Because the presidency is the foremost prize of American politics, the president is also normally the nation's principal political leader and regarded as the leader of his political party. The president's skills in that task influence the success of the president's party in electing members of Congress and holders of state and local offices.
The president chooses the chairperson of the party's national committee and oversees the national committee and the national party bureaucracy. The president seeks to win and maintain the support of state and local party organizations, which in turn can aid in obtaining congressional enactment of the president's programs.
Presidents in some instances may persuade candidates to run for national, state, or local office. A popular president is expected to campaign for the party in congressional and other elections and to appear at party fund-raising functions. But a president whose popularity is declining, as President Clinton's was in the fall of 1994, may be shunned by legislators of his party seeking reelection.
As political and party leader, the president must build coalitions among interest groups. In order to win national elections, presidents must draw support from a variety of constituencies: ethnic and racial groups; businesspeople; labor leaders; and people who live in particular regions. Coalitions such as these may endure for many years. Elements of Franklin D. Roosevelt's new wide-ranging Democratic coalition, formed in the 1930s, played a part in Jimmy Carter's victory in 1976 and Clinton's in 1992 and 1996.
The president manages patronage for the party - that is, rewarding supporters with jobs. The president appoints cabinet and subcabinet officers, federal judges, U.S. attorneys, and ambassadors to foreign countries and fills several thousand other jobs of varying importance. The president also administers an executive pork barrel - the distribution of federal funds to be spent on public works, military installations, and social programs. The president is most likely to channel those funds into the districts of members of Congress who support the chief executive's legislative proposals.
If presidential legislative requests are to thrive in Congress, the president must exert political leadership on Capitol Hill, inducing legislators to support presidential policies. Varying degrees of persuasion are used, from soft-sell tactics to the tougher methods in which the member of Congress is made to realize that he or she will pay a price for refusal to comply. Among the most successful presidential persuaders were Lyndon B. Johnson, who had developed his techniques during years in the House and Senate, and Ronald Reagan. President Carter, in contrast, failed to achieve a close working relationship with the Congress, and this failure inevitably weakened the enactment of his legislative proposals.
The president accomplishes more on Capitol Hill when successful as a public leader. Presidents who excel at public leadership skillfully employ the dominant communications media of their day. Franklin D. Roosevelt perfected the informal radio talk known as the "fireside chat." Television was used memorably by Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan, who appeared as calm and fatherly figures, and by John F. Kennedy, who, in his televised press conferences, exuded youth and charm. The president has almost unlimited access to this visual medium from which most Americans acquire their news and political information. The modern president's large share of the public limelight, however, focuses attention on all aspects of the office; should the president lose the public's confidence, grave consequences may follow, as they did for President Nixon, whose efforts to extricate himself from Watergate only succeeded in worsening the scandal. Bill Clinton faced investigation and litigation of Whitewater, a real estate venture, and of alleged personal misconduct, both matters stemming from the years of his governorship of Arkansas. Matters were complicated in 1998 by allegations of sexual misconduct in the White House, and these led to the impeachment of Clinton on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice in December 1998. He was only the second president in history to be impeached, the first being Andrew Johnson. Like Johnson, he was acquitted. The Clinton administration, in addition, faced continuing scrutiny over questionable fund-raising practices during the 1996 reelection campaign.
The president gains special credentials as a political leader by winning election to office, a supreme political test. Beyond satisfying constitutional requirements (the president must be 35 years old, a "natural-born citizen," and a U.S. resident for 14 years prior to election), most contemporary presidential candidates must also undergo the physically exhausting test of entering up to 30 or more primary elections and party caucuses in various parts of the country.
The person running for president must also formulate a strategy that will win a majority of the electoral votes. These are supplied by a geographical combination of states, such as Carter's combination of states in the South and Northeast in 1976. Clinton's 1992 and 1996 victories owed much to his sweep of the industrial Northeast, the first such Democratic successes since Johnson's 1964 win. Because presidential elections are often close, the candidate's strategic choices as to the states in which to make the greatest efforts can be crucial to victory or defeat.