Chapter 25: The President as Person and Institution

“[Woodrow] Wilson’s administration was not overwhelmingly popular among intellectuals in its first few years—especially among those who thought that the Progressive movement should go beyond the effort to realize the old competitive ideals of small businessmen and do something about child labor, the position of Negroes, the condition of workingmen, and the demand for women’s suffrage.”

—Richard Hofstadter (1)


“Unelected bureaucrats and cabinet appointees were never going to steer Donald Trump in the right direction in the long run, or refine his malignant management style. He is who he is.”

—Anonymous (2)


The presidency is two things: a person—the president—who has prevailed in an electoral struggle to attain the White House, and the presidency is an institution—an infrastructure—that has developed over time to support and enable each president’s policies. That infrastructure—the institutional presidency—has largely been built up since the Great Depression and World War II. It is staffed by presidential appointees, some of whom require the Senate’s “advice and consent” and some of whom do not.

The President as Person

President Joe Biden
President Joe Biden

Fewer people have served as President of the United States as have served in any given year in the United States Senate. Presidents serve a four-year term and can be re-elected for one more term before they must leave office. The original Constitution placed no limits on the number of consecutive terms a president could serve. Franklin Roosevelt was elected in 1932, 1936, 1940, and 1944. In 1951, the Twenty-second Amendment came into effect. It states that “No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice, and no person who has held the office of President, or acted as President, for more than two years of a term to which some other person was elected President shall be elected to the office of the President more than once.” Thomas Jefferson would have liked the Twenty-second Amendment, for he wrote to James Madison from Paris after reading a copy of the Constitution and complained that it lacked what he called “rotation in office, and most particularly in the case of the President.” He worried that if we didn’t have term limits for the president, other nations would interfere in our political processes to keep someone in the presidency who served their interests rather than those of the American people. (3)

As of this writing, all American presidents have been men. Hillary Clinton came close to becoming the first female president in 2016, when she won the popular vote but lost the electoral college tally. All American presidents except Barack Obama have been White. Common occupations before becoming president include lawyer, U.S. senator, vice president, and state governor. About half of U.S. presidents have served in the military at some point in their life. Donald Trump was the only modern president never to have either served in the military or held any elected or appointed office before becoming president. Woodrow Wilson was the only political scientist professor ever to have been elected president.

When referring to the president, the Constitution uses “he” throughout and places few requirements on who can serve. At the time the Constitution was adopted, it said the president must be “a natural born citizen, or a citizen of the United States”; the president must have been a resident of the United States for at least fourteen years before assuming office; and the president must be at least thirty-five-years-old. When William McKinley was assassinated, Theodore Roosevelt became the youngest president at only forty-two-years-old, and John F. Kennedy was the youngest elected president at forty-three-years-old.

The Institutional Presidency

The president is a person, but the presidency is an institution—one of three co-equal branches of government. Think of the institution as all the bureaucracy surrounding the president to help them do their job. The presidency’s physical institution is the White House and the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, located just west of the White House. The people, entities, and agencies who help the president—who make up that bureaucracy—are called the president’s cabinet and the Executive Office of the President.

The Cabinet

At the 1787 Constitutional Convention and during the ratification debates, George Mason advocated that the president be ensconced in what he called “a constitutional council” composed of the president, two members from New England, two from the mid-Atlantic states, and two from the Southern states. (4) Mason’s proposal did not make it into the document. Instead, the Constitution says that the president “may require the opinion, in writing, of the principal officer in each of the executive departments.” From that prerogative, the cabinet evolved, the main role of which is to advise the president. Originally, the cabinet was composed of the Secretary of War, the Secretary of State, the Secretary of the Treasury, and the Attorney General. Think of the cabinet as the major executive agencies’ leaders and anyone else designated by the president to sit with that group. With the exception of the Vice President, cabinet members are approved by the Senate. In modern times, presidents typically do not gather all of their cabinet members at once and have real deliberations over policy—photo ops, maybe, but not true deliberations. Instead, presidents will gather some cabinet members as needed to discuss particular policy issues. As of this writing, the cabinet consists of the following offices:


Secretary of Agriculture Secretary of Health & Human Services Secretary of State
Attorney General Secretary of Homeland Security Secretary of Transportation
Director of the Central Intelligence Agency Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Secretary of the Treasury
Secretary of Commerce Secretary of the Interior U. S. Trade Representative
Secretary of Defense Secretary of Labor Secretary of Veterans Affairs
Secretary of Education Director of the Office of Management & Budget Vice President
Secretary of Energy Director of National Intelligence White House Chief of Staff
Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency Administrator of the Small Business Administration

