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1.12: The Presidency

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    The qualifications are few — be a natural-born U.S. citizen at least 35 years old and a U.S. resident for 14 years — but the interview is more arduous and grueling than almost any hiring process ever devised. The $400,000 salary is attractive, but it requires being on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Thousands have applied for this position since it was established, but only 45 men have ever actually held it. Of these 45, eight (18%) have died while doing so, including four (9%) who were shot, making President of the United States arguably the world’s deadliest desk job.

    Photograph of President Biden signing a bill in the Oval Office
    President Joe Biden signs the Protecting Medicare and American Farmers from Sequester Cuts Act at his desk in the Oval Office in December 2021.

    In spite of this danger, the American presidency and the power that comes with it are highly sought after. Yet this mighty office was designed by men who were keenly suspicious of any political system which gave so much power to one person. That the chief executive they established would one day be unable to leave the White House without being accompanied by “the nuclear football” — a briefcase containing codes which can be used to launch nuclear weapons at any world capital — would have seemed surreal in the early days of the republic. Nowadays, we expect nothing less.

    How the presidency evolved from a mostly subservient functionary of Congress to the major player in American foreign and domestic policymaking parallels how the United States evolved from a fledgling gaggle of far-flung ex-colonies to the most powerful country on the face of the earth. Today America asks far more of its presidents than it did in the past and offers them a greater deal of legal authority to meet those loftier expectations. How the American political machine works today is closely tied to the role presidents have assumed, rightly or wrongly, in controlling that machine.

    Presidential Roles

    The President of the United States fulfills several important roles in the political and civic life of the United States. Americans tend to be most familiar with the president’s role as head of government. As the leader of the executive branch of the national government, it is the president’s duty to, in the language of Article II of the Constitution, “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” Congress bears primary responsibility for lawmaking, but once laws are made it is up to the president — and the network of departments, agencies, and offices over which he has authority — to ensure that they are enforced. From IRS auditors collecting taxes to CIA operatives tracking suspected terrorists to NPS rangers monitoring national parks, the president’s subordinates (and his subordinates’ subordinates) act to carry out the will of Congress.

    In addition to his practical role as head of government, the president also fulfills the symbolic role of head of state. As the only official other than the vice president chosen in a national election, the president represents the entire country in various ceremonial capacities, from pardoning turkeys each November to welcoming visiting foreign leaders to mourning national tragedies. The president personifies all of America, officially and unofficially, both within its borders and around the world.

    Some countries, including Mexico, South Korea, and Turkey, fuse the roles of head of state and head of government similarly to the way America does. Others keep the roles separate. In the United Kingdom, the Prime Minister (elected by the House of Commons) fulfills the practical duties of head of government while the King assumes the symbolic responsibilities of head of state. A similar division occurs in Iran, where the secular President is head of government but the religious Supreme Leader is head of state (although the Supreme Leader does appoint some cabinet ministers directly). Ethiopia, Germany, India, and many other countries have both an elected head of government and a separately elected head of state.

    This distinction between head of government and head of state is why the United Kingdom and other “constitutional monarchies” are considered democracies despite having kings, queens, or emperors. The monarchs of these countries wield only symbolic power while the democratically-elected heads of government direct the policymaking process.

    Aside from head of government and head of state, the President of the United States serves as the commander-in-chief of the United States Armed Forces, bearing responsibility for overall military strategy as well as specific tactical operations. The president is also America’s chief diplomat, negotiating political and economic treaties with leaders of other countries, often with the aid of the Department of State (which handles diplomatic affairs). Finally, the president is the unofficial head of his party (by virtue of the fact that he is its highest-ranking member in government) and sets the tone for the party’s policy agenda and electoral strategy, in both intentional and unintentional ways.

    The Executive Branch

    In addition to the president and vice president, the executive branch of the national government consists of millions of other civilian and military employees, who combine to make it the largest of the three branches in terms of personnel. The president manages this bureaucracy primarily through his Cabinet, which consists of the vice president and 15 heads of Cabinet departments. (See Figure 13.2 in the next chapter for a list of Cabinet departments.)

