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Prime Minister of the United States

There is no Prime Minister of the United States, but as an informal phrase it can be used to refer to aspects of governance of the United States. It is used occasionally in one of three contexts; to suggest that some individual within the administration of a president has an excessive degree of power or influence and so in effect de facto runs the administration on a day by day basis, to refer to someone outside the administration whose perceived importance in the process of governance makes them a key player in lawmaking, or by someone who thinks that there is a prime minister in the United States. Contrary to the latter belief, however, there is no such constitutional office as Prime Minister of the United States. The duties of the head of state and head of government are combined in the office of the President, a position reflecting the prevailing dominance of heads of state within governmental structures in Europe in the eighteenth century when the American constitution was drafted. Though most European states now operate under later 'parliamentary' constitutions in which a prime minister assumed the role of leading the government, or in the case of the United Kingdom, the prime minister has evolved into a dominant office, the United States still embodies the 18th century model of a head of state who is also the chief player in governance.

In Vol. CI (101), 1977 of The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Fred S. Rolater equates Charles Thomson as a sort of "Prime Minister" of the United States. Thomson served as the secretary of the Continental Congress with commitment and diligence for its entirety (1774 to 1789).

Historically, the nickname of "Prime Minister" has sometimes been applied to American political officials who appear to be exercising equal or more executive power than the President of the United States. The term generally has more to do with the notion of perceived power, rather than legal, or constitutional power. The United States Constitution establishes no office that is comparable to a parliamentary or presidential prime minister found in other countries. Thus deciding who, if anyone, equates most closely in the United States of America to a prime minister can provoke wide debate.

As a result, the nickname of "Prime Minister" is sometimes used by pundits, political insiders, or journalists as a critical, satirtical, or observational title, and not an attempt at a formal government definition.

Some offices whose occupants have occasionally been suggested as being "America's Prime Minister" include:

  • The Speaker of the United States House of Representatives - The Speaker of the House is ceremonially the highest ranking legislative official in the United States government. He is generally a well-known national figure, and thus a human "face" on the legislative branch. Since the Speaker and the President are often from different parties, this can sometimes lead to cohabitation situtations in which the two appear at odds with each other. The Speaker can thus come to be seen as the leader of the "opposition" and the symbol of his party, and the very personification of partisan opposition to the President's agenda. The American speaker is also a much more politically active figure than many of his counterparts in other countries, and though he has little formal power, throughout American history the speakership has evolved into one of the nation's key political positions.

In the late nineteenth century, in particular following the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson and the damage that was perceived to have done to the American presidency (already shaken by the assassination of his predecessor, Abraham Lincoln), it was speculated by academics, foreign diplomats based in Washington, D.C. and even by leading members of the Senate that the United States would evolve from a presidential to a parliamentary system of government, with the Speaker becoming a de facto prime minister, sidelining the President of the United States. The President would in turn evolve into a form of nominal chief executive head of state, in whom legal executive authority would continue to be nominally vested but whose role as policy-maker and head of government would in effect move to the Speaker.

  • The White House Chief of Staff - As the president's top aide, the Chief of Staff is often one of the closest personal policy advisors to the President. He is also frequently the official who manages much of the day to day functioning of the White House, including, as the title suggests, control over much of the staff. How much direct executive power the Chief of Staff exercises is very much dependent on how "hands off" or "hands on" the President is in mundane political matters.

Situations where this has occurred have included Reagan Chief of Staff Donald Regan and Nixon Chief of Staff Alexander Haig. Howard Baker[?], Reagan's last Chief of Staff had great distaste for what he perceived to be a pseudo-royal power balance in the White House, and denounced the idea of a Chief of Staff Prime Minister as a symptom of what he deemed to be an increasingly "Imperial Presidency."

  • The Vice President of the United States- Although long considered to occupy a politically dormant role, in recent years some Vice Presidents have shown an increased eagerness to be included in the day-to-day decision-making in the White House. As America's only other nationally-elected official, Vice Presidents frequently feel "entitled" to exercise some power over affairs of state. They are also included in many of the highest level executive committees, such as the National Security Council and as a result are often very famillar and vocal on the crises of the day.
Current (2000- ) Vice President Dick Cheney's initial eagerness to be politically involved in day-to-day White House affairs led some commentators to speculate on whether he was becoming America's de facto prime minister. Al Gore's similar enthusisim for political participation in Bill Clinton's administration led to some similar accusations, albeit on a smaller scale.

  • During the 19th Century, the United States Secretary of State, as the most important member of the Cabinet, was occasionally called the "Prime Minister", especially by Europeans. For instance, Alexis de Tocqueville's travelling-companion Gustave de Beaumont referred to then Secretary of State Edward Livingston as the "Prime Minister of the United States"

"Prime Minister" is also sometimes incorrectly used by non-Americans as the title of America's president. For example: "Prime Minister Clinton"

Examples of use

[1] (http://kendrick.colgate.edu/maroon/ArchivesS95/Text2.3.95/wolyniak) Editorial- Does Newt Gingrich see himself as America's Prime Minister?

[2] (http://ustudies.semo.edu/ui320-75/Course/presidents/clinton/BillClinton) Gingrich again mentioned as "almost as a de facto prime minister."

[3] (http://story.news.yahoo.com/news?tmpl=story&u=/ft/20030611/bs_ft/1054965981561) Donald Regan's Prime Ministerial nickname

[4] (http://www.indianexpress.com/ie/daily/20010313/iin13003) - Kenneth Duberstein calls Cheney the "Prime Minister"

[5] (http://www.newsmax.com/archives/articles/2001/12/6/155338.shtml) Editorial mentioning the de facto "Prime Minister" Vice President of the Bush administration


In the early 1950s, the Prime Minister of the United States was a character played by Frazier Thomas[?] on the afternoon children's television show Garfield Goose and Friend[?].



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