1. Explain the historical relationship between public officials and the media. What laws have been used to check and balance this relationship?
Today we introduce the American Presidency. In the modern era television has changed the way we watch and learn about politics. TV has dramatically changed the office of president. To properly understand the modern presidency students of politics must first understand today’s media. The media is another example of an important linkage institution.
Freedom of the press, one of our most sacred rights, is guaranteed in the First Amendment. Famed newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer underscored the reason for such reverence best. He wrote:
“Our Republic and its press will rise and fall together. An able, disinterested, public spirited press, with trained intelligence to know the right and courage to do it can preserve that public virtue without which popular government is a sham and mockery. A cynical, mercenary, demagogic press will produce in time a people as base as itself. The power to mold the future of the republic will be in the hands of the journalists of future generations.”
And how have journalists fared?
The relationship between journalists and politicians today is a love-hate relationship. Politicians love journalists when their work assists in building positive public opinion. No modern campaign can be successful without positive coverage in the press. Yet the love does not last long. Journalists love to expose faults. Soon into any elective official’s term journalists begin to expose apparent weaknesses.
It is not uncommon, however, for every day common Americans to hold the media in contempt. The American polity can often be heard saying – “Blame the media.”
There are many complaints against the media today. Many blame the media for today’s cynicism and lack of civic engagement. The media has culpability in our low levels of trust it is argued. The media, it is alleged, no longer takes seriously its obligation to make us knowledgeable about politics.
Allegations of media bias have grown popular. Political science tells us that a majority of the national press leans toward the Democratic Party. Whether or not this affects their coverage is disputed. What is indisputable is that journalism today has grown far beyond a public service. The modern mainstream media is big business.
Historically when the media wrote copy to merely sell papers it was called yellow journalism. The profitability of sensational headlines and illustrations forever changed the role played by media in public affairs.
Freedom of press, like our other rights, has limits. The national government has not let journalists run completely unfettered. The printed word, via newspapers and magazines, face the least limits. Television and radio carry the most limits. Seeing that they use the airwaves, perceived as public property, the national government has shown greater willingness to regulate. Whenever the government regulates or censors the press they use the power of prior restraint. Often this requires either legislative action or a judicial order.
The courts have allowed prior restraint in cases where national security is at stake. This precedent was established in the case New York Times v. United States (1971).
Historically the media was also limited by legislative action. The Fairness Doctrine and Equal Time provisions affected the types of coverage “we the people” received. The Fairness Doctrine, no longer in effect, forced media outlets to broadcast a variety of views. Equal Time laws specify the amount coverage heard.
The most important law passed affecting modern journalism has been the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). This provision has forced governments to be more transparent. Everyday citizens can now demand to see first hand public documents. Hiding behind classified information has grown harder and harder for public servants.
2. Explain the roles played by today’s media.
Of course when we talk about the media we are talking about the means of mass communication. We are talking about the way we receive the news. Examples would be newspapers, radio, television, and now the Internet.
Newspapers certainly lack timeliness but still offer the most detailed coverage. Electronic media have increasingly forced many print sources out of business. There is less and less competition today in the newspaper world.
TV and Internet sources now flourish. Both mediums have dramatically changed our assumptions about the news. With so many options to choose from we no longer accept these outlets to be fair and unbiased. We choose the news sources that best feed our needs and wants. TV and Internet sources of news provide us greater access. They provide more and more competition but most importantly create a means of two-way communication between journalists and citizens. The elite no longer tell us what to watch. We now can choose for ourselves. Citizen-journalism is now the norm.
These revolutionary changes have not affected the basic roles played by the media in today’s political arena. Let’s look at these basic roles.
GATEKEEPER. The media serves as gatekeeper. The emphasis played by a headline or lead story push public discourse. What we talk about everyday is in no small way a by-product of the national and local media coverage. It can be said that mainstream media is an agenda setter.
