Read an Excerpt
A Kid's Guide to Picking Our President
By Dan Gutman
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2012 Dan Gutman
All rights reserved.
Why do we have a president?
When the Revolutionary War ended in 1781 and America had won its independence from England, we didn't have a president. We didn't have a Constitution, either. At least not right away.
At first, the new nation was governed by Congress, which was a group of representatives from each of the thirteen original states. The problem was that each state had very different opinions about the way the country should be run.
There were arguments between states. At one point, Connecticut was claiming that it owned a large part of Pennsylvania.
It became clear that a stronger central government was needed to pull all the states together in a way that would be fair to all, big and small, north and south, rural and urban.
From May 25 through September 17, 1787, the "Founding Fathers" of our country gathered together at the old State House in Philadelphia. There, they wrote the Constitution, which is the foundation of our government. According to the Constitution, the executive branch of our government would be headed by a president. (For more about our government, see Chapter 2: Our Government.)
THE CONSTITUTION (Article II, Section 1):
"The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America."
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Who were the Founding Fathers?
They were fifty-five delegates from the twelve states (Rhode Island did not participate). Some were lawyers. Some were farmers. You may have heard some of their names before: George Washington, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin. Thomas Jefferson was in Europe at the time.
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What about the "Founding Mothers"?
In the 1700s, women were not believed to be capable of making important decisions. They did not participate in our government until attitudes toward women changed much later. (See Chapter 5: Voting. "Are there any grown-ups who aren't allowed to vote?")
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Why didn't the Founding Fathers make the head of our government a king?
America had fought a bloody war to break away from the tyrannical rule of England's King George III. Americans did not want to start a new nation based on the same system that England had. They felt that the people could rule themselves. So they created a new form of government, one that was run by the people and not by a single person. (See Chapter 2: Our Government.)
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So is the president the boss of the United States?
Not really. The first words of the Preamble to the Constitution are "We, the people ..." The people of the United States are the boss of the president, not the other way around. The president, as well as all our representatives, are selected by the people they will lead.
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But isn't the president of the United States the most powerful person in the world?
You could say that, but in the structure of our government, the president is not as powerful as you might think. Without the cooperation of the public, the Congress, and the courts, he is really powerless.
For instance, the president doesn't determine how the United States spends its money. Every year he has to present a budget to Congress and fight for its approval. And the Congress can pass a bill even if the president vetoes it.
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A bill? A veto? What does that mean?
A bill is a proposed law. The laws of this country are made by Congress, not by the president. When a bill is approved by the Congress, it is sent to the president. If he signs it, it becomes a law. If he disagrees with the new bill, he can veto, or strike it down. He doesn't sign the bill. Then it goes back to Congress.
If the president vetoes a bill, it can still become a law if two-thirds of the Congress vote in favor of it. The bill will also become law if the president doesn't respond to it within ten days.
The Founding Fathers did not make it easy to pass new laws—on purpose. And they made sure the president's powers were very limited.
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But isn't the president commander in chief of the armed forces?
Yes, but even there, presidential power is limited. For instance, the president cannot declare war on another country. Only Congress has that power.
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So what's the point of being commander in chief?
To defend the interests of the United States, the president does have the power to order our troops into action without a formal declaration of war. We never officially declared war in the Korean War (1950–1953), the Vietnam War (1957–1975), the Persian Gulf War (1991), or the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. These were "presidential wars."
According to the War Powers Act of 1973, the president has to withdraw our troops after ninety days unless Congress approves continuing the military action.
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It doesn't sound like the president has much power at all.
The president does have enormous influence. The president can recommend new laws be passed, as presidents do in their annual State of the Union address. He is also the leader of a political party. (See Chapter 2: Our Government.) He will help decide that party's positions, support party members in elections, and appoint members of that party to top government jobs.
The president can make treaties with other nations (with the consent of the Senate). He can also grant pardons to people who have been convicted of federal crimes.
And, of course, the president of the United States has the one ultimate power: the decision to use nuclear weapons. When we dropped the atomic bomb to end World War II, President Harry Truman had to make that agonizing decision and take responsibility for it.
That's a lot of power. Plus, the president also has something called "Executive Power."
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What is "Executive Power"?
It is a special power the president has in times of emergency. When Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1853 to free the slaves, he didn't get anyone's approval first. The nation was being ripped apart by the Civil War. He felt it was the right thing to do, so he did it.
