The Executive Branch: Powers of the Presidency

United States Government

The chief magistrate derives all his authority from the people..."

Abraham Lincoln, First Inaugural Address, 1861

At a time when all the major European states had hereditary monarchs, the idea of a president with a limited term of office was itself revolutionary. But the Constitution adopted in 1787 vested executive power in a president, and that remains the case today. The Constitution also provides for the election of a vice president, who succeeds to the presidency in case of the death, resignation, or incapacitation of the president. While the Constitution spells out in some detail the duties and powers of the president, it does not delegate any specific executive powers to the vice president, to the 14-member presidential cabinet (made up of the heads of the federal departments), or to other federal officials.

Creation of a powerful, unitary presidency was the source of some contention in the Constitutional Convention. Several states had experience with executive councils made up of several members, a system that had been followed with considerable success by the Swiss for some years. Delegate Benjamin Franklin urged that a similar system be adopted by the United States. Moreover, many delegates, still smarting under the excesses of executive power wielded by the British Crown, were wary of a powerful presidency. Nonetheless, advocates of a single president who would operate under strict checks and balances carried the day.

The Constitution requires the president to be a native-born American citizen at least 35 years of age. Candidates for the presidency are chosen by political parties several months before the presidential election, which is held every four years (in years divisible evenly by four) on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. The Twenty-second Amendment, ratified in 1951, limits the president to two terms of office.

The vice president serves concurrently with the president. In addition to holding the right of succession, the vice president is the presiding officer of the Senate. The Twenty-fifth Amendment, adopted in 1967, amplifies the process of presidential succession. It describes the specific conditions under which the vice president is empowered to take over the office of president if the president should become incapacitated. It also provides for resumption of the office by the president in the event of his recovery. In addition, the amendment enables the president to name a vice president, with congressional approval, when the second office is vacated.

The Constitution gives Congress the power to establish the order of succession after the vice president. At present, should both the president and vice president vacate their offices, the speaker of the House of Representatives would assume the presidency. Next comes the president pro tempore of the Senate (a senator elected by that body to preside in the absence of the vice president), and then cabinet officers in designated order.

The seat of government is Washington, D.C. (the District of Columbia), a federal enclave located between the states of Maryland and Virginia on the eastern seaboard. The White House, both residence and office of the president, is located there.

The method of electing the president is peculiar to the American system. Although the names of the candidates appear on the ballots, the people technically do not vote directly for the president (and vice president). Instead, the voters of each state select a slate of presidential "electors," equal to the number of senators and representatives that state has in Congress. The candidate with the highest number of votes in each state wins all the "electoral votes" of that state.

The electors of all 50 states and the District of Columbia a total of 538 persons make up what is known as the electoral college. Under the terms of the Constitution, the electoral college never meets as a body. Instead, the electors in each state gather in their state capital shortly after the election and cast their votes for the candidate with the largest number of popular votes in their state. To be successful, a candidate for the presidency must receive 270 electoral votes out of the possible 538. The Constitution stipulates that if no candidate has a majority, the decision shall be made by the House of Representatives, with all members from a state voting as a unit. In this event, each state and the District of Columbia would be allotted one vote only.

The presidential term of four years begins on January 20 (it was changed from March by the Twentieth Amendment, ratified in 1933) following a November election. The president starts his official duties with an inauguration ceremony, traditionally held on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, where Congress meets. The president publicly takes an oath of office, which is traditionally administered by the chief justice of the Supreme Court. The words are prescribed in Article II of the Constitution: "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States, and will, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States." The oath-taking ceremony is followed by an inaugural address in which the new president outlines the policies and plans of his administration.

PRESIDENTIAL POWERS

The office of president of the United States is one of the most powerful in the world. The president, the Constitution says, must "take care that the laws be faithfully executed." To carry out this responsibility, he presides over the executive branch of the federal government a vast organization numbering about 4 million people, including 1 million active-duty military personnel. In addition, the president has important legislative and judicial powers.

Executive Powers

Within the executive branch itself, the president has broad powers to manage national affairs and the workings of the federal government. The president can issue rules, regulations, and instructions called executive orders, which have the binding force of law upon federal agencies but do not require congressional approval. As commander-in-chief of the armed forces of the United States, the president may also call into federal service the state units of the National Guard. In times of war or national emergency, the Congress may grant the president even broader powers to manage the national economy and protect the security of the United States.