SCOREKEEPER. The media today is characterized by horse-race journalism. Our cultural attention deficit has impacted the way we learn about the news. Today’s media is less likely to cover stories in depth. Rather they take short cuts by simply telling us who the winners and losers are. Analysis may be wanting but we know more quickly the score of our most current campaigns.
WATCHDOG. This role has grown to be the single most important function of the media today. When serving as our watchdog, we count on the media to expose political scandals. The media serves in this role the important function of a check on our elected officials. Today’s media can be described as a junk-yard dog. The most salacious of stories now gain the greatest audience. Muckraking has grown into our national pastime.
With the rise of visual media, the most prominent being TV and the Internet, our politics has forever been changed. Image has trumped substance. No institution has been affected more then the office of president of the United States.
3. Explain how one becomes President. Trace the complete process by which someone becomes President of the United States.
Remember to win any election you have to win twice. Presidential candidates must first win the nomination of their party AND then to win the general election.
To win the nomination usually involves submitting yourself to the grueling 12-16 month campaign from state to state winning delegates in primaries and caucuses. The goal is to win enough delegates so that at the national party convention a majority will cast their ballot to place your name in nomination.
Essential to winning this process is lots and lots of money, a top shelf organization and most important of all a brand that can easily be sold to the American voter. Connecting with real people poses the greatest challenge to most candidates. Yet if you cannot win the invisible primary by raising sufficient campaign money you stand little chance of winning. The best way to do this is to win early in Iowa and New Hampshire. This frontloading of the campaign gives a disproportionate advantage to those candidates who get out of the gate fast.
To win the general election one must win in the Electoral College. The Electoral College is the INDIRECT way “we the people” select our president.
As expressed in our Constitution the Electoral College reflects the Framers reluctance to put the office of president in the hands of a direct vote. Mirroring CHECKS AND BALANCES the Electoral College allows the people to vote for electors who then cast their vote for a president. The electors, however, are NOT bound by the people’s votes. The electors serve as a filter supposedly protecting the nation from the whims of an irrational mob.
The Electoral College also reflects FEDERALISM. The electors in the Electoral College are selected state-by-state. The total number of electors in each state is allocated by the total number of votes each state has in Congress. Illinois, for example, has 18 representatives in the House and 2 in the Senate. Therefore Illinois will receive 20 total electoral votes in the 2012 election. If you do the math that means there are 538 total electoral votes in the Electoral College [435 members in the House, 100 members in the Senate plus the District of Columbia is allotted 3 electors since the passage of the 23rd Amendment in 1961 for a total of 538].
To win in the Electoral College you must win a simple majority of the 538 electors. To win the presidential election you must win 270 or more electoral votes. If no one candidate wins a majority in the Electoral College the HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES is constitutionally designated to choose the winner with each state delegation receiving one vote.
One curious rule governing the Electoral College is winner-take-all. The candidate who wins the most votes in any given state wins all of that state’s electoral votes. This winner-take-all rule affects campaign strategies. Most campaigns will spend most of their time focusing on those few battleground states like Ohio and Florida. This also affects the issues of a campaign. Candidates will focus on issues that resonate in the few battleground states. The winner-take-all rule makes it especially hard for third parties to win. Third parties may score votes but rarely enough to win a majority in any given state.
Why have we kept the Electoral College?
Certainly tradition helps explain why we do not get rid of the Electoral College. Passing a constitutional amendment is not easy. Whereas there are many who complain about the Electoral College there is no clear consensus on an alternative. Some small states think that the Electoral College benefits them. The battle ground states would hate to lose the attention the current system gives them. Finally the Electoral College reinforces our two-party system. After all, most people do not understand the Electoral College. It is difficult to change something many do not know about.
Now that you know about the Electoral College, would you want to see it changed? How?
Remember once you become president you are limited to two terms by the 22nd Amendment. And the line of succession is as follows: President/Vice President/Speaker of the House/President pro tempore of the Senate/Secretary of State.