    Cabinet department heads are chosen by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Each holds the title “Secretary” (Secretary of State, Secretary of the Treasury, Secretary of Defense, and so on), with the exception of the head of the Department of Justice, whose title is Attorney General. Cabinet secretaries advise the president on policy and implement the presidential and congressional directives which fall under their jurisdiction. The Department of Agriculture, for example, distributes farm subsidies, provides food stamps to low-income families, and oversees the National School Lunch Program.

    The president’s Cabinet also makes up most of the presidential line of succession. In the event that the president is unable to carry out his duties due to death, incapacitation, resignation, or removal from office, the vice president becomes the president. If the vice president is also unable to discharge the duties of the office, the presidency passes next to the Speaker of the House, then to the president pro tempore of the Senate (typically the longest-serving member of the majority party in the Senate), then to the Cabinet officials in order of their departments’ creation, until a person eligible to be president is reached. The order of succession after the vice president was established by an act of Congress in 1947, but it has never been used. Nine vice presidents have ascended to the presidency after a president’s death or resignation, but the United States has never needed to proceed further down the list to find an emergency replacement for its chief executive.

    The presidency and vice presidency require their occupants to be natural-born U.S. citizens, but the other positions in the current presidential line of succession do not. Two members of Joe Biden’s Cabinet are not natural-born U.S. citizens: Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm was born in Canada, and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas was born in Cuba. Were the United States forced to proceed that far down the line of succession to find a new president, Granholm and Mayorkas would be skipped over.

    Besides the Cabinet departments, the President is in charge of 15 agencies grouped within the Executive Office of the President, including the Office of Management and Budget, the National Security Council, and the Council of Economic Advisers. The President also oversees various independent agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The sheer number of departments and agencies under the president’s command reveals how much Americans expect out of their national government, an expectation which has grown greatly over time.

    Presidential Powers

    The president derives his authority from two sources: the Constitution and the laws passed by Congress which delegate certain powers to him (and to the executive branch under his command). The president’s constitutional powers have remained relatively stable over time, while his powers derived from acts of Congress have expanded considerably along with the size and scope of the national government.

    Most of the president’s constitutional powers are granted in Article II, though a few powers are tucked away in other parts of the Constitution. One such constitutional power, found in Article I, is the ability to sign bills into law. By implication, this power also gives the president the power to veto laws by refusing to sign them, thereby preventing them from becoming law (unless Congress overrides the veto with a two-thirds majority in both chambers).

    Besides signing bills into law, the president can appoint Cabinet secretaries, federal judges, agency heads, and ambassadors to foreign countries. These appointees generally must be confirmed by the Senate before they can take office, but they can serve on a provisional basis if appointed while Congress is not in session. As commander-in-chief, the president is in charge of many aspects of military strategy. This does not include the power to declare war (which is granted to Congress in Article I), but it does allow the president to initiate certain military actions in both wartime and peacetime.

    One of the president’s less frequently used constitutional powers is the power to pardon people convicted of crimes. Pardons often occur in bunches near the end of a president’s term, when he is no longer up for reelection and unlikely to receive major blowback from the media or the public for issuing controversial pardons. The president can also convene a special session of Congress. This power was more important back when transportation was less efficient and members of Congress spent far less time in Washington. Today, Congress is rarely out of session, so the president has few opportunities to wield this power.

    Although the term does not appear in the Constitution, the president also has the constitutional authority to issue an executive order, which has the full force of law but does not require congressional approval. This power stems from Article II, which begins, “[t]he executive power shall be vested in a President of the United States.” The Supreme Court has interpreted this clause to mean that the president can issue legally binding orders without congressional approval, provided these orders are not themselves unconstitutional. (Congress can pass legislation overturning executive orders, but it rarely does so.)

    Beyond these constitutional powers, the president possesses statutory powers bestowed upon him by congressional legislation. Congress may authorize the president or the executive branch to perform certain tasks when executing laws, such as determining the specific standards, deadlines, and penalties that go along with a law to combat air pollution. Congress may also choose to delegate certain responsibilities to the president which he, being a single person with a national focus, is better equipped to handle than a roomful of senators and representatives with state and district loyalties. Trade policy is one such topic on which Congress, knowing that it would struggle to craft an effective policy for the whole country, abdicates its authority to do so and assigns the job to the president instead (although the Senate retains the power to ratify trade agreements).

