Office Of President
The United States Senate has been called “the most exclusive club in the world” but there is an even more exclusive club. Only a few men have held the office of President, making it the most exclusive club in American political history. Now that the Revolutionary War was over, and independence from Britain had been won, what would the United States do with their freedom? The Declaration of Independence acted as a guide to the values that the new American government should embrace, yet the form that the government would take was still unclear.
As a nation, we place no greater responsibility on any one individual than we do on the president. Could any job be more demanding and complex? We ask the president to be executive, diplomat, military leader, and consoler. On any given day he might have to make life-and-death decisions, propose policies that will change the course of the country, and then greet a group of elementary schoolchildren. The greatest chief executives thrive at balancing the numerous roles they are expected to play; others stumble because they cannot master one of the many duties of the office.
Presidential, or executive, power is not fixed, and it is limited by both constitutional and political constraints. The Constitution prescribes a system of checks and balances whereby the powers of the federal government are shared among the executive, judicial, and legislative branches.
In this delicate balance, however, the influences of the three branches continually shift. They are determined by the individuals in the various offices and their ability to affect public opinion, and by the political, economic, and social climate of the day.
For all the cynicism about politics, Americans have a deep pride in the democratic process. During the 1800s, presidential elections were transformed from the concerns of a limited elite into a massive expression of popular will. From torchlight parades of the past to today's campaign rallies, participation is the order of the day--or, at least, the ideal of the day. In recent presidential elections only about 50 percent of the voting-age population went to the polls.
Presidential elections are more than just contests to select officeholders; they are occasions when Americans can engage in a national dialogue. Candidates may choose pet topics and catch phrases to brandish in their speeches and interviews, but when voters respond with their concerns, the candidates must listen. And they may learn that what matters to those who vote in a particular year are a group of issues that have been generally ignored by the news media or political institutions, refocusing whole campaigns and elections.
Presidential inaugurations are public holidays, a time when all Americans can celebrate our democratic customs and creed. There is much to celebrate for, once again, America's political torch has been passed in peace. Inaugurals have an air of dignity befitting a monarch. At the same time, they reflect our down-to-earth feelings toward politicians. The ceremonies are partly celebrations and partly coronations. Inaugurals promote national unity yet provide an occasion for partisan gloating. They are populist and elitist, public and private, inclusive and exclusive, commercial and civic. But most of all, they reflect the hopes we have for the presidency and our democratic process.
George Washington's presidential residence was in Philadelphia, but he was active in creating a permanent place for future presidents to live and work. In 1790 he signed an Act of Congress declaring that the federal government would reside in a district "not exceeding ten miles square-&on the river Potomac." Together with city planner Pierre L'Enfant, Washington chose the site for the new presidential residence, now 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
It has been 200 years since second president John Adams and his wife Abigail Adams moved into the incomplete Executive Mansion in the incomplete District of Columbia. Since then, forty more presidents have lived in the building we now call the White House in the city we know as Washington, D.C. Most were married, some were widowed, and three were married while in office--although only Grover Cleveland married at the White House. A steady stream of presidential children and grandchildren have been born and raised there; a number have been married there; and a few have even died in the place American presidents call home.
The White House serves many functions. As a historic building, it contains objects used over a period of two centuries. It is also where the president and first lady preside over ceremonies and official greetings. And it is the home of the presidential family.
While the first family needs to remain accessible to the American people, its members also must have space and time to escape from the pressures and scrutiny of their official roles. Balancing their public and private lives has proved one of the greatest challenges facing occupants of the fishbowl that is the White House.
There is no prescribed role for presidents after leaving office. Their activities often depend on their standing in the eyes of the American people, stature within their party, or desire to continue in the public realm. The retiring president does not want his prestige used in a manner he feels is inappropriate, nor does the incumbent want to be upstaged by the previous officeholder. Each former chief executive must approach the challenge in his own way. There are no universal answers, only individual attempts to find a level of contentment after having held the most powerful job in the nation.
The American political system experiences its greatest challenge when the life of the man elected to lead the country is threatened. The death of a president, especially by assassination, traumatizes the nation and plunges it into a period of questioning, reflection, and ritualized mourning. And, from the peaceful, constitutional transfer of power to the vice president, there emerges renewed confidence in our method of government.
Beginning with an attack on Andrew Jackson in 1835, there have been eleven attempts to kill the American president. Four presidents--Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield, William McKinley, and John F. Kennedy--died from assassins' bullets. We are left sitting in the dark, still wondering how such a deed could have been done ... in fair and free America. (Observation made immediately after the assassination of William McKinley in 1901) Since 1901, the formal protectors of the chief executive have been the agents of the U.S. Secret Service. Their courage, creativity, and dedication are taxed to the utmost in safeguarding the president.
When the American political system was young and long distances were traversed most quickly on horseback, there were three ways a president could make his plans and policies known to the public. He could travel far and wide to express his views directly to the people. He could rely on supporters to tout his worthiness and post handbills proclaiming his positions on issues of the day. Or, he could publish his ideas in a newspaper--run, of course, by his own political party. As the country has grown, so have the methods a president can use to communicate with the American people: telegraph, newsreels, radio, television, and now the Internet.
The American people use these same methods to express their own opinions about presidents. Political cartoons and broadsides lampoon the actions of the White House. Movies, plays, records, and television programs offer varying interpretations of the lives of real presidents, or create imaginary leaders who reflect the mood of each generation. Similarly, the presidents' images have been long used to adorn or advertise a variety of products, from games to beverages to hand soap.
The ability to communicate effectively and efficiently to the American public is one hallmark of a successful presidency. Mastering the media of the period, whether newspapers, newsreels, radio, television, or even the Internet, is crucial to a president's capacity to excite people and convey the hopes and aspirations of his administration. "If it were not for the reporters, I would tell you the truth." - President Chester A. Arthur, 1881
For some, the challenge of keeping up with the technological changes and demands in various media greatly limited their presidencies. Others achieved much politically because of their proficiency. Franklin Roosevelt, for instance, used the radio masterfully to speak directly to the American people, and Ronald Reagan's ease with television earned him the nickname "the Great Communicator."
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