In the two-and-a-half centuries since America’s founding, the world has seen a staggering number of technological innovations. From Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, to Thomas Edison’s light bulb, to Steve Jobs’ iPhone, there are no shortage of technological advances that have dramatically altered the way Americans live their day-to-day lives. It’s only natural these innovations would dramatically alter the presidency as well, in ways even the founders could not have predicted. The past century especially has seen radical advances in communications, transportation, and weapons technology, all of which have endowed the presidency with far greater powers, and as Ben Parker would say, far greater responsibility. 

Perhaps the technology which has most profoundly impacted the presidency is one whose own impact can be tangibly measured: the nuclear weapon, a weapon capable of incredible destruction once consigned to the realm of science fiction.1 Lincoln is infamous for having said, “I am the President of the United States, clothed with immense power.” And yet, Lincoln could not have conceived of the kind of destructive power presidents now wield. President Truman was the first president to use this power, the only president to use this power, and in fact, the only person in world history to use this power. Truman ordered the bomb to be dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in an effort to bring a swift end to the war, and perhaps more cynically, to justify the expenditure of the Manhattan Project.2 Regardless of the reasoning, the fact that one person—the President—has it within their capacity to level cities with one action is awesome in the literal sense of the word. 

President Kennedy, too, had to lead in a world still just learning how to crawl with respect to nuclear weaponry. During his presidency the tensions of the Cold War peaked culminating in the Cuban Missile Crisis, an event that brought the entire world to the brink of nuclear war.3 No event better illustrates the burden placed on the presidency by nuclear weapons. One false step by Kennedy during this crisis could have quickly escalated to a total nuclear war resulting in the deaths of millions. Presidents have presided over immeasurably important events before—Lincoln and the Civil War, Woodrow Wilson and World War I—but nuclear weapons have made the magnitude of their decisions far greater than what could have been dreamt at the office’s inception. In some sense, this technology alone prevents the president from ever being relegated to a purely administrative role, as was once considered normal. 

The nuclear weapon was not the only technology to play a central role in Kennedy’s presidency. While previous presidents had made use of television, Kennedy was the was the first to use the technology to its full potential.4 JFK is famous for his wit, charm, and exceptional charisma, and it was television that truly allowed his youthful personality to be seen to its fullest extent. Unlike previous presidents who used TV for formal speeches, Kennedy relied on the informal press conference format. He deftly handled questions from reporters, displaying to the American people, “his wit, intellectual sure-footedness, and physical attractiveness.”5 Similar to FDR’s fireside chats, this allowed Kennedy to appeal directly to the American people and place public pressure on Congress.6 This shows how television and other forms of mass communication have greatly enhanced the president’s role and capacity as the nations agenda setter. Eighteenth or nineteenth century presidents simply did not have the same reach modern presidents enjoy.  

However, technology has not exclusively benefited those who occupy the office of the presidency. Indeed, technology is often a double edged sword that can be implemented by adversaries on either side. The Nixon presidency displays this double edged nature of technology beautifully. Nixon was not the first president to record conversations and meetings within the White House, but he was the first president to have that technology facilitate his own demise. What ultimately led to Nixon’s resignation was the finding of the so called “Smoking Gun Tape”, which provided proof Nixon engaged in obstruction of justice during the Watergate scandal.7 While modern technology has given greater destructive and communicative powers to presidents, it has also forced upon the presidency a greater degree of transparency. In the century before Nixon, the American people at large had no idea what their president sounded like. Now not only could they hear his voice, they could hear the uncouth and incriminating backroom conversations of the president. Nixon’s scandal, “left the presidency itself an object of suspicion and scorn,”8 which shows how technology has created an even greater responsibility for the president to remain above reproach for sake of the institutions reputation.

Like the communications and weapons technology mentioned above, modern transportation has also transformed the presidency. When the office was created, horses were the fastest form of transportation. A century later, railroads connected the country, but even then traveling across states, or to distant parts of the globe, was a matter of days and weeks. Now, the president can travel to any country desired in a matter of hours aboard the comfortable Air Force One. This has fostered an even greater role for the president in foreign affairs. Presidents can now meet face-to-face with foreign leaders as needed. Nixon did this with his trip to China in an effort to rebuild a damaged relationship. Bush II did this when he invited Manmohan Singh to the White House to build a friendship with India. And Obama did this when he visited the Middle East shortly after taking office. This ease of transportation, alongside instant communication technology, has furthered the notoriety of presidents on a global scale previously impossible.

The presidency has seen many transformations since it began some two centuries ago, and technology has played a massive role in facilitating these transformations. The advent of nuclear weapons has placed more responsibility and power in the hands of the president than was once thought possible. Instant, nation-wide communication has shined a spotlight on the presidency, allowing presidents to speak directly to the people, while also putting a microscope on the office itself. And the ease of transportation across the globe has given the president an even greater role in foreign affairs. As technology continues to evolve, so too will the presidency. And where the institution will be a century from now depends not only on future innovation, but on future presidents adapt to these innovations.

 

Endnotes

  1. Class Notes, March 30th, 2017.
  2. Class Notes, April 25th, 2017.
  3. Class Notes, April 27th, 2017.
  4. Milkis, Sidney M, and Michael Nelson. The American Presidency: Origins and Development, 1776-2014. Washington, D.C: CQ Press, 2008. Print. 353.
  5. Et al.
  6. Et al.
  7. Class Notes, May 2nd, 2017.
  8. Milkis, Sidney M, and Michael Nelson. The American Presidency: Origins and Development, 1776-2014. Washington, D.C: CQ Press, 2008. Print. 380.

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