The New York Times Upfront
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The World's Hardest Job

It's 6 a.m. in the White House, and there's no time for breakfast. Your National Security Adviser is waiting in the West Wing to brief you on the crisis in Bosnia. You guzzle a cup of coffee and sign off on a budget proposal to be sent to Congress, before an aide reminds you that the Israeli ambassador is on his way for a meeting. While you wait, you put the finishing touches on a speech. Then you check your schedule: You have a meeting with the Speaker of the House at 11 a.m. And members of the U.S. Olympic team will be on the White House lawn at noon for a ceremony. And that's all before lunch.

Welcome to a typical day in the life of the President of the United States — the man with the hardest job in the world. He's Commander in Chief of the armed forces, the country's top legislator, and the leader of his political party. His decisions can trigger war, inspire peace, and change the fate of every nation on earth. All for an annual salary of $200,000, a fraction of what a top athlete makes.

What is it like to stand in the President's shoes?

"No one can experience with the President of the United States the glory and agony of his office," said President Lyndon Johnson. "No one can share the burden of his responsibilities, or the scope of his duties."

Founding Fathers

Is this what our Founding Fathers had in mind when they created the post of President in 1787? Not exactly. The only roles the Constitution assigns to the President are those of Commander in Chief and chief executive of the federal government. The rest of the job description was left blank. But as the nation grew and experienced wars and economic crises, Americans increasingly looked to the President for leadership. And strong Presidents from Abraham Lincoln to Woodrow Wilson to Franklin Roosevelt answered the call, overcoming grave national emergencies by expanding the power of their office.

Now, as President Bill Clinton nears the end of his second term, some critics wonder if the world's toughest job has become too tough. Pointing to scandals and policy failures that have marred the record of recent Presidents, they say the Presidency has become too demanding for any one person to handle.

"Each Presidency of the last 30 years began with optimism and enthusiasm, and ended on a down note," says Theodore Lowi, government professor at Cornell University. "Recent Presidents are remembered more for what they couldn't accomplish, not for what they did."

Other analysts say that while the Presidency has had it ups and downs, it remains the most effective elected office in the world. The job's growing responsibility, they say, has only heightened its prestige. "George Washington was called on to lead 13 fractious states," says Dom Bonafede, an expert on the Presidency at American University. Today, "Bill Clinton is the leader of the entire world."

Below, we examine four key factors that have shaped the modern Presidency. As you read, ask yourself: Has the office become too powerful and complex? What kind of person can handle such pressure and responsibility? What qualities should we look for in electing the most powerful person in the world?

The Imperial Presidency

Although the Presidency is more than 200 years old, the greatest changes in the office have occurred in just the last 60 years.

Much of the growth in Presidential power is the work of one man: Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt became President during the Great Depression of the 1930s, one of the worst crises in American history. With half the country out of work, and millions of people on the verge of starvation, Roosevelt took bold action. His New Deal programs gave the government responsibility for providing Americans with work, welfare, food, and health care, areas the federal government had never been involved in before. These new programs vastly expanded the federal governmentand the power of the President who ran them.

"Our idea of the modern active President is Roosevelt," Lowi says. "He stretched his power to unprecedented lengths".

Roosevelt's successors took on even greater power. Both John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson used the office to champion civil rights. Johnson and his successor, Richard Nixon, dramatically increased the President's foreign-policy role by sending troops to fight in the Vietnam War (1964-1975) without consulting Congress.

Critics say this continual growth of power has created an "imperial Presidency," an office with greater powers than the Constitution allows. Many of these powers rightfully belong to state and local governments, they charge. Others worry that so much power in the hands of one person can lead to abuse. President Nixon, for example, conducted illegal spying and other criminal activities out of the White House with little restraint.

But this same power can be the key to a successful Presidency. "We applaud leaders who get things done," says Bonafede.

Even though the President has grown stronger, he still faces a major obstacle to having his way: Congress.

The Constitution says that only Congress can pass laws. So the President depends on Congress to pass his program. "This isn't easy," says historian Paul Boller. "Even the strongest President can't run the country on his own."

The Rise of Gridlock

Sometimes the relationship between Congress and the President works smoothly. Strong Presidents like Roosevelt and Johnson were able to steamroll legislation through Congress.

But today, especially when Congress and the President come from different parties, Congress is less likely to let the President have his way. "Congress is trying to put the brakes on," says Richard Byers of George Washington University. It's not that the President suddenly has any less power. It's just harder for him to use it."

No one knows this better than President Clinton. Clinton, a Democrat, came to office with ambitious plans, like reforming the nation's health-care system. But Congress delayed, altered, or watered down his plans and killed his health-care proposal outright. Since the Republicans gained control of Congress in 1995, the problem has gotten worse: Every major proposal has turned into a fierce tug of war, with neither side giving an inch.

This kind of gridlock cuts both ways: at worst, it can make it impossible for the President to get things done; but it also prevents either branch from gaining too much power. The Constitution "almost mandates conflict," Lowi says. "It's not pretty, but it's checks and balances at work."

The Character Issue

The hardest part of the President's job may be getting elected in the first place. Today, anyone who makes it to the Oval Office must first endure a grinding Presidential campaign. A candidate's character may be attacked, his personal life placed under a microscope, and his every utterance ruthlessly analyzed.

Every President since Washington has weathered criticism. But the unrelenting personal scrutiny Presidents face today dates from the 1970s, when reporters helped uncover President Nixon's role in the Watergate scandal. Since then, everything about a President, from his family life to his high school report card, is fair game. "Anyone who thinks about running for President these days must prepare for the likelihood of personal attacks", says Joan Hoff, of the Center for the Study of the Presidency. "Nothing is out-of-bounds." The impeachment trial of President Clinton is a particularly salient example of a president's personal life affecting his political life.

This media "feeding frenzy" may discourage qualified people from seeking the Presidency. "Even a Jefferson or a Lincoln would not campaign for the office today", says David Herbert Donald, a biographer of Lincoln. A case in point is General Colin Powell, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Earlier this year, Powell considered running for President, but decided against it, primarily, many believe, to avoid putting his family through the rigors of a Presidential campaign.

This process, though unforgiving, does have the advantage of weeding out those who aren't up to the task. "The leaders who make a difference are the ones who are determined to hang in there with stamina and grit ", says New York Times political writer William Safire. "They must be willing to take the abuse in return for the opportunity to serve."

Would You Want This Job?

Do we expect too much from the President? "We know he's human, but we expect him to be Superman", says Barber. Indeed, one reason we think of the last few Presidents as failures, Barber says, may be because they could never live up to our unrealistic expectations. "We ask him to be all things to all people. Of course he can't fulfill that role."

On the other hand, being the world's most powerful leader is an awesome job. Why shouldn't he be held to the highest standards? "This isn't a job that just anybody can do", says Lowi. "When you run for President, you know what you're getting into. These guys aren't wimps. The greats get hit with the slings and arrows, but we remember them as still standing at the end of the day."

Still, as President Clinton puts it: "This job looks a lot easier when you're not sitting where I am."

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