On February 4, 1789, George Washington was elected the first president of the United States.

President Obama in front of a portrait of President George Washington (© AP Images)

Washington knew his actions would establish precedents for his successors. This was particularly so because the U.S. Constitution gave the executive branch significant powers but didn’t specify many details of how it would function.

Washington believed it was important to make the presidency strong enough to hold the new nation together but was concerned that it not evolve into the role of a monarch. His actions achieved both goals:

  • He formed a Cabinet of advisers to help him in making decisions.
  • He delivered the annual State of the Union report as a speech given to Congress.
  • He insisted on being called “Mr. President” instead of “Your Excellency” or “Your Highness.”

The most important precedent was Washington’s final act as president: He stepped down after completing two terms. Pressed to serve a third, he believed that a peaceful transition of power to a newly elected president would be in the nation’s best interest. It was for giving up political power that Britain’s King George III called Washington “the greatest man in the world.”