The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Prime Minister of the United States

There is no Prime Minister of the United States, but nonetheless, the term "Prime Minister" has sometimes been applied, either as a pejorative term, a bon mot or through ignorance, to an official within the government of the United States.

During and after the American War of Independence, many Americans saw government as deceitful and untrustworthy. The British political system, especially, was considered tyrannical. The men around the King, namely the prime minister, through corruption, had achieved complete control. It was also generally believed that the men around the King utilized the British financial system to destroy its once balanced political system. When, under the Washington administration, Alexander Hamilton established the Bank of the United States, Hamilton met fierce opposition. The National Gazette said Hamilton was working as a prime minister, and alleged that his manipulation of the financial system would lead to the downfall of the republic.

Today, the term is applied by people unfamiliar with the American presidential system of government, who assume that the most powerful official (the President of the United States) is instead the prime minister (e.g. "Prime Minister Clinton"). People accustomed to parliamentary systems where the duties of the head of state and head of government are separated sometimes fail to realize that the President of the United States performs both these functions.

The soubriquet "Prime Minister" has in some instances been applied to American political officials who appear to be exercising substantial executive power. The term generally has more to do with the notion of perceived power, rather than legal, or constitutional power.

The nickname of "Prime Minister" is thus sometimes used by pundits, political insiders, or journalists as a critical, satirical, or observational title, and not an attempt at a formal government definition. Often the title of US Prime Minister is used to allude a sort of 18th century grand vizier type Prime Minister, that is to say one who is a power behind the throne or influential advisor, as opposed to a modern-style elected Prime Minister in a parliamentary government.

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

  • 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).
  • The Speaker of the United States House of Representatives - The Speaker of the House is ceremonially the highest ranking legislative official elected directly by members of Congress. Since the Speaker and the President are often from different parties, this can sometimes lead to cohabitation situations in which the two are at odds with each other. The Speaker (and the majority leader of Senate if the Senate is also controlled by the opposition) can thus come to be seen as the leaders of the "opposition" and the symbol of their party, and the very personification of partisan opposition to the President's agenda. The Speaker of the House 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.
Powerful Chiefs of Staff 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." See also Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.'s book, The Imperial Presidency .
  • During the 19th Century, the United States Secretary of State, as the highest ranking 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"

Examples of use

  • [1] Editorial- Does Newt Gingrich see himself as America's Prime Minister?
  • [2] Gingrich again mentioned as "almost as a de facto prime minister."
  • [3] Donald Regan's Prime Ministerial nickname
  • [4] Kenneth Duberstein calls Cheney the "Prime Minister"
  • [5] 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 Friends.

Last updated: 05-17-2005 12:55:53