends to Congress. Each state decides how their electors are chosen, either by popular vote or appointed by the state government.
In each state, and independent of all others, each elector nominates someone for president.
All nominations are sent to the House of Representatives where the votes are unsealed and counted. If a majority of nominations are for a particular person, that person is called upon to be President. If not, the House votes on those receiving the highest number of nominations.
One might, at this point, be a bit confused. This might not sound at all like how presidential elections are run to you. Two points need to be made:
Remember, the objective is to discourage the ambitious from occupying the office of president. Originally, becoming president was to be more like being called upon to serve on a jury. One was to be called to the office as a civic duty. Such was certainly the case for George Washington, the first president.
The influence of political parties has changed how voting is conducted so it looks like you are directly voting for a particular candidate. A vote for "John Doe" for President means you are actually voting for electors who agreed to fix the electoral nominations so John Doe can get elected. This also means any third-party, independent, or write-ins who do not have any electors "in the fix" to get them voted for to be president cannot when the state.
What does the President do?
The role of the President is specified in the Constitution, Article II.
He is commander in chief of the armed forces of the United States as well as the state militia when called into service.
The President negotiates treaties "by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate." Likewise, the Senate must approve all treaties. This is an important point since any treaty is effectively a new law and so must require congressional oversight and approval.
He makes appointments to various offices in government, including federal judges. Again, this is to be done with the advice and consent of the Senate.
It is the President who officially receives visiting officials from other nations.
The President shall “from time to time” report to Congress. This has become the annual State of the Union addresses.
The President approves or vetoes new laws. However, with enough votes, Congress can override the veto and make new laws anyway.
Also, early on in the United States, Congress created departments to manage some of their duly appointed roles and placed them under the management of the President. These are:
The state department – the same as a foreign ministry in other nations. This department manages how the United States works with other nations.
The department of the interior – this department manages federal lands.
The treasury department – manages the money.
Of course, there are also unofficial roles the President plays.
The President works with Congress in passing new laws or the federal budget.
The honor and prestige of the office gives the President's voice extra authority. People tend to be more inclined to listen to him than an ordinary person on the street. This is called the "bully pulpit" and has allowed the President to advocate actions that he cannot legally enact.
Presidents through the ages
For all the dignity of the office, the Presidents are, after all, human beings with different personalities to match.
Here are some examples:
The first three presidents, George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson all collected and played with marbles.
President Calvin Coolidge has a reputation for being quiet. 'Silent Cal' was his nickname. Yet he knew very well how to talk to people and did very well in debate meetings in college.
Abraham Lincoln would go in bare feet or slippers around the White House. The story has it that he so received a visiting governor, who was offended by this.
Lyndon B. Johnson loved the water pressure in the White House shower super high. The story goes that when someone else used the shower they were quite literally blown away by the sheer force of the water.
The Teddy Bear is named after Theodore Roosevelt (Teddy being his nickname). On one hunting trip, the President wished he could hunt a bear. Well-meaning assistants found a bear cub and tied it up so Teddy could get his bear. Teddy refused to shoot it as being unsportsmanlike. A reporter reported the story and a man who made stuffed animals decided to make a bear in his honor.
The American President fills a vital role in the smooth functioning of the federal republic that is the United States. Yet, when all gets said and done, they are just fellow human beings – full of human strengths and weaknesses. We appoint presidents, we hope, because of their strengths; but we must also realize that they have many of the same challenges the rest of us face.
It then behooves all of us to, on the one hand, expect great things of those in authority while at the same time make some allowances for our fellow creatures who have a huge job to do – a job that many people wouldn't want themselves.
The Wind and the Lion
(1975) Based on a true story. The Perdicaris family is an American family living in 1904 Morocco. The family is attacked, the father killed and the mother and children are carried off. How will President Theodore Roosevelt handle it? This is a very good movie and about the best depiction of Teddy in film I've seen.
Warning: There is rough language used.
Abe Lincoln in Illinois
(1940) Raymond Massey does an excellent job of depicting Mr. Lincoln the man during his Illinois days, up to being elected president.
A More Perfect Union
A must see! This covered the writing of the United States Constitution.
On the web
Constitutional Convention: Federalists v. Anti-Federalists
This video discusses the debate between the federalists and anti-federalists. It gives great insights into the concerns that needed to be addressed in the new constitution.
The Presidents' Voices (Parts 1 and 2)
These videos feature the recorded voices of President Harrison to Eisenhower. Part 1 is Harrison to Harding, part 2 is Coolidge to Eisenhower.
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