Similarly, Thomas Jefferson made the decision in 1803 to purchase the Louisiana Territory from France for $15 million. (There are some houses today that cost that much money!) The president of the United States doesn't have the power to buy land. But Jefferson saw the opportunity to more than double the size of the country, so he pounced on it before Napoléon, the leader of France, could change his mind. Jefferson didn't get permission from Congress until after the fact.
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What are the president's responsibilities?
When you watch the news, it may seem like the president's job is to shake hands, attend celebrations, give out awards, get his picture taken, and throw out the first ball at baseball games. Actually, the president of the United States wears many hats and has one of the most difficult jobs in the world.
The official title of the president is "Chief Executive." His duties are many. Take a deep breath. The president must:
Sign bills into law. Prepare an annual budget. Appoint public officials, generals, ambassadors (with consent of the Senate), and Supreme Court justices (also with consent of the Senate).
He must set foreign policy, maintain relationships with other world leaders, and help them resolve their differences (as President Carter did with Israel and Egypt in 1979). He must oversee military operations, call special sessions of Congress in times of emergency, and keep the Congress informed by giving his annual State of the Union address.
As head of state, the president is the symbol of the United States, so he must do whatever he can to promote American interests.
The first responsibility, when the president is elected, is to make up his cabinet.
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Can't the president just go to a store and buy a cabinet?
Not that cabinet! You see, if you were to sum up the president's job in just two words, it would be to "enforce laws." But obviously, in a nation of more than 300 million people, the president can't do that job alone. The "cabinet" is a group of people who assist the president. They are his experts.
Members of the cabinet include: secretary of state, secretary of the treasury, secretary of defense, attorney general, secretary of the interior, secretary of agriculture, secretary of transportation, and there are also secretaries in charge of veterans affairs, education, energy, housing and urban development, health and human services, labor, and commerce.
Each of these heads of a government department is chosen for his or her knowledge and experience in that particular field. They don't vote; they are advisers. They are selected by the president and must be approved by the Senate.
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What are the First Lady's responsibilities?
Even though the president's spouse has no stated responsibilities and receives no pay, it is also a very difficult job.
We don't have royalty in the United States, but the wives of our presidents are close to royalty. Their every word, action, and hairstyle are noticed, and criticized. From the beginning, First Ladies have realized they had influence. They each found a way to use that influence, being careful not to appear too powerful, as they are not elected by the people.
"I am in a position where I can do the most good to help the most people," Eleanor Roosevelt said. She traveled the world, held press conferences, gave lectures, spoke on the radio, and wrote newspaper columns fighting for human rights and justice for all Americans. That set the tone for the modern First Lady devoted to social causes.
Lady Bird Johnson campaigned to make the highways of America more beautiful. Betty Ford fought for women's rights and founded a famous center for alcohol and drug rehabilitation. Rosalynn Carter worked for mental health reform. Nancy Reagan led the war on drugs. Barbara Bush and Laura Bush promoted literacy. Hillary Rodham Clinton campaigned to improve the nation's health care system. Michelle Obama fought against childhood obesity.
Someday there will be a female president. If she is married, there will be a "First Gentleman." Like the First Ladies before him, he will carve out his own role.
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Does the president get paid?
Yes. George Washington, our first president, received a salary of $25,000 a year. That may not seem like much money, but remember that a dollar went a lot farther in 1789. (In fact, it has been said that George Washington threw one across the Delaware River.)
Sorry. A little presidential humor.
In 1873, the presidential salary was doubled, to $50,000. Then it was increased to $75,000 in 1909, to $100,000 in 1949, and to $200,000 in 1969. Today, the president earns $400,000 a year.
The president does not have to pay for his house, his office staff, postage, electricity, or telephone service. He does have to pay for his own personal expenses, such as food, parties, and receptions that are not related to government business.
In the late 1920s, baseball star Babe Ruth was earning the then-enormous salary of $80,000. A newspaper reporter asked Ruth if he deserved to be making more money than President Hoover.
"Sure," Ruth replied. "I had a better year than he did."
THE CONSTITUTION (Article II, Section 1):
"The President shall, at stated Times, receive for his Services, a Compensation, which shall neither be encreased nor diminished during the Period for which he shall have been elected, ..."
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Where does the president live?
