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Changes to the role of the presidency

The presidency's role has evolved over centuries, shifting from a loosely defined position to a powerful one. Initially, the president was a virtuous figure, avoiding monarchy and mob rule. However, over time, the need for quick action, especially during wars, led to more power being given to the president. Today, the president is seen as the key actor in American government.

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  • marcimus pink style avatar for user StudentE
    What does John Dickerson know about presidency?
    (8 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user chodge3264
      John Dickerson has covered Washington politics for more than two decades as a reporter for Time, Slate Magazine and CBS News. He previously hosted Face the Nation, currently works as a correspondent for 60 Minutes and is the recent author of “The Hardest Job in the World: The American Presidency,” which examines the complex challenges faced by our nation’s chief executives throughout history. In this episode of Transition Lab, host David Marchick spoke with Dickerson about his experience covering presidents, why presidents often struggle with their transition to the White House, how we should view the presidency and how Joe Biden and Donald Trump would govern if elected in November.Dickerson: “My very first reaction is that the American system is founded on a structure. And that structure is the peaceful transition of power. You mentioned that [John] Adams and [Thomas] Jefferson were friends once, then became bitter enemies. But Thomas Jefferson said, ‘Whichever of us wins this presidential contest, the country will be okay.’ …There was a norm that he felt it was necessary to speak to. That idea of a peaceful transition of power is one of the things that makes America great.”Dickerson: “John Kennedy said, ‘I spent so much time getting to be president. I wish I’d spent more time learning how to be president.’ …And when you talk to people who have worked in White Houses … they all say, ‘You walk in and you have all these plans, and you think it’s all going to be going one way, and then it absolutely is not as you expected.’ …Everything just starts flowing and you’re just in a constantly reactive mode. So the sooner you can get started thinking about what the set of challenges are going to be, what your organizational structure is going to look like, [the better]."
      (6 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Izabela Scallions
    what does john dickerson want to know about presidency?
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  • blobby green style avatar for user vivin anand
    At , John said that presidents can declare war, but isn't that power delegated to Congress? What aspects of war does the President actually control?
    (3 votes)
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Video transcript

- So, John, how has the role of the presidency changed over the last several hundreds of years? - It's changed dramatically. First of all, when the founders created the presidency, they left it kinda loose. They weren't exactly very specific about what a president would do. And they realized that the first president, George Washington, and this is why he was so important, was a man of virtue and that he in his behavior would set the precedence for the next president after him. That means the job is basically handed off by tradition from president to president but that also-- - And the reason why they didn't know what a president should do is that there wasn't a notion of a, there wasn't a precedent for being a president. - That's right, they knew what they didn't want. They didn't want two things, they didn't want a king, they'd just gotten rid of one of those. They didn't want a king and they also didn't want somebody who's whipped around by mob rule. Those were the two things they were trying to get between. But, a president has a lot of room to move in between the two of them, and they thought we'll put it in the hands of a virtuous American. George Washington, a good first virtuous American, and that person, through their virtue and character, would stay in the right place. Would not become a king and would not give over to the mob, but it also meant that it relied on the character of the person in the presidency. And so, each president in subsequent years, has taken shape in the presidency both by what was determined by their predecessors, but also by what they could do in the job. And what's happened is, a job that started out very weak in the American system has now become one where some people think of all the entire of American government as the president. And that's not what the founders wanted. - But how does that evolve? 'Cause obviously the constitution talks about the powers of the president. So, how does it change so much over time? - What happened was, when they originally created the presidency there was a debate, and the debate was, we need somebody who can move quickly. We can't always be calling them in to Congress because, of course, when the America was started they used to take several months, or sometimes it would take weeks to get on a horse and get to Washington. So, we need an executive who can move quickly. Well, what happened was, in various wars, America needed to move quickly, and they needed one person to act on behalf of the entire Union. Well, there's only one person who can do that. But, as people wanted quick action they handed over more power to the president. Congress, which used to fight with the president a lot, during the Second World War and then on into our present day, has given up a lot of its power to the president. One of the key ones being the power to make war. Presidents can now go and make war. Well, that's not the original way it was arranged. And they've done it because there is a hunger in the country for quick action, but the problem and challenge of that is, if you invest somebody in with power to do things quickly in an emergency, they hold on to that power and they don't let it go, and that means that they start doing things when it's not an emergency, that is then not vetted by the American system. And that system has both the judiciary and the legislative which are meant to hold back a president who's trying to act too quickly and do too much. - Let's go on this notion of making war as an example. There's clear powers that Congress has to approve a war, has the power of the purse, So, how did this happen? They just do that as a ritual now? - Well, basically there are times and Congress tries and makes attempts to try to pull power back from the president. The only times they've been successful after the Second World War is really after Watergate. The view was that the president had gotten too powerful. That President Nixon, who left the office, had abused the office and so Congress tried to pull some power back, but again, political parties which are now very close to the president. It used to be that political parties were not so powerful. If I'm a Republican in Congress and I want my Republican president to do well, I'm gonna give him the power he wants because we're connected. In the old days, if the president in the office was my party, well that's nice, but I've got my own views and I'm in Congress, and I'm gonna do what I want. And so, essentially a lot of these powers that have gone to the president have been handed over to him, not with a ceremony, but just by a lack of a fight by members of Congress, in withdrawing from their traditional role as the founders wanted it as the key actor in American government. That's no longer case, in America today, the president is the key actor. - And then every time that happens the next president or the next several presidents, we allowed that to happen to that person. I should have that power as well. - That's exactly right. It's almost like the powers conveyed to the new president like the furniture in the Oval Office. And so, they think, well this chair's pretty comfortable. (Sal laughs) I'm not gonna get rid of that and sit in the old uncomfortable wooden chair. I want all the plush trappings. And here's another reason. American politics has created a situation, and television has made this so much worse, where people run for office promising the sun, the moon, and the stars. So, they say I can, Donald Trump, when he was running said I alone can fix it. That is not the way the country was originally founded. That one person could fix or unfix things. It was supposed to be a country with representatives of the entire country. But, politics has created a system where, whether it's a Republican or Democrat, they run by saying I can do anything. Well, that means when you get in the office you want those quick powers that allow you to keep those campaign promises, and those quick powers are only quick if Congress and the courts aren't in the way. So, politics and the way you run for office makes presidents want to have every possible power at their disposal.