The most visible political position in the entire world wasn’t always so powerful. The Presidency of the United States has had over two centuries worth of substantial expansion in its power, influence, and size. And it isn’t just the president himself. The staff underneath him and the institution of the presidency itself have seen monumental changes since the U.S. Constitution was ratified and George Washington served as the first president.
Whether the presidency’s scope and power are too much is a matter of debate. Yet the presidency is undeniably an immense institution — and in many different ways.
Presidential Staff Sizes
Presidential staffs in recent times are considerably large, yet this wasn’t always the case. Instead of being policy advisors as typically seen today, staffs early on in United States history functioned more as personal aides and they were mostly family members of the president. The president also paid them out of his own pocket.¹
While incremental changes were made over time, it wasn’t until the 20th century that staff expansion and variety of expertise would considerably increase. Franklin Roosevelt, as part of his New Deal initiatives, ramped up the size of the staff, and it would continue to grow past his presidency. While Jimmy Carter initially cut back some of his staff’s size, it would increase again at the end of his term in office.¹ While there have been some fluctuations, the size of the staff has stayed roughly the same since then.
As the size of the presidential staff has increased, so has its scope of expertise in a variety of policy areas. The Executive Office of the President has several advisory staffs under its umbrella: Council of Economic Advisers, Council on Environmental Quality, National Security Council (NSC), Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Office of National Drug Control Policy, and Office of Science and Technology Policy.²
One of the most powerful tools at the president’s disposal is the executive order. Executive orders are acts declared by the president to be done and enforced, and there is an immense variety to their scope and what they do. They are also often controversial (more on that in the last section of this article). Executive orders are most often numbered, but there are unnumbered ones as well.
The American Presidency Project has compiled data on executive orders, routinely updating the numbers and even including some of those declared by current President Donald Trump. Executive Orders were rarely used very early on in United States history, but every president has issued at least one (with the exception of William Henry Harrison, who died one month into office).
Andrew Jackson (1829–1837), the first president to truly significantly expand the power of the presidency, used them more than his predecessors, but still only declared 12 of them. Abraham Lincoln (1861–1865) was arguably the next to initiate a large increase, with 48 of them. Although it rose and fell after Lincoln, it arguably wasn’t until Teddy Roosevelt (1901–1909) that executive orders really became a staple of the presidency, with 1,081. Other major users include Woodrow Wilson (1913–1921) with 1,803; Calvin Coolidge (1923–1929) with 1,203; Franklin Roosevelt (1933–1945) with 3,721; and Harry Truman (1945–1953) with 907 of them. After Truman, however, the total number of executive orders from each president was scaled back, but most presidents since have still used them over 200 times each.³
Another one of the most powerful tools the president has is the veto, where he can reject a bill from Congress. Congress can override a presidential veto with a 2/3 vote from both the U.S. House and Senate, but this is quite hard to achieve (at least for the most salient bills). Thus, the veto is a potent executive weapon.
The American Presidency Project also tracks the number of presidential vetoes. Although the number of vetoes used by presidents is not nearly the same amount as executive orders, the historical trajectories and trends for both are somewhat similar. The first president to make extensive use of the veto was Ulysses Grant (1869–1877), who used 93 of them. Grover Cleveland (1885–1889, 1893–1897), the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms in office, was the first to break into triple digits, using 414 in his first term and 170 in his second term. The other time that the number of vetoes seriously exploded was under Franklin Roosevelt, who used 635 of them. The number of vetoes was greatly cut back after FDR, with some fluctuations from administration to administration since.⁴ The success rates of vetoes have in large part been affected by which party held power in either chamber of Congress.
Presidential Policies Over Time
There are far too many presidential policies to cover that made serious expansions (and attempts at expansions) of the presidency’s power and scope, but here are a few of the major examples.
- James Monroe: One of if not the first major foreign policies of the early years of the United States was the Monroe Doctrine, the namesake of whom was James Monroe (1817–1825). The Doctrine opposed European colonialism in the Americas and declared that any attempts from European nations to colonize in the Western Hemisphere would be considered an act of aggression toward the United States.