The president lives and works in the White House, in Washington, D.C. The street address is 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
The White House was designed by James Hoban in 1792 and was built while George Washington was in office. He was our only president who did not live in the White House.
Over the years the mansion has gone through a lot of changes (the British almost totally burned it down in 1814). Today, the White House has 132 rooms. In addition to the Oval Office, where the president works, and the president's living quarters, the White House has a barber shop, doctor's office, dental clinic, tailor shop, beauty salon, machine shop, plumbing shop, gym, tennis court, basketball court, bowling alley (Nixon once bowled a score of 233), heated pool, game room, and even a movie theater.
The White House is so big, it has thirty-two toilets!
Close to one hundred people work in the White House. Every piece of furniture gets polished daily.
Before 9/11, the White House was open to the public for tours of the first floor. Now, it is necessary to get special permission from your senator or representative to take the tour.
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Why has there been just one African-American president and not a single female president?
In a word, bigotry. Women were not even allowed to vote until 1920. (See Chapter 5: Voting.) Up until the 1960s, in some parts of our country, African Americans had to attend separate schools, eat in separate restaurants, sleep in separate hotels, use separate bathrooms, and even drink from separate water fountains. Under such conditions, a black or female president of the United States would have been unthinkable.
But that didn't stop their efforts. As far back as 1872, a woman named Victoria Woodhull ran for president representing the Equal Rights Party. Her vice presidential running mate was a black man, freed slave and famous speaker Frederick Douglass.
In more recent years, Shirley Chisholm, who was black and female, made a serious run for the Democratic nomination in 1972. In 1984, Democrat Geraldine Ferraro of New York was the vice presidential running mate of Walter Mondale (they lost the election). Elizabeth Dole ran for the Republican nomination in 1999. Prior to 2008, the most serious attempt by an African American was by the Reverend Jesse Jackson, who attracted a lot of support in 1984 and 1988.
Attitudes toward woman and minority groups have changed dramatically over the last forty years. They now serve as mayors, governors, senators, and representatives all over the country.
Today, most Americans cast their vote for the person they think will do the best job, not the person of a certain gender or skin color. In 2008, African American candidate Barack Obama was elected president. It is only a matter of time until the United States has a female president.
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Has there ever been a president who wasn't elected to the office?
Yes, once. It was Gerald Ford, the thirty-eighth president.
Here's how it happened: In 1973, Vice President Spiro Agnew was accused of failing to pay his taxes when he was the governor of Maryland. He resigned. Richard Nixon, who was president at the time, appointed Gerald Ford to take Agnew's place as vice president.
As it turned out, the following year President Nixon resigned, and Vice President Ford became the first president who was never elected.
For a more complete story of what happened to President Nixon, see later in this chapter: Has a president ever resigned?
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What about Lyndon Johnson? Didn't he just get to be president because President Kennedy was assassinated?
Yes, but he had been elected vice president already.
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How long does the president stay in office?
The king of a country will very often stay in power until he decides to step down, is overthrown, or dies. In the United States, the president holds office for a specific period of time. As it says in the Constitution (Article II, Section I): "He shall hold his Office during the Term of four Years ..."
When George Washington's first four-year term was over, he ran for reelection and won a second term. Many people wanted Washington to run for a third term, but he refused. After that, it became tradition for the president to serve a maximum of two terms.
In 1940 much of the world was engulfed in war, and America was in the midst of the Great Depression. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was urged to run for a third term of office, and he won. He was our only president to serve more than two terms.
Four years later, with the United States now fighting in World War II, Roosevelt ran for a fourth term, and he won again. He died before that term was over. Roosevelt was president for twelve years.
Many people felt that four terms of office were too many. In 1951, the Twenty-second Amendment to the Constitution was passed, stating, "No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice, ..."
For your information, senators are elected to six-year terms, and members of the House of Representatives are elected to two-year terms.
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Why is the president's term of office four years?
When the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution, they argued quite a bit about how long the president's term of office should be. First, they decided on six years. Then they changed their mind and decided it should be eleven. Then it was fifteen. Then it was seven. Finally, they agreed on four years.
Four years gives the president enough time to get used to the job and get good work accomplished. It is not so long that a poor president can do much damage to the nation.
Abraham Lincoln once said, "no administration, by any extreme of wickedness or folly, can very seriously injure the government in the short space of four years."
Excerpted from Election! by Dan Gutman. Copyright © 2012 Dan Gutman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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