Trust & The Presidency: Part 2 of 7

Trust & The Presidency

© Center for Free, Fair, and Accountable Democracy

July 2020

This booklet is to be used only for civic education.

It may be copied and distributed only for non-profit, non-partisan, educational purposes and only with proper credit to the Center for Free, Fair, and Accountable Democracy.

Written by Douglas Addison for the Center for Free, Fair, and Accountable Democracy.

Principal Reviewers:

Jay Barth, M.E. and Ima Graves Peace Distinguished Professor of Politics, Emeritus; Hendrix College

Benjamin Ginsberg, David Bernstein Professor of Political Science, Johns Hopkins University

Internal Reviewers:

Mark Nelson, Director

Eric Palladini, Director

Grayson Lewis, Advisory Board

Mark Molli, Advisory Board

CFFAD is a non-profit organization providing non-partisan civic education.

Cover photo: whitehouse.gov

Welcome to Part Two of Trust and the Presidency!

The trust-related debates about the presidency in the framer’s time continue to this day.  In Part One, you learned how the framers of the Constitution created a presidency meant to be insulated from politics, focused on the common good, with limited powers and autonomy, and accountable to Congress.  Yet, history quickly intervened, and politics became a central aspect of the presidency.  Thus, the old worries about whether a president could be trusted to serve the common good instead of a favored faction became today’s worries about partisan presidents, identity politics, and political polarization.  In Part Two, we focus on how the presidency became politicized and what the implications are for presidential power, partisanship, and accountability. 

As you read, keep in mind the tension between partisan interests and the common good, between government capacity to deliver on those common interests and capacity for tyranny, and between autonomy and accountability.  We hope these concepts will inspire questions about which changes are most likely to contribute to our trust in the presidency and which might take away from it.

PART TWO: NEW POWER FROM THE PEOPLE

A. Voters and Parties Can Amplify Power and Divert Accountability

We review here how voters and political parties quickly became additional and important sources of presidential power and accountability. Making presidential elections subject to the popular vote can amplify presidential power while also making presidents accountable to voters. Yet, accountability to voters can divert presidential accountability to Congress.

B. Voters

Citizens originally had no role in choosing presidents. Presidents were to be elected by an Electoral College.[1] The College was the framers’ attempt to limit the opportunities for partisan or populist behavior while also keeping the presidency largely independent of Congress.[2]  That situation did not last long. 

By 1828, all but two states had adopted rules requiring that the electors they send to the Electoral College must vote in accordance with the popular vote in their state.[3] Many citizens thought this outcome was more democratic, but it was a major departure from the framers’ intended use of the Electoral College to insulate the presidency from partisan and populist politics.

Note all citizens could vote. In the early days of the Republic, the state legislatures limited voting rights to men who paid taxes or held property. Men without property, enslaved people, indigenous people, Asian-Americans, Catholics (in some states), Jewish people (in some states), and women were excluded.[4] Wikipedia provides a timeline of how voting rights changed between then and now.

Giving some citizens a role in electing presidents made presidents accountable to voters. Before 1828, presidents were primarily accountable to the legislators in each state government that chose and instructed their representatives in the Electoral College.  After 1828, presidential candidates and sitting presidents seeking reelection needed to woo as many voters as possible.[5]  Voters responded with enthusiasm: voter turnout rates increased sharply in years with presidential elections.[6]

Giving citizens a role in electing presidents also gave presidents a political power base. Under the original intentions of the framers, presidential power was essentially technocratic, based on Electoral College perceptions of merit and the specific authorities conferred by the Constitution.  From 1828 onward, however, presidents could claim substantial political backing in the form of the voters who elected them. This change allowed presidents to assert themselves against Congress and other political leaders.[7]  Presidents can use their voter base to become national leaders and agenda-setters, either holding them up as representing a mandate or by mobilizing them for or against various Congressional policies.  With that end in mind, the White House has gradually built up rather formidable communications capacities to reach the voters through a variety of means directly.

The twenty-second amendment adopted in 1947 limited each president to a maximum of two terms in office. This was done out of fear that a president could use their time in office to entrench themselves to the disadvantage of competitors or Congress itself.  This fear was born in reaction to the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt to a fourth term in office (he died three months into his final term). 

Term limits protect us against entrenchment, but they also deny us the opportunity to reward or hold accountable a second-term president. Second-term presidents have legitimacy, having been elected, but no accountability to voters after the election that returned them to office. The lack of accountability reduces the incentive for a second-term president to be concerned with the voters.[8] Even so, second-term presidents remain subject to the Constitution and therefore remain accountable in many ways to Congress and the federal courts.  In addition, legislators in the president’s party will want the president to avoid policies that will hurt their chances for reelection.