The Executive Office of the President

The Executive Office of the President was created by Congress during the Franklin Roosevelt administration when the demands of modern government made it clear that the presidency needed a more extensive organization. The Executive Office of the President employs several thousand people. It comprises staff and agencies that directly support the president. As of this writing, the following are key components of the Executive Office of the President:

The White House Staff—The Chief of Staff manages the White House staff operations and often controls access to the president. The White House staff comprises key aides and support personnel who do not require Senate approval. Among these are the president’s secretarial staff, who are responsible for correspondence and calendaring;  the White House Legal Counsel, who advises the president on what he can and cannot do with respect to constitutional and statutory powers; the White House Press Secretary, who is responsible for all communications with the news media; the National Security Advisor, who coordinates security policy and the various agencies involved with those matters; the Office of Legislative Affairs, which is concerned with getting the president’s agenda through Congress; plus a variety of other offices dedicated to presidential trips, intergovernmental affairs, communication, economic policy, domestic policy, and so forth. Presidents typically have not had family members play roles on the White House staff, but there have been exceptions. President Clinton had his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, chair the National Commission on Health Care Reform. President Trump added his daughter, Ivanka Trump, to his staff as an Advisor to the President and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as an Assistant to the President and Senior Advisor. Neither were paid a salary for their services. The couple were reportedly “exasperated” with John Kelly, President Trump’s second Chief of Staff, and they both may have played a role in his leaving the administration. (5)

Important Support Agencies—The Executive Office of the President also contains a number of important support agencies. We won’t mention them all, but the following are most likely to be in the news:

  • Office of Management and Budget. Originally created in 1921 as the Bureau of the Budget in the Treasury Department, President Franklin Roosevelt moved it into the White House in 1939, and President Richard Nixon reorganized it and renamed it the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in 1970. The OMB is a powerful agency within the executive branch. According to the White House, the OMB assists the president with the following:
    • Developing and executing the budget.
    • Managing agency performance and oversight, human capital, federal procurement, financial management, and information technology.
    • Coordinating and reviewing all significant executive agencies’ federal regulations policy.
    • Coordinating the Legislative branch and providing them clearance.
    • Coordinating Executive Orders and Presidential Memoranda. (6)
  • National Security Council. The National Security Council (NSC) was established in 1947 by the National Security Act. Its responsibility is to advise the president and coordinate American security and foreign policy. Its disposition reflects the highly militarized way in which the United States views its foreign policy. In addition to the President, Vice President, and the National Security Advisor, the NSC’s principle members are the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the military, the Secretary of State, the Director of National Intelligence, the Secretary of Energy, and the Secretary of the Treasury.
  • Council of Economic Advisors. Established by Congress in the Employment Act of 1946, the Council of Economic Advisors is charged with providing the president helpful domestic and international economic policy analysis and guidance. The Council is composed of three prominent presidential appointed economists, one of whom is designated as the chairman, and a variety of other consulting economists who specialize in fields like international economics, housing economics, or healthcare economics. The people appointed to the Council of Economic Advisors share the president’s approach to economics and are often used by presidents to justify their actions regarding domestic and international economic policy.
  • Office of the United States Trade Representative. Established by Congress with the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, the Office of the United States Trade Representative is responsible for coordinating U.S. trade policy and negotiating international trade agreements. In its role, the U.S. Trade Representative has pursued a heavily pro-corporate agenda, opening up foreign markets to American capital, negotiating agreements that open up American markets to imports, promoting offshoring American jobs, and putting American workers in direct competition with lower-paid international workers who have fewer rights to organize and who typically don’t have as robust safety and environmental protections as U.S. workers. (7)

What if . . . ?

The Constitution doesn’t allow immigrants to become president. What if we changed that? Would you support or oppose such a change? If you support it, what limitations would you put on the practice?


  1. Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. New York: Vintage Books, 1962. Page 211.
  2. Anonymous, A Warning. Quoted in Lauren Frias, “Newly Released Excerpts from ‘A Warning’ Written by an Anonymous White House Official Paint a Wild Picture of the Trump Presidency,” Business Insider. November 7, 2019.
  3. Thomas Jefferson letter to James Madison. December 20, 1787. The National Archives.
  4. George Mason, Objections to the Constitution. In the Virginia Journaland the Alexandria Advertiser. November 19, 1787. Library of Virginia.
  5. Jessica Kwong, “Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner Must ‘Be Dealt With,’ John Kelly Says While Praising Melania Trump as a ‘Wonderful Person,’” Newsweek. May 8, 2019.
  6. The White House website.
  7. For an understanding of this perspective on globalization and the role of U.S. policy, see Joseph E. Stiglitz, Globalization and Its Discontents Revisited. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. Ian Bremmer, Us Versus Them: The Failure of Globalization. New York: Penguin, 2018.




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