Why Do We Need a President Anyway?

The White House. It wasn't always a given that the United States would have a commander in chief. Click to enlarge this image. iStockPhoto
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It wasn't always a given that we'd have a single executive who has the power to make final decisions about the fate of our country.

Every four years, political frenzy seizes the nation for months building up to the presidential election.

Often lost in the hoopla of the campaign trail, though, is the question of how it all began: Why do we have a president in the first place?

It wasn't always a given that we'd have a single executive who has the power to make final decisions about the fate of our country, historians say. When the Founding Fathers met to design the constitution, in fact, many were skeptical about appointing a chief.

They had a revolutionary view of European history, after all. And from what they'd seen, they worried that putting one person in charge would foster monarchy, tyranny and oppression.

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Only after a fizzled attempt to run the country through disparate committees in individual states did the creators of the United States Constitution decide at a historic convention in 1787 that there needed to be a strong national government with a leader on top.

"Things were not really efficient without an executive that has a certain amount of power," said James Pfiffner, a political scientist at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia. Psychologically, he added, people like to have leaders to look up to.

But making the call to create the Presidency was not easy.

"At the beginning of the convention when they decided there would be just one person as the executive," Pfiffner said, "there was in Madison's words 'a considerable pause.'"

After the United States declared independence from Great Britain in 1776, leaders spent years thinking about how to rule the country without becoming another monarchy, said Jack Rakove, professor of history and political science at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., and author of "Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America."

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By the time the Constitutional Convention convened in Philadelphia in 1787, every detail was up for grabs. Would there be one chief executive or more than one? What kinds of powers would he have? And perhaps most difficult of all, how would he be chosen?

At first, convention attendees -- which included James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington -- assumed that the legislature would pick the President, who would serve for seven years without opportunity for re-election. But Wilson and others argued that this system would make the chief merely a tool of Congress, giving them too much power.

After much haggling with no precedent to work from, the idea of an electoral college was born, though that term wouldn't be used until the 20th century. State legislatures would choose a certain number of electors proportional to the number of representatives that each state had. And a majority of electoral votes would be needed to pick a president.

It took a decade or two for states to settle on a system of allowing citizens to vote for the delegates that would represent their votes.

"The Framers found it hard to imagine how the President would be elected," Rakove said. "They came up with this crazy scheme of electors chosen by the states, but they couldn't imagine how it would work.

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"There was so much uncertainty about whether we would have a national character whom voters would know something about, and there was concern about what kind of influence the President would have in office," he added. "It was, I think, the biggest question mark in American constitutionalism in the beginning."

George Washington became the first President in 1789. It helped that he was such a strong leader who was universally trusted. Knowing that he would lead the way, Pfiffner said, the Framers bestowed the presidency with more powers than they otherwise might have, including the power of the veto.

The Framers finally settled on a term of four years with the possibility of reelection, which they figured would give the President incentive and keep him accountable.

Attendees of the original Convention might be surprised to see how powerful the office of the President has actually become. Despite checks and balances from Congress, for example, the President is ultimately the one who decides whether to send our nation to war.

At the same time, our country is more democratic and populist than it was in its early days. Now, African-Americans, women and people as young as 18 can vote. As a result, the President must respond to the opinions of far more people than he had to in previous generations.

As Americans head to the polls this season, most have lost sight of the history in their hopes and fears for the future.

"The current arrangements for selecting the president," Pfiffner wrote in his book "The Modern Presidency," "have taken on an aura of fixedness that was not at all certain until the closing days of the Constitutional Convention."