Bill of Rights Institute

Educating Young People about the Constitution

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Debate about the limits of the president's power began at the Constitutional Convention and continues today. James Madison, considered the "Father of the Constitution," believed that strict limits on federal power were best for liberty. Powers of the federal government which were not enumerated in the Constitution were forbidden. Many later Presidents agreed with Madison, while others, beginning with Theodore Roosevelt, took a more expansive view of the scope of federal power. Theodore Roosevelt was the first President to argue that powers not forbidden were granted. He presided over the greatest expansion of federal power in our nation's history to that time.

While the President has the power to "recommend measures" to Congress which he believed are necessary, the President is not a lawmaker. Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson, capitalizing on what Theodore Roosevelt had called the "bully pulpit," were open advocates of policies they believed were needed, and which also increased the size and power of the central government. Ronald Reagan worked decrease the side of the national government and restore what he saw as the rightful place of states in our federal system. Tension between these two understandings (expressed powers and implied powers), and debate over the outcomes of their exercise, has persisted throughout American history.

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