‘The power of the presidency declined under Truman.’ Assess the validity of this view.

Introduction

  • Truman became president during the Second World War following the death of Roosevelt. He was therefore ‘unelected’.
  • This put Truman in a unique situation and has contributed to a perception that the power of the presidency declined during his administration.
  • In order to assess this statement, the perceptions of him internationally and at home must be considered along with the context of his presidency.
  • Overall, the power of the presidency did not decline in real terms under Truman.

Arguments against the statement…

  • International Perceptions: America had just won the Second World War and were the strongest superpower in the world, especially in terms of economics. For many in eastern Europe and in other regions, America represented liberty and freedom and this strengthened the presidency as Truman was able to exert more influence abroad eg. Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan.
  • Influence of Roosevelt: It could be argued that the transition from Roosevelt to Truman increased people’s perception that the power of the presidency was declining when in reality this was not the case. Roosevelt was a well loved president who had navigated America through the Great Depression. Truman therefore had big boots to fill and this made him appear weaker as a president.
  • Executive Orders: Truman used executive orders during his presidency to advance African-American civil rights. Executive Order 9981 began the desegregation of the army. This shows that the power of the presidency was still strong as Truman knew that a Bill of that nature would never pass through congress and so an executive order was needed. The power of the president as an individual within the political system is clear here.

Arguments for the statement…

  • War of Vetoes: Truman had to deal with the greatest number of vetoes passed against a president in American History as he largely dealt with a Republican congress. This meant that the perception of the presidency within the political system was that Truman was trapped and had very limited power.
  • 2nd Term Amendments: Many people in America, especially Republicans following the war, felt that Roosevelt had been able to stay in power for too long and this conflicted with American ideas about checks and balances. Therefore a new law was introduced limiting presidents to only 2 terms and this may be further evidence to suggest that the power of the presidency did indeed decline under Truman.
  • The role of organised labour: Truman faced increased demand from unions for higher wages and a wave of strikes occurred in 1946 which impacted negatively on the economy. Certainly for any future democrat nominee, the power of the presidency did decline as Truman took a hard-line with them and threatened to draft workers who went on strike. Unionists were traditionally democrat supporters and Truman lost them a key sector of their support base. Furthermore, this challenge to the government damaged the perception of the presidency and made Truman look weaker as a result.

Conclusion

  • Overall, the power of the presidency did not decline under Truman.
  • He was president during the post war period and therefore the economic conditions and public reaction to them made Truman appear weaker.
  • However, Truman was still able to pass executive orders and was leading the most powerful country in the world at that time.
  • It is little wonder therefore that he was re-elected in 1948.
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