    The President versus Congress

    Of course, Congress does not always roll over and freely grant the president new statutory powers. The twin concepts of separation of powers and checks and balances were intended by the Founders to set Congress and the president against one another, and it doesn’t take much effort to find proof that this design has succeeded in creating such conflict.

    Modern presidents run for office promising many policy changes, but a great deal of these promises cannot be fulfilled without at least some cooperation from the legislative branch. Congressional cooperation is most easily obtained — though not guaranteed — in times of unified government, when the president’s party also has majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Under divided government, when the president’s party is the minority party in the House, the Senate, or both, policymaking often seems to be at a standstill. Laws can and do get passed under divided government, but they tend to be smaller in scope and limited to the set of issues on which the Democratic and Republican parties can find agreement — a set which has become smaller and smaller in recent decades due to polarization.

    Congress and the president are more prone to use their constitutional checks to limit each other’s power in times of divided government. One way the president can check congressional power is through vetoes, which successfully halt bills about 96% of the time when they are used (as depicted in Figure 12.1 below). The president can also limit Congress’s power when choosing how to enforce the laws it passes, a choice which he often signals in a “signing statement” published when the law is enacted. Although the president cannot outright refuse to comply with or openly defy laws passed by Congress, his executive authority provides him leeway to decide how vigorously to enforce those laws.

    Bar chart showing total vetoes by president, according to the U.S. Senate
    Figure 12.1: Total vetoes by president (Source: U.S. Senate)

    Besides overriding vetoes, Congress can thwart the president through other means. Because it holds the power of the purse, Congress can choose to withhold funding from the president’s preferred policies and projects. Although the president proposes budgets to Congress, Congress is free to ignore those proposals and craft budgets to suit its own preferences. Additionally, the Senate has the final say on presidential appointees and negotiated treaties, and can decline to confirm the former or ratify the latter.

    The most extreme check Congress can use against the president is that of impeachment. To impeach is to formally accuse someone of wrongful conduct. The House of Representatives can, by a majority vote, impeach the president or any federal officer for treason, bribery, or “high crimes and misdemeanors,” according to Article II. The impeached member of the executive branch is then tried in the Senate, with the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presiding if (and only if ) the president is the one being impeached. At the conclusion of the trial, a two-thirds majority vote of the Senate is required to remove an impeached president from office. (To prevent the president from using his pardon power to thwart this removal, Article II specifies that presidential pardons do not apply in cases of impeachment.)

    impeachment: The charging of a federal officer with treason, bribery, or “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

    Impeachment has only been used against a president four times in American history: once against Andrew Johnson in 1868 (for firing his Secretary of War), once against Bill Clinton in 1998 (for lying to Congress about his sexual affair with a White House intern), and twice against Donald Trump in 2019 (for abusing his power to arrange a foreign investigation of his electoral opponent Joe Biden) and 2021 (for inciting rioters to storm the U.S. Capitol). All four impeachments ended in acquittal by the Senate; no president has ever been removed from office through the impeachment process. (In anticipation of being impeached and removed for his involvement in the Watergate burglary, Richard Nixon chose instead to resign the presidency in 1974 so as to go out on his own terms.)

    The Imperial Presidency?

    The Founders who designed the presidency at the Constitutional Convention knew at the time that George Washington, a war hero and nationally beloved figure, would almost certainly become the first person to occupy it. They trusted Washington to not abuse the power of the office to make himself a king or tyrant, but they nevertheless settled on a limited chief executive because they did not know who would succeed him. Wary that a powerful position would naturally attract the power-hungry, they assigned most of the Constitution’s powers to Congress, which seemed less susceptible to tyrannical decay.

    Over America’s history, the presidency’s power has gradually increased as individual presidents have stretched the boundaries of the office. Thomas Jefferson’s authorization of the Louisiana Purchase without congressional approval, Abraham Lincoln’s mobilization of the U.S. military to fight the Civil War while Congress was not in session, Theodore Roosevelt’s aggressive diplomatic efforts in Latin America and elsewhere, and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s expansive New Deal — along with many other large and small deeds by these and other presidents — were all unprecedented executive actions which tested the limits of the office’s constitutional authority.

    Photograph of President Franklin D. Roosevelt addressing the public during one of his fireside chats
    President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose New Deal represented a substantial increase in the power of the presidency, addresses the nation over radio in one of his “fireside chats.”