The president nominates and the Senate confirms the heads of all executive departments and agencies, together with hundreds of other high-ranking federal officials. The large majority of federal workers, however, are selected through the Civil Service system, in which appointment and promotion are based on ability and experience.

Legislative Powers

Despite the constitutional provision that "all legislative powers" shall be vested in the Congress, the president, as the chief formulator of public policy, has a major legislative role. The president can veto any bill passed by Congress and, unless two-thirds of the members of each house vote to override the veto, the bill does not become law.

Much of the legislation dealt with by Congress is drafted at the initiative of the executive branch. In his annual and special messages to Congress, the president may propose legislation he believes is necessary. If Congress should adjourn without acting on those proposals, the president has the power to call it into special session. But beyond this official role, the president, as head of a political party and as principal executive officer of the U.S. government, is in a position to influence public opinion and thereby to influence the course of legislation in Congress.

To improve their working relationships with Congress, presidents in recent years have set up a Congressional Liaison Office in the White House. Presidential aides keep abreast of all important legislative activities and try to persuade senators and representatives of both parties to support administration policies.

Judicial Powers

Among the president's constitutional powers is that of appointing important public officials. Presidential nomination of federal judges, including members of the Supreme Court, is subject to confirmation by the Senate. Another significant power is that of granting a full or conditional pardon to anyone convicted of breaking a federal law except in a case of impeachment. The pardoning power has come to embrace the power to shorten prison terms and reduce fines.

Powers in Foreign Affairs

Under the Constitution, the president is the federal official primarily responsible for the relations of the United States with foreign nations. The president appoints ambassadors, ministers, and consuls subject to confirmation by the Senate and receives foreign ambassadors and other public officials. With the secretary of state, the president manages all official contacts with foreign governments. On occasion, the president may personally participate in summit conferences where chiefs of state meet for direct consultation. Thus, President Woodrow Wilson headed the American delegation to the Paris conference at the end of World War I; President Franklin D. Roosevelt met with Allied leaders during World War II; and every president since then has sat down with world leaders to discuss economic and political issues and to reach bilateral and multilateral agreements.

Through the Department of State, the president is responsible for the protection of Americans abroad and of foreign nationals in the United States. The president decides whether to recognize new nations and new governments, and negotiate treaties with other nations, which become binding on the United States when approved by two-thirds of the Senate. The president may also negotiate "executive agreements" with foreign powers that are not subject to Senate confirmation.

CONSTRAINTS ON PRESIDENTIAL POWER

Because of the vast array of presidential roles and responsibilities, coupled with a conspicuous presence on the national and international scene, political analysts have tended to place great emphasis on the president's powers. Some have even spoken of the "the imperial presidency," referring to the expanded role of the office that Franklin D. Roosevelt maintained during his term.

One of the first sobering realities a new president discovers is an inherited bureaucratic structure that can be difficult to manage and slow to change direction. The president's power to appoint extends only to some 3,000 people out of a civilian government work force of about 3 million.

The president finds that the machinery of government often operates independently of presidential interventions, has done so through earlier administrations, and will continue to do so in the future. New presidents are immediately confronted with a backlog of decisions from the outgoing administration. They inherit a budget formulated and enacted into law long before they came to office, as well as major spending programs (such as veterans' benefits, Social Security payments, and Medicare health insurance for the elderly), which are mandated by law. In foreign affairs, presidents must conform with treaties and informal agreements negotiated by their predecessors in office.

As the happy euphoria of the post-election "honeymoon" dissipates, the new president discovers that Congress has become less cooperative and the media more critical. The president is forced to build at least temporary alliances among diverse, often antagonistic interests economic, geographic, ethnic, and ideological. Compromises with Congress must be struck if any legislation is to be adopted. "It is very easy to defeat a bill in Congress," lamented President John F. Kennedy. "It is much more difficult to pass one."

Despite these constraints, every president achieves at least some of his legislative goals and prevents by veto the enactment of other laws he believes not to be in the nation's best interests. The president's authority in the conduct of war and peace, including the negotiation of treaties, is substantial. Moreover, the president can use his unique position to articulate ideas and advocate policies, which then have a better chance of entering the public consciousness than those held by his political rivals. President Theodore Roosevelt called this aspect of the presidency "the bully pulpit," for when a president raises an issue, it inevitably becomes subject to public debate. A president's power and influence may be limited, but they are also greater than those of any other American, in or out of office.

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Source: U.S. Department of State