By Dr. Kelli Criss
The Radical Left invokes the end of American Democracy every time President Trump flexes his executive branch muscle. But President Trump didn’t initiate the concentration of power in the White House – far from it. In fact, the American Presidency is an ever-evolving organism, shaping the nation and the globe.
Now, with Super Tuesday behind us and the presidential election year in full swing, the national debate is beginning to focus even more intently upon President Trump’s use of the powers of the American Presidency. This week our blog, Shaping the Presidency, considers how two presidents occupying the White House for little more than a decade (1897-1909) redefined the notion of executive power.
After decades of a strong legislative branch and weak executive, the transformation of the American Presidency began in the early twentieth century when President William McKinley began quietly increasing presidential powers without consulting Congress. In particular, McKinley leveraged the Spanish American War and U.S. policy toward the Philippines.
Heavy congressional backing for more American involvement internationally helped to put a lid on any rumblings of disapproval from Congress. With an expanded international role, President McKinley felt the need to restructure the executive branch. He built up the amount of executive staff to manage the increasing workload.
Another element of his Presidency that helped to enlarge the powers of the executive office was President McKinley’s considerable involvement in the legislative process. He actively engaged in writing and passing legislation, managing the Republican Party (in an age before the decline of the power of national parties), and steering the government as a whole. America’s victory in the Spanish American War and an economic upturn generated public support for McKinley’s heavy-handed management of national policy.
Tragedy Accelerates Transformation
With the assassination of President McKinley in September 1901, 43-year-old Vice President Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909) was sworn in as the youngest president in the nation’s history. While McKinley’s expanding international responsibilities and heavy legislative and party involvement shaped his Presidency, President Roosevelt’s own personality molded the executive office. Journalist Henry Stoddard commented: “Yes—it is true that TR liked the centre of the stage—loved it in fact, but when he sought it he always had something to say or to do that made the stage the appropriate place for him.”
President Roosevelt took the “centre of the stage” to assert his agenda during the December 1901 State of the Union address. He affirmed his commitment to the Republican causes McKinley had supported, but also laid out his own plan to address conservation, to reinforce the military, and to improve distressing labor conditions. This agenda represented a mix of the more progressive political left of the Republican Party and the old guard of the GOP. In many ways, Roosevelt’s leadership helped align national policy with an increasingly complex national economy and International balance of power.
Presidential History Matters
President Roosevelt aimed to craft a Presidency aligned with his own image. Ultimately, his efforts led to a significant concentration of power within the executive branch and created a pattern followed by presidents who would serve America in the future.
Pushing the limits of his constitutional powers, Roosevelt had a reputation for using his Presidency to accomplish his legislative goals. He called the office of the Presidency, a “bully pulpit,” from which he could press the legislative branch to support his agenda. He built and operated his “bully pulpit” through four tools: a) well-placed experts in the executive branch, b) an active legislative and labor role, c) a masterful media plan, and d) a group of informal advisors.
Roosevelt’s presidential moves were challenged by opponents who believed his actions tested the boundaries of the Constitution. They could do little, however, to stand in his way.
Roosevelt’s leadership and the historical concentration of power in the executive branch is worth closer study as the Radical Left screams, the sky is falling in 2020. We’ll see you next week for our blog, The Bully Pulpit, which details President Roosevelt’s unique strategy and tools used during his 1901-1909 administration, and puts President Trump’s exercise of presidential power into the appropriate historical context.
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