4. Discuss the formal and informal powers of the president. Explain how and why presidential power has increased over time.
Is the President of the United States the most powerful person in the world or a pitiful helpless giant? In the next couple of days we will analyze this question by looking at the President’s powers and contrast them to his limits.
The history of the presidency is a history of aggrandizement. We all imagine today a president with far reaching power. When looking at the constitution alone, however, we find a president with significant limits.
Here is a list of the president’s formal powers as found in Article 2 of the US Constitution:
Commander-in-Chief (Congress declares war); Make treaties (w/ Senate approval); Appoint ambassadors (w/ Senate confirmation); State of the Union Address; Convene special sessions of Congress (Truman was the last to do this in 1948); Receive ambassadors; “Take care that the laws be executed.” [To this list many would add the veto once rarely used but now played out more frequently. Fewer than 4% of all presidential vetoes are overridden].
Not impressive by anyone’s standards. Yet today many would argue that the U.S. president is the most powerful person in the world. Noted political scientist Richard Neustadt found the modern president’s power in his ability to persuade. The unique position the president has to bargain and use his political resources has made any chief executive extraordinarily powerful.
Today the president is powerful due to his ability to politic. This involves applying his influence to important decisions. Logrolling involves trading votes. The prestige of the president applies tremendous pressure on policy decision makers. In addition the president can muster up public opinion to support his agenda. President’s can grab headlines to influence the national agenda. This unique ability to persuade has made ALL presidents, not just the charismatic ones, truly powerful. No one has a bully pulpit like the president.
It should be added that certain powers exercised today by the president are also based upon tradition. These powers are NOT found in the constitution but are routinely practiced today without any reservations. They include:
Executive Orders – These domestic decrees carry the force of law but DO NOT require Congressional passage or approval. The president can change and affect policy details through directives like these. Obama for instance has changed details on various education and health care laws without any assistance from the other branches.
Executive Agreements – These foreign policy decrees carry the force of treaties but DO NOT require the Senate’s approval. The president can change and affect foreign policy without having to bother with the Senate. Obama for instance has made numerous overtures in the Middle East without involving the other branches.
Executive Privilege – This privilege allows the president to seek candid and confidential advice without having to disclose details to the general public. Despite promises of transparency all presidents utilize executive privilege to keep many matters of importance outside the purview of the media.
Today we are learning about Presidential roles. The President of the United States has to wear many hats. The President of the United States has to fulfill many different roles. What role do you think is most important? How would you rank them?
Here is a list of the primary Presidential roles:
1. Chief Executive – the President oversees the vast powers of the United States government. Ultimately the President takes responsibility for governing. When times are good the President receives praise but when they are bad he is left with the blame. The President’s closest political and policy advisors are to be found in the White House Office, sometimes called the Executive Office. Members of the White House Office are generally drawn from the President’s campaign. As chief executive the President is called upon to make the final decisions in all public policy matters facing the nation.
2. Commander-in-Chief – The constitution created a military that would be lead by a civilian. The Framers hoped that such a set up might make war less common. The President of the United States, a civilian, is in charge of our entire military. Congress DECLARES WAR but the President mobilizes troops at his command. First strike capabilities are not checked or balanced by any other branch of government. The President of the United States can launch a nuclear strike at any time, for any reason. He is the commander-in-chief.
3. Chief of Party – Chief of Party is an informal power. There is no mention of this role in the United States Constitution. Though political parties are not mentioned in the Constitution, they undeniably play an important role in our government. As Chief of Party the President oversees electoral strategies, issues, agendas and public policy priorities. The President also plays a major role in raising campaign money for candidates from his party. When the majority of Congress shares the same party as the President it is called a UNIFIED GOVERNMENT. When the two are different it is called a DIVIDED GOVERNMENT.
