Constraints on Presidential Power

Franklin Delano RooseveltBecause of the vast array of presidential roles and responsibilities, coupled with a conspicuous presence on the national and international scene, political analysts have tended to place great emphasis on the president's powers. Some have even spoken of the "the imperial presidency," referring to the expanded role of the office that Franklin D. Roosevelt maintained during his term.

One of the first sobering realities a new president discovers is an inherited bureaucratic structure which is difficult to manage and slow to change direction. Power to appoint extends only to some 3,000 people out of a civilian government work force of more than three million, most of whom are protected in their jobs by Civil Service regulations.

The president finds that the machinery of government operates pretty much independently of presidential interventions, has done so through earlier administrations, and will continue to do so in the future. New presidents are immediately confronted with a backlog of decisions from the outgoing administration on issues that are often complex and unfamiliar. They inherit a budget formulated and enacted into law long before they came to office, as well as major spending programs (such as veterans' benefits, Social Security payments and Medicare for the elderly), which are mandated by law and not subject to influence. In foreign affairs, presidents must conform with treaties and informal agreements negotiated by their predecessors.

President John F. KennedyThe happy euphoria of the post-election "honeymoon" quickly dissipates, and the new president discovers that Congress has become less cooperative and the media more critical. The president is forced to build at least temporary alliances among diverse, often antagonistic interests -- economic, geographic, ethnic and ideological. Compromises with Congress must be struck if any legislation is to be adopted. "It is very easy to defeat a bill in Congress," lamented President John F. Kennedy. "It is much more difficult to pass one."

Despite these burdensome constraints, few presidents have turned down the chance to run for a second term of office. Every president achieves at least some of his legislative goals and prevents by veto the enactment of other laws he believes not to be in the nation's best interests. The president's authority in the conduct of war and peace, including the negotiation of treaties, is substantial. Moreover, the president can use his unique position to articulate ideas and advocate policies, which then have a better chance of entering the public consciousness than those held by his political rivals. When a president raises an issue, it inevitably becomes subject to public debate. A president's power and influence may be limited, but they are also greater than those of any other American, in or out of office.