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Wanted: One chief executive,
no experience required

Power and role of top job has evolved
since the beginning of the nation

January 10, 2001
Web posted at: 2:38 PM EST (1938 GMT)

In this story:

Unknown, understood and unwritten

Circumstantial growth

Intentionally sketchy


Wanted: Natural-born citizen of the United States; must be at least 35 years old and a U.S. resident no less than 14 years; needed to command armed forces, appoint judges and make treaties; will have the right to convene and adjourn Congress; shall meet with ambassadors and provide Congress with updates on the state of the union; no experience required.

That's it. That's all. There isn't anything else. The 13 deputies of the original states signed the U.S. Constitution in 1787 believing that sketchy description was adequate to establish the office and role of the president.

The job has changed considerably since then, but the job description remains the same. Law created the office of president. But circumstance, not statute, has determined the power, privilege and purpose of the country's chief executive.

"When you're talking about the Constitution, you're dealing with a period in 1787 when the country was completely different," said Thomas O. Sargentich, professor of law at American University College of Law. "The framers of the Constitution had no concept, couldn't have had a concept, of what the nation would become."

Unknown, understood and unwritten

One particular omission from the Constitution illustrates how much the world, and therefore the office of president, has changed. The document states that the president shall be commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States. But what about the Air Force and the Marines?

"He is commander in chief of those, too. It doesn't say so because they didn't exist then. There were no planes or Marines," said Sargentich, who is also the co-director of the program of law and government at American University. "It's just understood in this case."

"The office of the presidency looks nothing like what was envisioned because of the growth of the country, its place in the world and changes in society," he said.

So some functions of the office have come to be "understood" to accommodate the unknown.

The New Deal is an example. President Franklin D. Roosevelt adopted that program of economic and political principles in the 1930s to promote economic recovery and advance social welfare during the Great Depression. That move set a precedent for the chief executive's involvement in economic matters.

President Franklin Roosevelt, who expanded the role of the president, appears aboard the USS Houston in Pensacola, Florida, in 1938  

The U.S. president as peace broker is another understood function. The Constitution makes the president the chief diplomat for the United States. But in 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt mediated a peace agreement that ended a war between Russia and Japan.

And since World War II, the country has been an international super power, which has increased the president's diplomatic muscle around the world. Meetings such as the ones President Bill Clinton convened last summer with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, are common now for presidents.

So if there are roles that are understood, why do they remain unwritten? Shouldn't the Constitution reflect that the president commands the Air Force? That he can butt in to international squabbles?

The experts say, "No."

"If every time there was a surge of presidential power, you had to rewrite the Constitution, you'd risk the ability to function in cases of emergency...," Sargentich said.
President Abraham Lincoln is credited with promoting the 13 Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery when it was ratified in 1865  

Constitutional scholar Bruce Fein uses President Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War as an example.

"Lincoln expanded the office by summoning the Army and imposing a blockade. He had to, to preserve the Union," Fein said. "No one will read the Constitution as a suicide pact. Powers that aren't expressed are implied if they are necessary to save constitutional order."

Circumstantial growth

"It's wars that have necessitated the growth of the office," Fein said.

The president does not have the power to declare war, but the steps he must take during times of conflict have reshaped the office.

During World War I, President Woodrow Wilson forced a selective service bill through Congress, which led to the draft of almost 3 million men. He was also instrumental in ending the war with the Paris Peace Conference. His trip abroad marked the first time a sitting president left the country, Fein added.

The civil rights movement of the 1960s also expanded the office, Sargentich said. Domestic turmoil, the need for the National Guard to protect African-Americans and enforce new desegregation laws and new legislation that created the Office of Civil Rights, which is a presidential appointment, strengthened the position.

Intentionally sketchy

The office of president was an afterthought. "The original Articles of Confederation didn't have a chief executive," Sargentich said. "It's a big step that (drafters of the Constitution) saw the need for a chief executive and what he would do."

The forefathers' history with kings might have contributed to that, Fein said. "There was a fear of executive authority because of George III and the royal government," he said. "If it hadn't been known that George Washington was going to be the first president, there would have had more limits. But everybody trusted George. They knew he was not into aggrandizement and just wanted to get back to Mount Vernon."

The Constitution's structure and level of detail reveals that Congress, not the chief executive, was most important to the document's framers.

Article 2 of the Constitution, not Article 1, addresses the office of president. And Article 1, which outlines the purpose and function of Congress, has 10 sections and 53 clauses. Article 2 has four sections and 13 clauses.

The first president of the United States, George Washington  

"We know from their letters and notes that they spent much less time debating the president than they did Congress," Sargentich said.

The framers' "main interest was legislative and what role the federal government would have in bringing together the 13 original states in a union. They also saw the legislature as the most powerful, and potentially tyrannical, so it needed to be checked and balanced."

Sargentich said the sketchy, threadbare nature of Article II has supported the growth of the president's stature.

And Fein adds it doesn't need to change. "The power and roles of the president," he said, "is really whatever Congress lets him get away with."

Vice president's role changes over the years
January 8, 2001

"The American President"
"The American Experience"

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