C. Political Parties

National political parties became more important when the popular vote became relevant to the presidency. The framers started out wary of political factions or parties.  They believed political factions could only be divisive and destructive.  Much of what they debated in the design of the Constitution was aimed at avoiding anything that would encourage the formation of political factions. 

The framers quickly embraced parties in practice because of their advantages. Party organizations exist independently of the government. They help mobilize and organize people to support candidates with their votes, their money, and their time. Political parties can help voters, too, by making clear how their candidates and policies are different and superior.  Political parties can also help sitting presidents build support for their preferred policies.  With such advantages, it is no surprise that the first two national parties formed during the administration of our first president, George Washington. The Federalists emerged around 1789, while the Democratic-Republicans formed in 1792.

Some thinkers argued that political parties could also contribute to checks and balances within the government. Martin Van Buren worried about the prospects of populist candidates driven by personal ambition and regional candidates who might split the country. His solution was to create modern, national political parties. Organized parties would substitute a well-defined party agenda backed by party resources for a candidates’ personal preferences.[9] Their national character would bridge regional tensions.  In addition, competition between parties through regular elections would ensure that the winning party of the day would face attentive opposition.  Van Buren went on to found the Democratic Party, carved out of Democratic-Republican party, and won the presidency in 1836.

Interest in political parties became more important as more and more state legislatures directed their Electoral College electors to follow the popular vote in their states. This motivated the formation of the modern Democratic Party in support of Andrew Jackson in 1828. The party may have been the first to set up a national campaign headquarters (in Nashville, TN) and the first to distribute campaign buttons.[10] The modern Republican Party followed some years later in 1854.

Political parties can amplify presidential power. Modern presidents are treated as the leader of their party. Ambitious presidents who have enough supporters can use their party machinery to put pressure on federal legislators as well as state governors and legislators.[11] For example, in his first one hundred days in office, President Franklin Roosevelt gained congressional support for a major program of economic reforms, branded as A New Deal for the American People, meant to stabilize the nation after the Great Depression. Many of these programs were of enormous consequence, including monetary and banking reforms and massive public works projects.  

Money is power. A president’s political assets can sometimes extend beyond leadership to include money.  Under today’s campaign laws, presidential candidates with sufficient excess campaign committee funds can influence federal and state elections. They can do so by directing some of their campaign committee funds to favored state and local candidate committees,[12] or by directing funds to a local, state, or national political party committee.[13]

Political parties can divert accountability away from Congress. The Constitution mandates that presidents shall faithfully execute the laws adopted by Congress.  The president’s motivation to do so may be reduced when their party is not supportive of some laws.  A president blessed by a sufficiently large political base and a well-organized party may be in a position to run against congressional mandates. 

Political parties can empower presidents to set their own agendas. President Andrew Jackson was the first to take advantage of the new political situation. He was elected in 1828 with a new, well-organized party, a majority of the popular vote, and a majority in the Electoral College. He used his power base aggressively, becoming the first president to veto bills for inconsistencies with his preferred policies.[14] This behavior was a substantive deviation from the framers’ vision of a president limited to execution of the laws adopted by Congress, and it set an example of what was possible for all the Presidents to follow.

Presidents can also use their connection to the voters to bypass reluctant party leaders. Teddy Roosevelt was one of the first presidents to reach out to the voters, through a speaking tour through the western states, to pressure conservative members of his own party in Congress to fall into line with his progressive railroad reforms.[15] He was successful. Modern presidential administrations have retained this option by developing sophisticated communications capacities to speak directly to their political bases and the American people in general.

Application: Based on what you have learned so far, would you argue that presidents should or should not be allowed to be partisan? Would your answer depend upon how much power a president has?

D. The Peril of a Politicized Presidency

Populist or partisan presidents, backed by well-organized followers, sometimes feel motivated to weaken constitutional constraints. The presence of an opposition Congress or a divided Congress will frustrate presidents and their followers.  History shows that such situations have sometimes motivated ambitious presidents and their staff to exercise more power with more autonomy and sometimes with less accountability. For example, President Reagan managed to acquire substantial regulatory powers through the skillful use of executive orders despite facing a divided Congress in his first six years and then an opposition Congress in his last two years. President Obama made similar use of executive orders when he was confronted with an opposition Congress in his last two years in office.

