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7. The Modern Presidency: Tools of Power, Readings
Topic Overview Using the Video Readings Critical Thinking Activity Web-Based Resources






Readings Unit 7

The Readings for Democracy in America unit 7 are available here for download as a PDF file. You'll need a copy of Adobe Acrobat Reader to read the files. Acrobat Reader is available free for download from adobe.com.

Download Unit 7 Readings, The Modern Presidency: Tools of Power

  • Introduction—The Modern Presidency: Tools of Power

  • Tocqueville, Democracy in America: “The Executive Power”

  • Federalist Papers: “Federalist No. 69”

  • Jackson, “On Indian Removal”

  • Lincoln, The Emancipation Proclamation


  1. In what political arena does the executive typically find the greatest occasion to exert his skill and authority?

  2. What is the most important difference between the king’s war power and the chief executive’s war power in the United States Constitution, according to Alexander Hamilton?

  3. Which branch of government possesses the war powers that the president lacks?

  4. “Our conduct toward these people,” Andrew Jackson explained concerning native Americans, “is deeply interesting to our national character.” What did Jackson believe our conduct conveyed?

  5. Who did Lincoln free with the Emancipation Proclamation?

Introduction—The Modern Presidency: Tools of Power

“It is a lesser question for the partisans of democracy to find means of governing the people,” Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in a letter to John Stuart Mill, “than to get the people to choose the men most capable of governing.” Choosing good leaders, whether men or women, is often a matter of choosing leaders who can themselves choose well, and can lead their staff as well as the nation. Executive leadership has changed greatly since the days of George Washington—the modern president is a creature of vast power. Presidents exercise a wide range of powers, including the ability to set a national agenda, to appoint members to executive agencies and to courts, to conduct a wide range of foreign affairs concerns, and to control the extensive military resources of the United States. In all of these areas there has been a significant shift in power from the legislative branch to the executive. Many cultural demands have contributed to this—the president’s power of charismatic leadership, the growth of mass communication with its focus on a single speaker, the growth in international American power, and the deference of the other branches to the executive.

In 1960, Richard Neustadt suggested that students of the executive branch should maintain the difference between the president’s power of personal influence and the powers of the office. This difference is important in understanding the growth of executive power. During the twentieth century, the terms of executive power have not changed very much by the terms of the Constitution—in fact, one of the major changes would be an apparent reduction in the constitutional power of the president by the limiting of the number of terms of office the president can serve. The power of the president has, however, vastly increased in all the areas mentioned above. Presidents are in charge of ever larger institutions of administrative power, more than ever they are expected to be the pilot of national policy, and, moreover, the president is now widely conceived to posses the sole power in foreign affairs, including the ability to make decisions of war and peace.

Incidentally, this growth of presidential power has not met with significant success. Presidential use of these extensive powers has often brought remarkable failure. “They geld us first,” President Lyndon Johnson told David Brinkley, “and then expect us to win the Kentucky Derby.” Johnson experienced failure both in domestic and foreign policy realms, none so extensive as the popular and political failure of his policies in Vietnam. There are, of course, numerous other failures, Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs, Clinton’s health care plan, Reagan’s Iran-Contra Affair, and Reagan’s Beirut. If there has been a growth in presidential power, it is highly difficult for presidents to use it with impunity.

Questions of the success and failure of presidential action performed under extra-constitutional political power, however, should not distract citizens from their concerns about the constitutionality of the action. If presidents are allowed to posses all the power they currently claim, especially the extra-constitutional powers, then citizens of the United States face a substantially new form of government, whether a success or a failure. Instead of a government limited by the constitutional document, the powers of government are regulated only by what the people will bear—a plebiscite, not a constitutional, government. Constitutional government requires that people pay attention to the constitutional fidelity of government. The readings collected in this section begin with accounts of the early founding period, then explore the historical actions and actual behaviors of presidents. “A good government implies two things:” claimed the author of “Federalist No. 62,” “first, fidelity to the object of government, which is the happiness of the people; secondly, a knowledge of the means by which that object can be best attained.” This chapter seeks to examine the means of executive power, with an emphasis on retaining the constitutional power of the office.


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