Why Do We Need a President Anyway?
Can you imagine how long it must take to mow the grounds of the White House?
Oct. 23, 2012 --
With just over two weeks until Election Day, the presidential candidates might feel tempted to promise the world to still-undecided voters when the two meet on the stage at Lynn University for their final debate. With so many promises made to so many constituencies over the course of a campaign, victorious candidates are bound to ignore or outright contradict pledges made in the run up to office. Voters are inclined to forgive one or two campaign pledges that were left behind after the race. But some promises are so big, that breaking them is not so easily forgotten.
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The U.S. presidential election in 1916 pitted incumbent president Woodrow Wilson against Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes. While Wilson was in office, conflict erupted in Europe to become what would be World War I. Although Americans generally supported Allied powers, voters wanted the United States to remain out of the conflict. To capitalize on public opinion on this issue, Wilson campaigned on the slogan, "He kept us out of war." Months after winning reelection, Wilson went to Congress to approve a declaration of war with Germany and its allies. Wilson have campaigned on the implicit promise American neutrality in World War I, but he never explicitly stated he would never lead the United States to join the war.
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Herbert Hoover's alleged campaign promise might seem too ambitious by today's standards, but with the phrase "a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage," Hoover gave a clear vision of the prosperity he envisioned for the country. This phrase was not issued by Hoover himself, though it certainly reflected the tenor of his campaign promises. Rather was used in a campaign advertisement published by the Republican Party. Less than a year after he took office, the stock market crash of 1929 heralded the Great Depression, the longest and deepest period of economic decline in the 20th century.
Amid a depression with no end in sight, Franklin Delano Roosevelt campaigned in 1932 on a promise of putting the nation back to work. Roosevelt criticized Hoover's inability to restore the nation to prosperity and even ridiculed the ballooning of the deficit under the Hoover administration. Upon taking office, however, Roosevelt's New Deal programs dramatically increased the federal budget deficit far beyond the levels achieved by his predecessor.
Like Wilson, Roosevelt maintained a policy of neutrality at the outbreak of World War II, and campaigned on the issue. Unlike Wilson, however, Roosevelt was unambiguous in his 1940 campaign declaration: "I have said this before, but I shall say it again and again and again: Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars." One year later, Roosevelt would go back on the promise and lead the United States into war in response to the attacks on Pearl Harbor.
Following his assumption of the office of the presidency after the assassination of his predecessor, Lyndon B. Johnson was up for reelection in 1964 against Republican challenger Barry Goldwater. As his administration was making plans to escalate war in Vietnam, Johnson declared that his administration would not send ground troops into Vietnam. Months after being sworn in to another term of office, Johnson broke his promise, a move which lost him support with the public.
In 1968, Richard Nixon campaigned for the presidency with a pledge to end the war in Vietnam that had been launched and administered by previous Democratic administrations. There were even reports that Nixon had a "secret plan" to end the war without the United States being perceived as the losing side. Instead, Nixon continued to press American forces in Vietnam, resulting in an increase in combat deaths within just the first six months of Nixon assuming office.
In 1988, in his speech at the Republican National Convention to accept the Republican nomination for the presidency, George H.W. Bush made what might be the most famous broken promise in presidential history: "Read my lips: No new taxes." The phrase proved catchy and helped propel Bush to victory. Unfortunately, upon taking office, Bush inherited a national deficit from the previous administration, and with a Congress controlled by the opposition, had to raise taxes. The broken promise proved one of the major contributors for his failure to win reelection in 1992.
It wasn't always a given that we'd have a single executive who has the power to make final decisions about the fate of our country.
Every four years, political frenzy seizes the nation for months building up to the presidential election.
Often lost in the hoopla of the campaign trail, though, is the question of how it all began: Why do we have a president in the first place?
When the Founding Fathers met to design the constitution, in fact, many were skeptical about appointing a chief.
They had a revolutionary view of European history, after all. And from what they'd seen, they worried that putting one person in charge would foster monarchy, tyranny and oppression.
Only after a fizzled attempt to run the country through disparate committees in individual states did the creators of the United States Constitution decide at a historic convention in 1787 that there needed to be a strong national government with a leader on top.
"Things were not really efficient without an executive that has a certain amount of power," said James Pfiffner, a political scientist at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia. Psychologically, he added, people like to have leaders to look up to.
But making the call to create the Presidency was not easy.
"At the beginning of the convention when they decided there would be just one person as the executive," Pfiffner said, "there was in Madison's words 'a considerable pause.'"
After the United States declared independence from Great Britain in 1776, leaders spent years thinking about how to rule the country without becoming another monarchy, said Jack Rakove, professor of history and political science at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., and author of "Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America."
By the time the Constitutional Convention convened in Philadelphia in 1787, every detail was up for grabs. Would there be one chief executive or more than one? What kinds of powers would he have? And perhaps most difficult of all, how would he be chosen?
At first, convention attendees -- which included James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington -- assumed that the legislature would pick the President, who would serve for seven years without opportunity for re-election. But Wilson and others argued that this system would make the chief merely a tool of Congress, giving them too much power.
After much haggling with no precedent to work from, the idea of an electoral college was born, though that term wouldn't be used until the 20th century. State legislatures would choose a certain number of electors proportional to the number of representatives that each state had. And a majority of electoral votes would be needed to pick a president.
It took a decade or two for states to settle on a system of allowing citizens to vote for the delegates that would represent their votes.
"The Framers found it hard to imagine how the President would be elected," Rakove said. "They came up with this crazy scheme of electors chosen by the states, but they couldn't imagine how it would work.
"There was so much uncertainty about whether we would have a national character whom voters would know something about, and there was concern about what kind of influence the President would have in office," he added. "It was, I think, the biggest question mark in American constitutionalism in the beginning."
George Washington became the first President in 1789. It helped that he was such a strong leader who was universally trusted. Knowing that he would lead the way, Pfiffner said, the Framers bestowed the presidency with more powers than they otherwise might have, including the power of the veto.
The Framers finally settled on a term of four years with the possibility of reelection, which they figured would give the President incentive and keep him accountable.
Attendees of the original Convention might be surprised to see how powerful the office of the President has actually become. Despite checks and balances from Congress, for example, the President is ultimately the one who decides whether to send our nation to war.
At the same time, our country is more democratic and populist than it was in its early days. Now, African-Americans, women and people as young as 18 can vote. As a result, the President must respond to the opinions of far more people than he had to in previous generations.
As Americans head to the polls this season, most have lost sight of the history in their hopes and fears for the future.
"The current arrangements for selecting the president," Pfiffner wrote in his book "The Modern Presidency," "have taken on an aura of fixedness that was not at all certain until the closing days of the Constitutional Convention."