4. Chief of State – This may be the President’s most esoteric role. Yet some would call it the most important. This role is primarily ceremonial. As Chief of State the President serves as the embodiment of America. When there are important occasions around the world to attend our President goes. When important visitors come to America our President serves as host. When we honor our heroes the President awards them. If there is a solemn event our President speaks to the nation to console us. Throughout history the King played this role. We have no king. The stand in for Chief of State is our President. Our president is FIRST CITIZEN.
5. Chief Legislator – Though the Congress is given primary responsibility for writing laws our president serves as Chief Legislator. The power of veto, the power to reject laws, is given solely to the president. Fewer than 4% of presidential vetoes are overridden. In addition the constitution requires the president to give annually a State of the Union address. Often this is a legislative agenda for the year. Through his bully pulpit no single person in our government is situated better to influence the legislative process then the president of the United States.
6. Chief Diplomat – One of the clearest powers granted to the president is his authority in foreign policy. Appointing ambassadors, receiving foreign guests and designing treaties with other nations is a fundamental part of a president’s term. The State Department along with the Secretary of State completes much of this work. However, the president conducts the highest levels of negotiations. The president makes agreements with foreign powers. Formal treaties require Senate approval but executive agreements do not. As globalization spreads more and more around the world the role of Chief Diplomat takes on greater and greater importance.
Can you think of other examples? What role does President Obama perform best? What role is most important in order to be reelected? What role is most important?
When looking at these roles it is hard to imagine that our Founders wanted a weak President. The Framers may have feared monarchy as much as anarchy but they also understood the necessity of creating an energetic President. This type of President had strict limits but could respond to national crises with imminent effectiveness.
5. Explain the ways that the President influences Congress to pass legislation. Discuss the legislative checks on the president.
Presidents do more than enforce the laws. They also play a vital role in the legislative process itself. Using their power to bargain, Presidents can wield tremendous authority in shaping public policy. No better way to do this than to use the Presidential veto. Though often seen as the means to reject a bill already passed by Congress most Presidents use the veto as a means to mold the process itself. In the end if a veto is used it is highly unlikely that the Congress can override it. The vast majorities of all vetoes are final. In this way Presidents not only rule over the Executive Branch but now, some would say, over the Legislative Branch as well.
A signing statement is when a bill is signed into law but interpreted by the president differently then originally intended by Congress. In this way the president controls the legislative process. These signing statements often go unchecked. Signing statements are another example of an informal power.
We will now transition by looking at limits to this vast presidential power. Michael Novak has written, “If we are to reform the presidency, the heart of the matter is the president’s power over REALITY, his symbolic power. The social reality of the U.S. cannot be left to definition by one man alone.”
Hard to talk about limited government when looking at the modern president. The presidency has grown for a number of reasons. One reason the presidency has grown is the increased importance of foreign policy. The president is at the epicenter of American foreign policy decisions. Another reason for the growth of the American presidency is the growth of the federal bureaucracy. Much of this growth has been a result of economic crises. The federal government has built a larger more comprehensive safety net. The president oversees these responsibilities. Do not discount the role technology has played. The president’s ability to use the media to increase the power of the office should be noted.
Today’s powerful modern president, however, should not be seen as unchecked. There are still significant limits on presidential power. Some would argue these checks have made the president “a pitiful helpless giant.”
Here are the primary checks:
Congress. Examples like the War Powers Act (1974) and the Budget Impoundment Act (1974) continue to limit the president’s war making powers and his power over the budget.
Impeachment is the most drastic check on presidential power. Impeachment proceedings provide the perfect civics lesson. Impeachments demonstrate our checks and balances system. The House of Representatives is given the formal power to levy charges against an elected official with a simple majority vote. The Senate tries the impeachment case and can vote to remove with a 2/3s vote. Impeachments also teach the separation of power, federalism and partisanship. More importantly, however, impeachments are often fueled by public opinion. Constitutional safeguards protect elected officials from being removed on whim. Many over the years have been impeached by the House but few have been removed by the Senate.
