|Being a president is
like riding a tiger. You have to keep on riding or be
swallowed.- Harry S. Truman
One of the chief functions of the American President is to preside over the administration of government, its agencies, and its civilian and military employees. According to the Constitution, neither the judicial nor the legislative branches are to implement the judgments of the courts or the laws enacted by Congress. Instead, it is an executive branch headed by the President that administers the functions of government.
This responsibility is derived from Article II of the Constitution, which establishes that "The executive power shall be vested in a President". The same article goes on to provide the President with specific limited formal powers related to the administration of government, including the power to nominate the principal officers of government and to request in writing the opinions of the heads of government departments.
The Constitution provides very little detail about the executive branch, with the exception of a few scattered references to officers and departments. Instead, the structure and character of the executive branch, like the vague executive powers of the President, is shaped and defined by the interplay of the three branches. Today there are 15 cabinet departments, approximately 50 to 60 independent agencies, and a number of smaller boards and commissions. The extent to which Presidents control the agencies varies from one to another. Some agencies, such as independent regulatory commissions or the Federal Reserve, are designed to be insulated from presidential influence.
Presidents also influence the executive branch through executive orders, national security directives, presidential memoranda, or other forms of presidential direct action. Presidents have substantial discretion in the interpretation of laws that executive branch agencies are mandated to implement. Laws are often drafted vaguely as a result of Congress's desire to give agencies needed flexibility in implementation or because compromise is necessary to get legislation passed in the same form in both the House and the Senate. Presidents issue executive orders or directives of different types based upon either congressionally delegated statutory or constitutional authority. These orders have the force of law unless they contravene existing law. Presidents have used this power to influence agency policies dealing with subjects such as civil rights, environmental regulation, trade policy, and abortion.
When Reagan political affairs director Lyn Nofziger was asked what, in the White House, he considered to be political, he reportedly replied: "Everything." That one-word answer is an accurate summation of the White House environment. Every presidential issue is political, in the broad sense that the President's decisions test the limits of consensus in the country. Politics -- in the narrower sense of partisanship -- colors each presidential action as well: it may excite -- or threaten -- the support of the President's party. If an action succeeds, there is political hay to be made, but if even a "nonpartisan" national security initiative crashes, the President's popular standing plunges with it.
President Lyndon Johnson's policies in Vietnam forced him out of the presidential race. The Iran-Contra affair damaged President Ronald Reagan. Breaking his "no new taxes" pledge cut deeply into President George H. W. Bush's support. But President Gerald Ford's popularity surged after the Mayaguez crisis -- and, yes, the picture of tots rolling Easter eggs on the nonpolitical White House lawn under the eyes of a human-sized rabbit leaves a warm, fuzzy feeling in the national psyche.
Policy and politics are inseparable, be they in the Rose Garden or the Persian Gulf. The President is head of his party and a domestic political leader wherever he goes, whether to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation or the Great Wall of China. Every two years, when congressional elections take place, the White House is drawn deeply into those battles; when the President's reelection is pending, the White House is Political Central.