The first citizen of a nation can be seen as an individual who is at the head of his institution and also one of his own citizens. It may seem ironic or even impossible that a person can assume such high standing while maintaining the typical image of his fellow men. But with the unique structure of the American Government and the many interesting facets of its President, the American Presidency can assume such roles. Since the military is headed by civilian control, the President’s status as Commander-in-Chief declares him as one of and head of the civilian population. The American President is the leader of his political party as chief of party, the ceremonial head of the American Government as chief of state, and a representation of the American People as the Chief Citizen. But since the President’s power is granted to serve his people, his status is also that which is in a way equal to or even subordinate to the citizens.
As Richard Neustadt explained, the President possesses “an extraordinary range of formal powers” and has “extraordinary status, ex officio” . But at the same time, the President, despite his “powers” cannot obtain results merely by giving orders. Rather, his power derives from the “power to persuade” 1. As the first citizen of the nation, the President is not a dictator of his people. Instead of giving orders, he must work as a fellow citizen to persuade his people into agreeing with his plans. With the President’s high status and influence, “what he could do tomorrow may supply today’s advantage” 1. Clearly, the President exerts great influence on the lives of the citizens and they very well know that “at some time, in some degree, the doing of their jobsmay depend upon the President” 1. The President takes on the ultimate leadership role among his fellow citizens. But he also is very much a part of the civilian population since he is “dependent on their citizens knowledge, judgment, and good will.” 1.
Craig Rimmerman in his work, The Rise of the Plebiscitary Presidency, speaks of “the executive with new sources of power”. Like Neustadt, he explains that the power of the presidency is mostly drawn from the popular support of the citizenry. The plebiscitary presidency, he claims, is characterized by “presidential power and legitimacy emanating from citizen support” 2 with a “direct link to the masses”2 Rimmerman confirms the president as the first citizen by describing the personal presidency as “an office of tremendous personal power drawn from the people.” 2 As head of the nation, the President undertakes a unifying role similar to rulers of other nations while “occupying the central political and cultural role as the chief spokesperson for the American way of life.” 2 Assuming these two roles clearly establish the President as the first citizen of his country.
Like the Legislative Branch, the American Presidency can also be viewed as a system of many paradoxes. Cronin and Genovese in their work, The Paradoxes of the American Presidency, describe the paradoxes that exist within the Presidency. In particular, they claim that the American People “crave to be governed by a president who is greater than anyone else yet not better than themselves.”3 This statement clearly sums up the President’s position as the first citizen – he is the leader of his people with special powers and privileges but also no better than and equal to his people. What the American people desired and many times acquired was a President who was cunning, intelligent, and even manipulative. At the same time, they also looked for an individual who mirrored their own behaviors – caring, compassionate, and enjoying normal pastimes – and can “lead them, but also listen to them” 3. Just as Carter introduced himself as “peanut farmer and nuclear physicist”3, he typified the President as the first citizen – being down to earth as well as slightly above others in certain respects such as intelligence. The US citizens are one of the few in the world that “calls on its chief executive to serve as its symbolic, ceremonial head of state and as its political head of government.” They seek a President that can assume different positions, making him the first citizen.
The common assumption of a ruler is that of an individual who possesses greater characteristics than his constituents and is “above” the average citizen in different respects. When looking back at the history of the United States Presidency, many a times the citizens had won themselves an individual who rose to be greater than the common ruler and truly assumed the role of first citizen. When examining the goal of the American Government and the foundation upon which it was founded, it is clear that the Founding Fathers as well the true American people have sought and viewed their leader as a capable individual whom they could call their own.
1. Presidential Power and the Modern PresidentsRichard Neustadt
2. The Rise of Plebiscitary PresidencyCraig Rimmerman
3. The Paradoxes of the American PresidencyThomas Cronin & Michael Genovese