6. Explain the ways that the President can influence the federal judiciary. Discuss how the courts check the president.
There are many ways in which the president can influence the federal judiciary. The president attempts to be an agenda setter. In this way the president can influence the type of issues confronted by our court system. Most importantly, however, President’s appoint federal judges. These selections are done with careful consideration. President’s attempt to pack the court with like-minded jurists who share similar legal outlooks.
Yet the courts can check the president as well.
In 1974 our Supreme Court weighed in on what some have called our greatest “constitutional crisis” in history. President Richard Nixon faced numerous Articles of Impeachment due to his role in covering up various crimes associated with his successful reelection bid in 1972. Nixon withheld critical evidence under the cover of Executive Privilege. On principle, he argued that all Presidents required a certain protection from public exposure of private conversations. The Court in U.S. vs. Nixon disagreed. The Court ruled that Executive Privilege had limits. In the end the Court upheld that despite Nixon’s persistence otherwise, no one is above the law - even the President of the U.S.
7. Explain divided government, as well as explain its potential consequences.
When one political party holds the presidency and a majority of Congress we call that unified government. When they are split, for instance a Republican president and a Democratic majority in Congress, we call that divided government. The political party that holds the White House is said to be the party in power. Political science is mixed on the advantages and disadvantages of divided government. With unified government blame can be clearly attributed. Some suggest that more actually gets done in divided governments.
In David Mayhew’s classic book Divided We Govern the eminent Yale Political Scientist carefully researched the consequences of divided government. Somewhat counter intuitively he discovered that divided governments were more likely to produce significant legislation. Perhaps the need to compromise forces our elected officials into governing while unified governments are hindered by the need for incessant politicking.
8. Explain the role played by the White House Office, the President’s Cabinet and the Independent Regulatory Commissions.
Let’s look more closely at the modern presidency.
To be a successful president one must possess certain essential qualities. Yet we must remember that to be a successful president requires more than the skills one person can possess. The American presidency encompasses a vast Executive Branch. It is more than one person.
Here is the essential flow chart of the Executive Branch. “The buck may stop” on the president’s desk but it must pass through a large complex bureaucracy known as the Executive Branch.
President – Chief Executive
Vice President – few formal powers other then to preside over the Senate [presiding officer of the Senate has one power, to break tie votes].
White House Office – these 100s of employees are the president’s closest friends and advisors who help him the most with political and policy decisions. (Also includes the Executive Office).
Cabinet – made up of the Secretaries of the Executive Agencies [Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, Secretary of the Treasury, etc…] The Cabinet represents the 100,000s of executive branch employees who enforce public policy. The Cabinet has grown weaker over time as each Secretary spends more time securing the stability [and budget] of their Department rather than give-unfettered advice to the president.
Independent Agencies and Government Corporations – These executive branch functions lie outside of the executive departments. Examples of independent agencies would be the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency] and the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency]. Examples of government corporations would be AMTRAK and the United States Post Office.
The Executive Branch of the United States employs close to 3 million workers. The vast majority of these workers do not change every four years like the president. Many presidents complain that this unyielding bureaucracy makes it difficult to get anything done.
When government is asked to do something – and it is asked a lot – somebody has to do it. Democratic governments have been instituted to serve the people. The Legislative Branch and their respective legislatures respond to the needs of the people by writing laws. In our United States government Congress is responsible for creating public policy. The Executive Branch is given the primary function to implement those policies. The President of the United States and his staff execute the laws. This is no small task. The large arm of the executive branch responsible for translating laws into action is called the Federal Bureaucracy. The Federal Bureaucracy is the government means to a public policy end. When we want our government to do something, it is the Federal Bureaucracy who is responsible for doing it. The Federal Bureaucracy transforms our wishes into realities. The Federal Bureaucracy transforms Federal policy into action. Those individuals who transform public policy into actionable services are Federal bureaucrats. As the action figures in our government they come under frequent criticism and attack. Characterized by its hierarchical organization and specialization, the ever-growing Federal Bureaucracy has been asked to address more and more. With its size comes inefficiency and unresponsiveness making us wonder if we can live with it. One thing about the Federal Bureaucracy is certain, however, we cannot live without it.
