Albert Bowman and
Robert A. Divine
In his foreword to Decision-Making in the White House by Theodore C. Sorensen, President John F. Kennedy wrote:
The American presidency is a formidable, exposed, and somewhat mysterious institution. It is formidable because it represents the point of ultimate decision in the American political system. It is exposed because decision cannot take place in a vacuum: the presidency is the center of the play of pressure, interest, and idea in the nation; and the presidential office is the vortex into which all the elements of national decision are irresistibly drawn. And it is mysterious because the essence of ultimate decision remains impenetrable to the observer—often, indeed, to the decider himself.
After more than two centuries of experience, there is no longer any doubt concerning the formidability of the presidency. The spare and general presidential powers conferred by the Constitution have evolved and developed in proportion to the phenomenal growth of the nation, although until recently at a much slower rate. A list of the powers included in Article II of the Constitution contains the barest hint of presidential power and authority today: the vesting in the president of the executive power of government, his designation as commander in chief of the military forces of the United States, the power to make treaties and to appoint ambassadors and other public officers—powers exercised in both cases in partnership with the Senate of the United States, and the authority to receive ambassadors and other public ministers. Perhaps the most interesting of the president's constitutional powers, since it touches on the mysterious process of decision making, is this: "he may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments."
The Constitution created no executive departments. That was left to the Congress, which on 27 July 1789 created the Department of Foreign Affairs (later changed to Department of State). It was headed by a secretary who was to conduct its business "in such manner as the president of the United States shall, from time to time, order or instruct."
It was hardly to be expected, however, that so formal a line of authority would be restrictive; and every president has to some degree relied on the counsel of advisers outside of and in addition to the Department of State. Indeed, in view of "the play of pressure, interest, and idea in the nation," an important element in arriving at wise presidential decisions may well lie in the diversity and quantity of opinions or, as they are now referred to, options among which to select. Limits are indispensable, of course, and the quality of the opinions, as well as the president's capacity to discriminate, are of the highest importance.
Mystery is inherent in the presidency, and it may seem paradoxical that the office is at the same time the most exposed one in the land. From George Washington, reluctant first president and probably the only one who did not aspire to the office with some degree of cupidity, to Richard Nixon, perhaps at the opposite extreme, the presidency of the United States has usually been described as a lonely eminence. Even those presidents who relished the power and majesty of the office managed to convey a sense of the solitary nature of the presidential decision-making process.
But the ultimate solitude of the presidency is not mysterious; the singular and final responsibility of the president is generally visible. The mystery, the impenetrability, lies in the sources of presidential decision, which, as Kennedy noted, may be unfathomable even by the president himself. If the president cannot always know how he decides, how can even the closest observer know? After declining a request to rate the performance of previous presidents, Kennedy exclaimed to Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., then serving as a White House special assistant: "How the hell can you tell? Only the president himself can know what his real pressures and his real alternatives are. If you don't know that, how can you judge performance?"
Presidents have the further advantage of making their decisions in private. Unlike Congress and the judiciary who conduct their business, for the most part, in public, the president cannot only keep the decision-making process secret, but he can keep the records sealed even after leaving office. A president may publicly state one thing while secretly planning another, he may say one thing in public and another in private, and he may inexplicably—even to his advisers—change his mind. But even more difficult for the student of presidential decision making is the deliberate obscuring of presidential intentions from everyone. Intimates of Franklin D. Roosevelt have been unanimous in attesting to his delight in mystifying even his closest lieutenants and in setting them at cross-purposes. Schlesinger, a Roosevelt biographer, assessed the Rooseveltian technique thus: "Once the opportunity for decision came safely into his orbit, the actual process of deciding was involved and inscrutable."
However mysterious and inscrutable the processes of presidential decision, there can be no doubt that every president has recognized the need of advice and counsel, if not consent. Nor can there be any doubt concerning at least two aspects of the presidential use of advisers: in addition to the formal, almost cryptic constitutional provision relating to "principal Officers of executive Departments," presidents have always solicited or received counsel from both public and private sources, and there has been an evolutionary growth in the number and variety of presidential advisers.
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