    A major development in the military power of the presidency occurred in 1973 when Congress passed the War Powers Act, permitting the president to initiate military actions without a congressional declaration of war or authorization for use of military force. The act requires the president to inform Congress of such actions within 48 hours of when these actions commence, and they cannot last longer than 90 days (60, plus 30 for withdrawal) unless Congress approves an extension. Still, this flexibility, coupled with the fact that Congress rarely declines presidential requests for authorizations for use of military force, affords the president considerable unilateral military power.

    The last time the United States declared war on another country was in 1942, when Congress issued declarations of war against Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania as part of World War II. All so-called “wars” involving the United States since then — including the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Persian Gulf War, the War in Afghanistan, and the Iraq War — were not technically wars but rather military engagements with some form congressional support short of a declaration of war.

    Critics point to this and other presidential powers as evidence that the executive branch has evolved into an “imperial presidency,” in which the president essentially rules as an emperor would with mostly unchecked power. The powers wielded by modern presidents do indeed dwarf those of their predecessors, and presidents have ample options at their disposal for circumventing Congress, such as signing an executive order (instead of a law) or an executive agreement (instead of a treaty) to achieve their policy objectives without the need for congressional approval.

    However, there are limits to what presidents can do on their own. Executive orders and executive agreements can function like laws and treaties, but they also lack durability, only lasting as long as they have the support of whoever happens to be president at the time. In 2016, for example, Barack Obama entered the United States into the Paris Agreement on climate change over the Senate’s objection by signing it as an executive agreement rather than a treaty. His successor, Donald Trump, was able to withdraw from the agreement without the need for congressional approval, because it was never ratified as a treaty — and his successor, Joe Biden, was able to reenter the agreement just as easily. Furthermore, although modern presidents issue many executive orders (as shown in Figure 12.2 below), most are symbolic or procedural, involving minor issues like commemorations of holidays or historical events rather than major power grabs.

    Bar chart showing total executive orders by president, according to the Federal Register
    Total executive orders by president. F. Roosevelt leads with close to four thousand.Figure 12.2: Total executive orders by president (Source: Federal Register)

    Even though the executive branch has increased its power relative to the legislative branch since the 18th century, it would be wrong to suggest that this increase was entirely the doing of presidents. Many of the powers added to the executive branch’s arsenal since the days of George Washington have not been seized by power-hungry presidents but rather handed over willingly by Congress, out of a desire for the president to achieve some policy objective they would not or could not achieve themselves. Meanwhile, the American people have generally approved of bold, decisive presidential actions, especially when contrasted with the perpetual logjam that so often seems to paralyze the legislative branch. Although Congress and the public often complain about presidents acting like kings or tyrants, both have enabled unilateral presidential behavior over the years.

    Calibrating the Presidency

    The term president — meaning one who presides over a meeting — was chosen for America’s chief executive largely on account of its implied weakness. John Adams, who would eventually succeed George Washington as president, considered it too feeble a name for America’s chief executive. Adams predicted any man calling himself by such a label would be mocked by the kings and queens of Europe and disregarded by the citizens of his own country as unimportant and ineffectual. In Adams’s view, a magistrate, an excellency, even an elected king would have been preferable to the meek title on which the Founders settled.

    Since Adams’s day, the presidency has been occupied by men both courageous and craven, virtuous and vile, forceful and feckless. Through their actions — and those of Congress and the federal courts — the presidency has become the world’s most powerful political office. America’s chief executive has even changed the meaning of the word president. Once deemed weak, it is now favored by national leaders (both democratic and dictatorial) all around the world who wish to aggrandize themselves by holding the same title as the so-called “Leader of the Free World,” even if their actual powers are petty by comparison.

    Whether the gradual empowerment of the presidency has made the American political machine better or worse is a fiercely debated question. The machine undoubtedly works faster when a decisive president is in charge rather than a deliberate Congress. But fast-moving machines can be dangerous as well as productive, and political machines are no exception to the rule.

    Many Americans long for a more powerful presidency when the current president is one they support, only to pine for greater constraints on it as soon as a president they oppose takes office. Unfortunately, we can’t have it both ways. A vexing but unavoidable challenge of institutional design is to create a system that works well when both good and bad leaders are at the controls.


    This page titled 1.12: The Presidency is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Benjamin R. Kantack (Tekakwitha Press) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.

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