With that in mind, what are essential qualities needed to be an effective president? Can one person truly bring about change? Look at successful presidents for a hint. What can one person do to make a difference . . . within a four year term no less?
9. Discuss the Federal Budget process.
When reviewing the federal budget process you better review your GSL (Government as a Secondary Language) if you expect to understand what is going on.
Here are five key budget basics:
Revenues—the taxes collected by the federal government that pay for government expenses.
Entitlement Spending—governmental expenses that are permanent and can only be changed with amendments to laws. Of the $3.5 trillion dollars that the federal government spends, more than $2 trillion is spent on entitlement spending.
Social Security is the government’s single most expensive program, and only getting more expensive with a larger pool of retirees who are living longer than ever.
Discretionary Spending—well less than ½ of the federal government’s expenses are costs that can be adjusted on an annual basis.
Defense spending takes up the lion’s share of this spending with close to $700 billion spent in this area.
Deficit and Debt—our federal government has spent over a trillion dollars more than it takes in for revenues this year. With the accumulation of deficits during the last 40 years, our government as accrued more than $14 trillion in total debt during that time.
Under current law the executive branch prepares the budget. The Office of Management and Budget is responsible for this herculean task. But it is the Congress who possesses the power of the purse. Congress debates, authorizes and appropriates the federal budget.
Even when Congress cannot agree on the details trillions of dollars are collected and spent each year. That you can count on.
10. Discuss public opinion and its effects on the American presidency. Explain what typical presidents can expect of their approval ratings over their term in office.
APPROVAL RATINGS for presidents tend to go down during his 4-year term EXCEPT at election time. Approval ratings stay higher during good economic times and periods of crisis [Americans look to the president during crises for support]. When the economy is bad and foreign policy decisions go poorly approval ratings plummet. Want to be a popular president? Ride good economic news, win short little wars and campaign for reelection throughout your entire presidency. Above all else AVOID personal scandal. No surer way to lose face than to get caught doing something you campaigned against.
The biggest constraint on any president is public opinion. History suggests that most presidents’ popularity declines while in office, except during reelection campaigns. What this means is that to succeed in office most presidents better work fast and early. FDR was given a 100-day honeymoon. Modern presidents rarely are treated as well.
Whereas Congressional authority is given constitutional advantages, the vast reach of Presidential power is found through political means. Though not always true, Theodore Roosevelt in 1909 understood this when he said, “I suppose my critics will call that preaching but I have got such a bully pulpit.” It should be noted, however, that in those days the word “bully” meant “excellent,” “superb,” and “wonderful.” Roosevelt understood that the status of President gave the office a unique position to persuade and therefore the ability to accomplish great things. Regardless of personality, the American public looks to the President for leadership, guidance and direction. We, more often than not, follow. Today the connotation of “bully” is to be a “ruffian” or “intimidator.” In either case, whether a bully is a sweetheart or a junk-yard dog, the President of the United States has gained by the nature of the office great and grand power to advance an agenda that is difficult to impede.
Public opinion is a formidable obstacle to presidential agendas. But there are other obstacles that can impede presidential power. Here are few additional limits:
Federalism. The separation of powers between the national and state governments still impose significant limits on a president’s reach of authority.
National Elections. The 22nd Amendment limits the president to 2 terms. Time becomes a serious limit to presidential success.
Foreign governments. Crises over seas often side track domestic agendas. It is difficult to prepare for the surprises each Administration faces in the area of foreign policy.
Media. Remember the relationship here is love-hate. The media often acts like a junk yard dog around the president and his Administration.
Is the President of the United States the most powerful person of the world or a pitiful helpless giant?
The times and circumstances surrounding a presidential tenure often dictate the answer.