The Unique Invention of the American President

When the U.S. presidency was created in the late 1700s, it was unlike any other position in world history. The writers of the Constitution understood that giving a lot of power to one person made sense – if the country were a monarchy and ruled by a king or queen. They also understood that giving a lot of power to an elected group in a legislature made sense – if the country were a democracy, and voters elected representatives. But giving a lot of power to one person in a democracy did not seem to make sense.

They were concerned about giving one person too much power, and that a strong executive could become a tyrant or corrupt. The country's founders had just fought a war for independence against the British. The American colonists had not liked being under the control of a British king.

The colonists had also seen the problems of a weak executive branch. Asking state legislatures to make national decisions took too long, and sometimes the problems were never resolved at all.

In 1787, delegates to the Constitutional Convention found a unique solution. First, they agreed to make the president a one-person job. One person, they reasoned, could both make decisions more effectively than a group, and be more easily held responsible for them.

But they decided not to give the president too much power. The person would be elected for one four-year term at a time. And the president would share power with a national legislature and a supreme court.

The delegates also decided some of the details about how the president would be elected, and how to remove the person from office. And they said the president would have a number of duties: serving as the commander in chief of the military, nominating public officials, and giving Congress a report on the state of the Union.

A lot of the Presidential job description was left open. It said the president "shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed."

Since it was written in 1787, that expression has informed discussions about what powers the U.S. president should really have.

Americans are still debating how much power the president should have. For most of the 19th century, the powers of the president were more limited. But since the 20th century, the position has become more powerful. The president has moved closer to the center of American democracy.

Source: The Unique Invention of the American President
Voice of America

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