Vigilance is required. It is possible to lose our republic if constitutional constraints are weakened too much. History from around the world shows that presidents and their supporters can entrench themselves and eliminate any hope of fair competition through a variety of means. These include stacking the courts, stacking the legislatures (via voter suppression, miscounting ballots, and other forms of cheating), politicizing the armed forces and intelligence services, and by intimidating their opposition with violent supporters. News reports from around the world referring to these tactics can be found in almost any year.

Application:  It is natural that elected presidents and their followers will employ a mixture of tactics that respect the rules and tactics that test the rules.  What do you think would be some warning signs that our system of checks and balances are under attack and need defending?

Congratulations!  You have completed Part Two of Trust and the Presidency. 

You learned that the framer’s intention to shield presidents from politics did not work out.  Contrary to the framer’s intentions, the presidency was politicized when the state legislatures required their electors in the Electoral College to represent the popular vote in their states. In so doing, the presidency gained a power base and accountability to the voters in addition to accountability to Congress. This allowed the President to become an agenda-setter in addition to overseeing the execution of the laws.  You also learned that the Presidential term limits imposed by the 22nd amendment protect us against presidential entrenchment, but they also deny us the opportunity to reward or hold accountable a second-term president for their performance.  The lack of accountability reduces the incentive for a second-term president to be concerned with the voters.

National political parties became more important when the popular vote became relevant to the presidency, and the framers quickly embraced parties in practice because of their advantages: political parties can empower presidents to set their own agendas, distinct from what Congressional leadership may want. This means that presidents who rely on party resources may sometimes feel more accountable to their party leadership or voters than they do to Congress. Yet, because Presidents are treated as the leader of their party, they can also exert pressure on members of Congress who belong to that party.  Populist or partisan presidents, backed by well-organized followers, sometimes feel motivated to weaken constitutional constraints. 

How do you think a politicized presidency increases or decreases our trust in our government?  Are the framer’s concerns about partisanship and the need to serve the common good still relevant?

Part Three of this course will review how the powers assigned to the presidency were deepened and the implications of those changes. As in the times of the framers, the big issue is whether the presidency can be trusted with enough power to deal with the problems of the day without becoming powerful enough to tyrannize the people.

You may also be interested in our additional short civics courses. These include (1) America: Republic or Democracy, (2) Democracy is Precious, (3) What Governments Do, (4) Trust & Mistrust, and (5) Fear & Fear-Mongering.

If you liked this material, please also share it and our website with your friends.

In addition, we always appreciate ideas for new topics and ways we can improve, so … 

End Notes

[1] See Article II, Section 1, Clause 3 of the Constitution.

[2] There is an exception. The Constitution in Article II, Section 1, Clause 3 specifies that the House of Representatives shall choose the President if the Electoral College votes are tied.

[3] Article 1, Section 4 assigns the states the authority to control elections, although the Congress may make or alter such regulations, except as to the Places of choosing Senators.  In forty-eight states, the winner of the plurality of the statewide vote receives all of the electors. In Maine and Nebraska, two electors are assigned in this manner and one elector allocated based on the plurality of votes in each congressional district.

[4] The Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History: Winning the Vote: A History of Voting Rights. https://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-resources/essays/winning-vote-history-voting-rights

[5] The change requires presidents to win a plurality in each state. Some people complain this is not as democratic as a requirement to win the national popular vote.  Other people observe the system requires presidential candidates to pay equal attention to each state rather than the largest states.

[6] Wonks can see the data here: http://www.electproject.org/national-1789-present

[7] Crenson & Ginsberg (2008) pp. 34-35.

[8] A second term president might be motivated by a genuine desire to solve problems, to build a suitable historical reputation, or to advantage his/her political party brand.

[9] See Van Buren’s letter to Thomas Ritchie. http://vanburenpapers.org/document-mvb00528

[10] Crenson & Ginsberg (2008) pp. 74-77.

[11] Crenson & Ginsberg (2008) pp. 32-39.

[12] See Federal Election Commission guidance here:  https://www.fec.gov/help-candidates-and-committees/making-disbursements/making-contributions-other-candidates/

[13] See Federal Election Commission guidance here:  https://www.fec.gov/help-candidates-and-committees/taking-receipts-political-party/transfers-or-party-committees/

[14] Crenson & Ginsberg (2008) pp. 78.

[15] See https://millercenter.org/president/roosevelt/domestic-affairs. See also Senator Nelson Aldrich https://www.encyclopedia.com/people/history/us-history-biographies/nelson-wilmarth-aldrich.