- Andrew Jackson: As aforementioned, Jackson was the first president to seriously expand the presidency’s power. One major case was his opposition to a national bank. Jackson and his fellow Jacksonian Democrats would tussle with the president of the Second Bank of the United States, Nicholas Biddle, over a rechartering of the national bank. Jackson won in the end, replacing the Second Bank of the United States with state banks. Yet perhaps the most notable example of Jackson’s use of presidential power was his direct defiance of the Supreme Court in its ruling of the case Worcester v. Georgia. The Supreme Court ruled that a Georgia state statute that imposed regulations on Native American land was unconstitutional. Jackson refused to enforce it and eventually forcibly relocated the Native Americans there in an event known as The Trail of Tears. (You can read more on the court case here.)
- Teddy Roosevelt: Perhaps Roosevelt’s most-oft quoted phrase is “speak softly and carry a big stick.” This was in reference to his Big Stick foreign policy, where the idea was to be initially diplomatic but be prepared to use force if diplomacy didn’t work or a crisis arose. On the domestic front, the other most famous phrase attributed to him is the “bully pulpit.” This referred to his philosophy of using his influence as president to persuade the public, put pressure on Congress, and establish the role of the United States as a world power.
- Woodrow Wilson: After the end of World War I (called the Great War until World War II), there was a global call, particularly from then-president Woodrow Wilson, for the establishment of a multinational body to band together and prevent such a war from happening ever again. Thus, the League of Nations — the predecessor to the United Nations — was born. However, Wilson butted heads with Congress as to whether the United States should be on such a council, partially due to isolationist sentiment that was still held by many citizens and officeholders at the time. Wilson wanted to enter the League, while many of his most ardent opponents in Congress did not. In the end, the United States would not join, and the League of Nations didn’t last very long before it folded.
- Franklin Roosevelt: Referring back to the earlier discussion of presidential staff sizes, FDR established the Executive Office of the President. The EOP was designed to assist the president with the ever-increasing demands on the executive branch. It has stayed in existence since. The entire New Deal, FDR’s programs implemented in response to the Great Depression, was a monumental increase in the involvement of the executive branch (and the government in general) in various policy areas, leading to the creation of some initiatives and organizations that still exist today that include Social Security and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).
Is the Presidency Too Powerful Today?
This article is not going to take a stance on one side or the other on this issue, but the debate should be noted. Two of the most contentious areas of controversy regarding the power of the presidency is the executive branch’s size and executive orders. These are highly oversimplified summaries of the arguments, but following are some of the major reasons for each side.
On one hand, critics argue the size of the executive branch is seen as far too expansive (and therefore incredibly expensive, contributing to an already large federal deficit) and that it is too dangerous an expansion of power. On the other hand, proponents of its size argue that an extensive presidency is necessary to contend with the ever-increasing amount and complexity of policy areas and responsibility laid on the executive branch.
For executive orders, critics argue that they are far too often used as a means for presidents to circumvent Congress’s responsibility to legislate whenever presidents don’t get their way, leading to too much centralization of power with one person. Proponents of executive orders argue that they are necessary when Congress is too gridlocked and not getting anything done and that they are a way for presidents to implement necessary laws. (Note, however, that executive orders don’t necessarily have to be acts of legislation. Many are much more mundane.)
There are so many ways to study the expansion of the presidency — and whether or not it is too expansive — but such is outside the scope of this article. Perhaps it will be explored more in the future.
- Nelson, Michael, ed. The Presidency and The Political System, 9th Edition. Chapters 5, 9, 10, 12. CQ Press: 2010.
- USA.gov. “Executive Office of the President.” https://www.usa.gov/executive-office-of-the-president (accessed November 29, 2018).
- Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley. The American Presidency Project. “Executive Orders.” Ed. John T. Woolley and Gerhard Peters. Santa Barbara, CA. 1999–2017. https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/statistics/data/executive-orders
- Gerhard Peters. The American Presidency Project. “Presidential Vetoes.” Ed. John T. Woolley and Gerhard Peters. Santa Barbara, CA: University of California. 1999–2017. https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/statistics/data/presidential-vetoes