The Public Presidency

THE SHAPING OF THE MODERN PRESIDENCY

From the days of the early republic through the end of the nineteenth century, presidents were limited in the ways they could reach the public to convey their perspective and shape policy. Inaugural addresses and messages to Congress, while circulated in newspapers, proved clumsy devices to attract support, even when a president used plain, blunt language. Some presidents undertook tours of the nation, notably George Washington and Rutherford B. Hayes. Others promoted good relationships with newspaper editors and reporters, sometimes going so far as to sanction a pro-administration newspaper. One president, Ulysses S. Grant, cultivated political cartoonist Thomas Nast to present the president’s perspective in the pages of the magazine Harper’s Weekly.Wendy Wick Reaves. 1987. “Thomas Nast and the President,” American Art Journal 19, No. 1: 61–71. Abraham Lincoln experimented with public meetings recorded by newspaper reporters and public letters that would appear in the press, sometimes after being read at public gatherings (Figure). Most presidents gave speeches, although few proved to have much immediate impact, including Lincoln’s memorable Gettysburg Address.

Image A is a photo of Abraham Lincoln meeting with Union Soldiers. Image B is a cartoon of Ulysses S. Grant being shielded from arrows by “Lady Liberty.”
While President Abraham Lincoln was not the first president to be photographed, he was the first to use the relatively new power of photography to enhance his power as president and commander-in-chief. Here, Lincoln poses with Union soldiers (a) during his visit to Antietam, Maryland, on October 3, 1862. President Ulysses S. Grant cultivated a relationship with popular cartoonist Thomas Nast, who often depicted the president in the company of “Lady Liberty” (b) in addition to relentlessly attacking his opponent Horace Greeley.

Rather, most presidents exercised the power of patronage (or appointing people who are loyal and help them out politically) and private deal-making to get what they wanted at a time when Congress usually held the upper hand in such transactions. But even that presidential power began to decline with the emergence of civil service reform in the later nineteenth century, which led to most government officials being hired on their merit instead of through patronage. Only when it came to diplomacy and war were presidents able to exercise authority on their own, and even then, institutional as well as political restraints limited their independence of action.

Theodore Roosevelt came to the presidency in 1901, at a time when movie newsreels were becoming popular. Roosevelt, who had always excelled at cultivating good relationships with the print media, eagerly exploited this new opportunity as he took his case to the people with the concept of the presidency as bully pulpit, a platform from which to push his agenda to the public. His successors followed suit, and they discovered and employed new ways of transmitting their message to the people in an effort to gain public support for policy initiatives. With the popularization of radio in the early twentieth century, it became possible to broadcast the president’s voice into many of the nation’s homes. Most famously, FDR used the radio to broadcast his thirty “fireside chats” to the nation between 1933 and 1944.

In the post–World War II era, television began to replace radio as the medium through which presidents reached the public. This technology enhanced the reach of the handsome young president John F. Kennedy and the trained actor Ronald Reagan. At the turn of the twentieth century, the new technology was the Internet. The extent to which this mass media technology can enhance the power and reach of the president has yet to be fully realized.

Other presidents have used advances in transportation to take their case to the people. Woodrow Wilson traveled the country to advocate formation of the League of Nations. However, he fell short of his goal when he suffered a stroke in 1919 and cut his tour short. Both Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s and 1940s and Harry S. Truman in the 1940s and 1950s used air travel to conduct diplomatic and military business. Under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a specific plane, commonly called Air Force One, began carrying the president around the country and the world. This gives the president the ability to take his message directly to the far corners of the nation at any time.