What Say You, Mr. President?

USA TODAY, November 2016 | Go to article overview

What Say You, Mr. President?


"POWERS OF THE PRESIDENT" is designed to explore the nature of Executive Branch power under the Constitution, and how various presidents have exercised it. The exhibit uses historic documents from the National Archives and the presidential libraries of Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush, and includes media and interpretive graphics to showcase how presidents have been defining and redefining the office while testing the boundaries of presidential power over time.

"As America selects a new president, this exhibit explores what the Constitution actually says about presidential powers and how they have been interpreted over time," notes Jeffrey Rosen, president and CEO of the National Constitution Center. "We are thrilled to have assembled significant original documents about Executive power from the National Archives and other lenders across America."

The exhibition explores several presidential powers contained primarily in Article II of the Constitution: vetoing legislation, issuing pardons, the ability to appoint and remove Federal officers, and the powers that come with being chief executive, chief diplomat, and commander in chief. It also examines how presidents have tested the limits of their authority and how they have used the office's "bully pulpit" to reach the American people. In each exhibit case, key documents present a variety of presidential actions, some well known, others not.

In "Powers," visitors will learn more about the veto power of the individual who holds the highest office in the land. The Constitution authorizes presidents to veto, or reject, any legislation passed by Congress that they do not wish to sign into law. Visitors can view presidential vetoes from Herbert Hoover, Ronald Reagan, Andrew Johnson, and the 1832 veto of the rechartering of the Second National Bank from Andrew Jackson, which set a precedent future presidents would follow.

Along with leading the Executive Branch, the president assumes the role of overseeing the nation's military and foreign affairs. The "chief' powers case highlights the president's role as chief diplomat, empowering him to negotiate treaties (with the Senate's consent) and receive foreign ambassadors, and commander in chief, guaranteeing the American people civilian military control. Taking the lead in defense and diplomacy often tests the limits of presidential powers against the other branches of government.

As part of the exhibit, George Washington's Acts of Congress will be displayed. On loan from Mount Vernon, the Acts of Congress contains Washington's handwritten notes on his personal copy of the Constitution, highlighting the powers and duties of his new office.

Another power of the president, the pardon, is not subject to congressional or judicial review, but there are limitations--they only can be granted for Federal offences and cannot be applied to impeachments cases. Presidents can issue an unlimited number of pardons while in office, typically in the hundreds, but some have granted 1,000 or more. Most go unnoticed, but some pardons have reaped considerable attention and provoked controversy. Visitors can view the ceremonial copy of Gerald Ford's 1974 pardon of Richard Nixon along with a letter from third-grader Anthony Ferreira--sent to Pres. Ford three days after the pardon--saying, "I think you are half right and half wrong."

The Framers constructed the Constitution to ensure the president's powers would remain in check, yet all presidents who serve long enough test the limits of their Executive authority. In the tests of power case, visitors learn about the role of "We the People" when it comes to keeping the president in bounds, as well as the role of Congress and the courts. …

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