The following analysis is a three-part article that will cover a brief history, known examples of the exercise of presidential power, and illustrative examples of actions that historians believed were controversial. This analysis helps unwind the evolution of power in what some believe to be the most powerful leader in the world: the president of the United States.
Since the nation’s beginning, the power of the president has been mythologized by political parties, the press, and often by the president himself. It could be said that presidential power is a combination of the current times, past events, citizen expectations, federal law, and Supreme Court decisions.
The United States is a nation born from rebellion, aged by wars, and rife with intellectual conflict. The founding fathers carved freedom from the monarchy of the king. By instinct, they knew that someone had to be in charge. The solution was the creation of the “president.” It was a complicated idea to citizens then and remains so even today.
This analysis is an inquiry into how the power of the U.S. president has evolved. The president’s power is awesome yet limited by the U.S. Constitution, the Supreme Court, and the political atmosphere at any given time. Throughout history, driving circumstances have forged the president’s power, with the following being just a few of the mega-influencers:
- World wars
- The issue of slavery
- The concept of manifest destiny
- Remarkable new technology
- The emergence of the United States as world power
- Space exploration
These factors and thousands more have molded and shaped presidential power. This power is often thought to be a sudden expansion or acting like a king. However, the true growth of presidential power has been accretive or gradually increasing over 240 years and adaptively adjusting to the nation’s changing needs.
Judging by the daily impact of this subject, it is important that every leader – especially those in any type of emergency management role – fully understand how presidential power affects their environment during a major disaster. That story begins here.
Beginning with George Washington and including all presidents through Donald Trump, the power of a president has enlarged in an accretive manner. President Washington provided the basic structure for the president’s job. He invented the stately and reserved demeanor that set the stage for how a president should act – in a time when all other countries were ruled by kings. Washington was also skilled at using public opinion, so a major achievement was managing a quarrelsome cabinet. His cabinet had only four members, but he set the precedent how the cabinet should function as the president’s private trusted advisors. Washington also signed the first presidential proclamation on 3 October 1789, establishing the first Thanksgiving on Thursday, 26 November 1789.
An executive order by any title is authorized by the United States Constitution under Article II, Section 1, Clause 1, which states, “The executive power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America.” Executive orders and proclamations are two best known types of executive power. Washington issued a total of 8 executive orders during his eight-year term. In the first 40 years of the nation’s history, a total of 15 executive orders were issued. Whether a directive (or order) has the force of law depends on the following factors:
- The president’s authority to issue the directive
- A conflict with constitutional or statutory provisions
- The directive’s promulgation in accordance with prescribed provisions
Additionally, presidential directives can be challenged in court or overridden by congressional action. However, this action may result in a possible infringement by one constitutional branch upon the powers of another.
The issuance of presidential proclamations followed a tradition established by British monarchs – and practiced by royal governors in North American colonies – and by their elected successors after the American Revolution.
In U.S. history, there have been some well-known actions taken by presidents to solve problems at the time. Here are six examples of those executive actions:
- President Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery with the Emancipation Proclamation on 1 January 1863. This order declared “that all persons held as slaves within the rebellious states” are, and henceforward, shall be free.
- President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the National Labor Relations Board with Executive Order 6763.
- President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981 in 1948 ordering the racial integration of the armed forces.
- President John F. Kennedy issued Executive Order 10924 establishing the Peace Corps in 1961.
- President Jimmy Carter created the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) with Executive Order 12148 in 1979.
- President George W. Bush established the Office of Homeland Security and the Homeland Security Council with Executive Order 13228 on 8 October 2001. This action was in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City and at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia.
There also has been no shortage of controversial executive orders over the years. Provided below are several examples that caused extreme angst in Congress and among the general public:
- President Franklin Roosevelt used Executive Order 6102 to forbid the hoarding of gold coin, bullion, and gold certificates during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Roosevelt also issued Executive Order 9066 during World War II authorizing the confinement of Japanese and German Americans to guarded camps.
- President Harry Truman’s Executive Order 10340 put all the United States steel mills under federal control. This action was in response to a nationwide strike by steelworkers. However, the executive order was judged to be invalid by a Supreme Court ruling in 1952 because the order was not based on valid statutory authority.
- Significant policy changes with lasting effects have been created by executive order, including the desegregation of public schools by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1957 and restricted public access to the papers of former presidents by George W. Bush in 2001.
- The record for overturned executive orders was set by President Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression in 1935. The Supreme Court overturned five executive orders (numbered 6199, 6204, 6256, 6284, and 6855).
- On 30 July 2014, the House of Representatives approved a resolution authorizing Speaker of the House John Boehner to sue President Barack Obama over claims that he exceeded his executive authority by changing a provision in the Affordable Care Act. Republicans objected to a delay of a mandate on employers who do not provide health care coverage. The Affordable Care Act is currently still involved with legal action pending in the Supreme Court.
The Administrative State
Presidential actions tend to overshadow the government’s influence. However, the impact of the administrative state cannot be ignored. Part 2 of this analysis will explore the administrative state and what it really means to leaders and citizens. Part 2 also includes a look at President Donald Trump’s impact on executive power and concludes with projections on the impact of presidential power from the next president.
Concluding this analysis, Part 3 explores the concept of federalism as it intwines with the subject of Presidential power and that of governors and local officials nationwide.
This article is Part 1 of a three-part series on An Analysis of Presidential Accretive Power:
Part 1 – Introduction to Presidential Accretive Power
Part 2 – The Trump and Biden Transition and the Impact on the Administrative State
Part 3 – Federalism – How It Works and Limits Presidential Power