Presidents face a double expectations gap when it comes to their relationship with the American public. The first gap is between what the president must promise in order to gain office and the limitations put on the president by the powers granted by the Constitution. The second gap occurs between conflicting roles. An American president must function as both a political head of government and an apolitical head of state, and often these two roles conflict.
When it came to defining the functions and powers of the president, the founders devised rules that both empowered and limited the president. While some of the founders argued for a strong leader with far-reaching powers, others argued for several executives who would check each other’s power. The constitutional compromise gives us an executive that has certain powers and independence, yet is checked by congressional and judicial power.
The president is in a constant struggle with Congress and the public for the furthering of his legislative agenda. The president needs both congressional cooperation and public approval in order to fulfill campaign promises. The chief executive uses several strategies to achieve these goals, including going public and building coalitions in Congress.
The presidential establishment includes the cabinet, the Executive Office of the President, and the White House Office—a huge bureaucracy that has grown considerably since the days of George Washington’s presidency. Although the resources are vast, managing such a large and complex organization presents its own problems for the president. The president’s closest advisers are generally focused on his interests, but the variety of other staff and agency heads—often with their own agendas and often difficult to control—can make life difficult for the chief executive.
We have seen two periods of presidential leadership so far. The first period, called the traditional presidency, which lasted until the 1930s, describes chief executives who mainly lived within the limits of their constitutional powers. Since then, in the modern presidency, a more complex relationship has existed between the president and the American citizens, in which presidents branch out to use more informal powers yet remain indebted to public approval for this expansion.
Americans get to know their president via the media as much as through any policy they make. Public opinion polling functions as a “rolling election,” connecting the president to citizens on an ongoing basis.