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Three centuries of the American presidency

The following is an extract from The American Presidency: A Very Short Introduction and looks at 3 elections for each century since the American presidency began, and how it’s changed from then.

The United States and its Constitution are now in their third century. The passage from each century to the next has been eventful. The election of 1800 was bitter and personal. The contest was between two incumbents: John Adams serving as president, Thomas Jefferson as his vice president. Much of the campaign was carried on in the partisan press. Jefferson won with seventy-three electoral votes, but his running mate, Aaron Burr, had an equal number of votes. Burr refused to concede and it took thirty-six ballots in the House of Representatives for Jefferson to win. As a result, power was transferred from the Federalists to the Democratic-Republicans.

The election at the turn into the twentieth century was a rematch between the incumbent Republican president, William McKinley, and the Democratic populist William Jennings Bryan. Many of the difficult issues associated with changes from an agrarian to an industrialized society were being accommodated, if not resolved. New problems were developing that were related to a larger world role for the United States. McKinley, who hardly campaigned, was reelected easily but not overwhelmingly. The two-party system continued to face challenges from third parties, notably the Progressives in the early years of the new century. With McKinley’s death by assassination in 1901, a dynamic successor, Theodore (“Teddy”) Roosevelt, shouldered the country into the new century.

The 2000 presidential election joined these other “turn of the century” contests as being historic. Democratic Party dominance of Congress had been broken six years earlier, and the election of George W. Bush brought to Washington the first all-Republican government in nearly fifty years. Bush’s election was among the most contentious in history, showcasing, as it did, sour relations between an impeached President Clinton and the Republican Congress, and the frustrations of Democrats serving in the minority. Having the election settled by the Supreme Court and Bush losing the popular vote added to an intensely partisan mood in the nation’s capital carrying through to the Obama presidency.

These three contests also reveal changes in the presidency. The president’s constitutional authority has remained essentially the same, but the circumstances under which this authority is exercised are dramatically different at each century’s end. The presidency was being formed when Jefferson was inaugurated. It was more a person than an institution, with the incumbent seeking to comprehend the extent and meaning of his powers.

Washington D.C-The White House by Stefan Fussan. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Flickr.
Washington D.C-The White House by Stefan Fussan. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Flickr.

By 1900 the presidency was beginning its ascendancy. Congressional Government, as Woodrow Wilson titled his treatise in 1885, could manage the issues of an agrarian society. Industrialization and growth of the world economy required the professionalism of bureaucracy, hierarchy, and executive control, including that by the chief executive. Take-over President Theodore Roosevelt welcomed these responsibilities, as did Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Other presidents of the first third of the century, Taft, Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover, were less moved to embrace an expansive view of presidential power. Still the die was cast. From FDR forward, the presidency would grow in status, influence, and structure.
In two hundred years, the presidency had changed from that of a person—Washington followed by Adams, then Jefferson—to a presidential enterprise with a cast of thousands. Richard E. Neustadt expressed it this way as he reviewed The President at Mid-Century: “President and presidency are synonymous no longer; the office now comprises an officialdom.” The White House remains the symbolic location of the presidency but it can house only a small portion of the presidential workforce. Accordingly, George W. Bush’s principal task as president-elect in 2000 was to fill jobs, beginning with a personnel director.

This review suggests an important lesson in considering the presidency in the twenty-first century: Events, the issues they generate, and the people who serve are normally more important than reforms in explaining change. Neustadt again: “The presidency nowadays [has] a different look. … But … that look was not conjured up by statutes, or by staffing. These, rather, are responses to the impacts of external circumstances upon our form of government; not causes but effects.” This lesson should not come as a surprise. After all, the presidency is a vital institution in a representative democracy. As such it may be expected to respond to events, and this includes making adjustments so as to function more effectively.

Featured image credit: American flag by Sam Howzit. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

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