Thursday, January 05, 2012

The Constitution: The Executive Branch

Today we continue our tour of the Constitution with a look at the second of the three branches of government it established: the Executive Branch.

When the Founders sat down to design a government for their new nation, they realized someone had to be in charge. However, they had just finished getting rid of a king and were wary of creating a powerful leader who would recreate the conditions they'd just fought the revolutionary war to change. For this reason, they desgined an executive position with greatly circumscribed powers.

The Executive Branch, headed by the President, is described in Article II of the Constitution. There are four sections in this article, only two of which (Sections 2 and 3) describe the powers granted to the president ... which are relatively few, and most of which are subject to the "advice and consent" of the Senate. The other two articles are interesting: Section 1 grants the president his* title, establishes basic qualifications for the office, and describes how the president will be elected (this brings us to the Electoral College, which we'll examine in a future post); and Section 4 describes the conditions for which a president may be removed from office.

If you read Sections 2 and 3 of Article II carefully, you realize that the president isn't really empowered to do all that much, particularly when you compare his duties to those of the Congress outlined in Article I. This was, of course, by design ... as we noted before, the Founders weren't interested in crowning a new king.

What does that mean for us today? People who run for president try to convince you to vote for them by making all sorts of promises about what they're going to do once they're elected. This is what we call wishful thinking, because what the president can promise and what he can actually deliver are very much different. A new president enters office with a set of ideas and philosophies about the direction in which the country should move. The new president may be politically and socially conservative (like a George W. Bush) or liberal (like a Barack Obama), and will try to set an agenda that reflects that political and social orientation. But because the Constitution makes most of the president's actions subject to the "advice and consent" of Congress, the president's ability to deliver on promises depends on his ability to get Congressional support for them.

As we see every day, this is no minor task.

When the president and the Congress are of the same party, it's generally easier for the president to deliver on promises, because two of the three branches of government are following the same general political philosophy. When they are of different parties, tension results. In the case of the current president, it's relatively tough for Mr Obama to deliver on his promises when half of the Congress is controlled by a party on record as saying its highest priority is to drive him from office.

But that's a discussion for another time. Let's talk for a brief moment about the actual title "President of the United States."

The Constitutional Convention had a committee on titles which worked to decide what the various officers of the new government should be called. The Constitution (Article I, Section 9) forbids the granting of titles of nobility, so the search for appropriate titles for government officials was not an easy task. George Washington's first preference for a job title was "His High Mightiness, the President of the United States and Protector of their Liberties," which didn't last long as it smelled too much of royalty. In the end, it was truncated to the title we know today: President of the United States, and so documented in the Constitution (Article II, Section 1).

So ...

The Constitution created a system of government led by a President whose powers were greatly limited and subject to limits imposed by the Legislative and Judicial branches of the government. The President's real power was limited to his (or her) ability to persuade the electorate and the other branches of the government to follow his lead. Sometimes that's easy. Other times, like the present, it's difficult.

But that's the way the Founders designed it. If you want to be led by a king, a dictator, or an ayatollah, there are plenty of other countries so led where you might be happier. I, for one, like it here ... in spite of the endless opportunities for political ass-clownery built into the Constitution.

Have a good day. More thoughts on the Constitution tomorrow.


* I'm using the generic pronoun he to refer to the President. I know this is "sexist," but it's too cumbersome to type he (or she) and him (or her) all the time. Each time you read he or him, understand that it refers to both sexes. If you don't like it, that's tough ... it's my blog. Get your own and you can write what you want.



eViL pOp TaRt said...

The President, whoever he is, can use his office as a "bully pulpit" (as one put it), but that's about it. Well, there's the State of the Union Address, but those tend to be ignored.

I'm glad we don't have titles of nobility or knighthoods. The only time the title of Dame is conferred is in those film noirs.

Big Sky Heidi said...

Where in the Constitution do we have the title First Lady? Or First Dog or Cat, for that matter. No one seems to refer to the President as "First Gentleman." Maybe Nixon had something to do with that.

Of course, if we elect a woman President, would they address her as First Lady?

Mike said...

I think we should go for a six year first term for the president. It would give him (or her) time to actually get something done without have to start running for a second term right away. The second term could still be four years to finish up projects that might not be done.

Unable to finish that first term for whatever reason? The new VP/pres gets two years before a new election.

Duckbutt said...

The system of checks and balances did produce opportunities for deadlock; but perhaps the Founding Fathers did not conceive of it as being a bad thing. The different states distrusted each other back then, unlike the universal amity and harmony that characterizes interstate relations today!

Melissa B. said...

So, my question is this: Does the Constitution say anything about Newt wearing a fruity purple tie?