From Franklin Roosevelt onward, American presidents have been vice presidents (Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush senior), members of the House or Senate (John F. Kennedy, Barack Obama), or governors (George W. Bush). The one exception was the eminently political general, Dwight Eisenhower.
Our presidents came to the White House with direct experience of the intricacies of our institutions, of the obduracy and changeability of public opinion, of national and international crises, large and small. The one with large academic knowledge of the Constitution and its history, the professor of law Barack Obama, had the least experience (four years as a senator). That became evident during a very public process of learning.
An American president is the executive director of a federal work force of two million, seven hundred thousand officials. The president literally forms (subject to senatorial approval for hundreds of positions) his or her own government. The president appoints not only cabinet secretaries (ministers) and agency heads, but four thousand other officials.
Critical to the success of any president is the White House staff – an inner circle which works with the president day by day, and an outer one on permanent call. Some of the most important are often unknown to the public, if known to the influential in Washington.
The president has to deal with 100 senators, 435 representatives — with the senior ones quite used to seeing presidents come and go. Support on any given issue from those of his or her own party is not necessarily accorded to the president. The members of Congress have their own agendas and constituencies. Many are intensely interested in particular issues for years – and they and their staffs (20,000 persons work at the Congress) often have very direct relationships to the senior permanent officials in the federal government working on their issues of choice. They find it easy to impress upon the president’s appointees that they owe their appointments to the president, but will owe policy support to the budgetary and legislative assent of the Congress.
A president has also to deal with fifty governors (themselves employing, with the mayors, some 20 million people. The governors frequently dispose of their own political capital, and ambitions. In larger states or those with traditions of independence and political innovation, they may be experimenting with policies the president has to scrutinize as explicit or implicit alternatives to the presidential agenda.
The president also nominates, subject to senatorial approval, federal judges who serve for life. In a system of separation of powers, the independence of the judges has often taught both Congress and president the limits of their powers.
At least and perhaps more important, as head of state and “First Citizen,” the president must respond to a complex, conflicted, divided and yet demanding civil society. The claims of ethnic groups and churches, of the expectant young and the dependent old are incessant. The president is in some large measure pastor to the national soul. A partisan, there are significant occasions on which he or she has to transcend party and speak to and for the entire nation.