The Constitution granted the presidency powers of its own, such as the power of commander in chief. Believing, however, in balanced government, the framers created a strong Congress and a judiciary to check the chief executive.
The first incumbent of the office, George Washington, was an assertive executive who was active in both foreign and domestic affairs and who interpreted his powers broadly and defended them against congressional encroachment. Thomas Jefferson exploited the presidential role of party leader and won exceptional congressional support. Under his weaker successors, however, the office was eclipsed by Congress.
Andrew Jackson revived the presidency by reinterpreting it as an organ of popular leadership. Abraham Lincoln, in the crisis of the Civil War, largely on his own claimed authority, expanded the armed forces, imposed a naval blockade, and used funds from the Treasury without congressional appropriation. Although Congress ratified many of Lincoln's acts after the deed, it soon reacted against the expanded power that he had given the presidency; his successor, Andrew Johnson, was impeached and narrowly escaped conviction. Through the rest of the 19th century the office's impact remained modest.
Theodore Roosevelt, the first 20th-century president, was the principal architect of the office's modernization. An extraordinarily gifted politician and popular leader, he campaigned for the conservation of natural resources and for government regulation of business. Woodrow Wilson was a vigorous president who pressed tariff reform and antitrust legislation and persuaded Congress to establish the Federal Reserve System and the Federal Trade Commission. Wilson led the country into World War I, but after his failure to secure Senate approval of the League of Nations, another reaction against the presidency set in. His successors Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover interpreted presidential power much more modestly.
The Depression of the 1930s, followed by World War II, produced an enormous expansion of presidential activity under Franklin Delano Roosevelt. This expansion continued during the cold war and the Korean War, when Harry S. Truman used the presidential powers fully by dispatching troops to South Korea without congressional approval. Although Dwight D. Eisenhower restored peace, the troubled relations with the USSR required him to maintain the armed forces and the nuclear arsenal at high levels. John F. Kennedy, preoccupied with crisis management, successfully managed the first nuclear confrontation with the USSR in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis while at the same time guiding the nation through a domestic crisis over civil rights. Lyndon Johnson's Great Society program enlarged the presidency's fast-growing commitment to the welfare state, but this expansion was limited by the financial demands of the escalating Vietnam War.
Richard Nixon ended that war and inaugurated a policy of détente toward the USSR. He clashed with Democratic Congresses, and the threat of impeachment for his implication in the Watergate break-in and related scandals forced him to resign. Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter struggled to restore popular confidence in the office and to cope with a reassertive Congress. Carter's difficulties in charting a decisive course and obtaining congressional cooperation during his single term in office helped reestablish public desire for a strong presidency and pave the way for public and congressional acceptance of many of Ronald Reagan's economic initiatives. Bill Clinton found himself at odds with both liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans and only made headway in Congress by adopting positions acceptable to Republicans.