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The Power of the President

An overview of the powers and responsibilities of the office of the President.
Story Series
Simply Civics

Most Americans have a general knowledge of the Presidents who have led this country, perhaps not everyone of the 46 Presidents, but the most famous or controversial. Our first President, George Washington, is recognized as the “Father of our Country”; Abraham Lincoln is remembered as the “Great Unifier” during the Civil War; Franklin Roosevelt led our country through the Great Depression and World War II; John F. Kennedy, as the youthful President of a new generation, was assassinated in Dallas; and Barack Obama, our nation’s first African-American President, opened the doors for other leaders of color. These Presidents join other noteworthy Chief Executives like Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton who were responsible for creating a sense of national purpose and hope, responding to pressing social and economic issues, protecting the country during times of national emergencies and developing public policies that have had a lasting impact on the direction of the country.

But while many Presidents have been recognized for their contributions to the advancement of our country, and some have been long forgotten or vilified for their misfortunes, the office of the President of the United States, the Presidency, is often lacking in terms of an understanding of the powers and responsibilities that these 46 men wielded while they occupied the White House. If we as Americans are to gain a greater appreciation of our Presidents, their challenges, their accomplishments and their failures, it is important to examine how this office and those who occupy this office operate within our constitutional system.

The American governing system is often described as one of separation of powers — legislative, executive and judicial. But while the legislative branch is mentioned first in the Constitution and given numerous powers and responsibilities, it is the executive branch, the President, that has emerged as the center of our government and the defining leader of our nation. While public policy initiatives and lawmaking are often the result of interaction and compromise between Congress and the President, it is the President who sets the policy agenda, and then uses his position as the head of the executive branch to move that agenda forward through the maze of legislative processes, judicial decisions and partisan give and take. This process is best described as based on the principle of checks and balances. The President is often judged by the American public and indeed by history for his ability to keep his policy promises and move effectively through the legislative maze of checks and balances.

The powers of the President are a mix of substantive actions and ceremonial duties. The following is a list of constitution-based activities required by the President along with ceremonial duties that often accompany these activities: 

  • Represent our nation in talks with foreign countries and leaders.
  • Negotiate and sign treaties with foreign countries, only with Senate consent.
  • Perform symbolic actions designed to create a sense of national pride and patriotism.
  • Sign legislation passed by Congress and veto bills that the President is unwilling to support.
  • Act as Chief Executive Officer — implement and enforce the laws that Congress passes.
  • Act as Commander in Chief of the armed forces.
  • Make proposals about policies that should become laws — often presented in State of the Union Speech.
  • Grant pardons for those convicted of a crime.
  • Nominate Cabinet members, justices of the federal court system and other high officials and welcome ambassadorial representatives of foreign governments.
  • Speak to the nation and the world on matters of domestic and international importance.

Each of these powers and responsibilities of the President of the United States are important and critical to the proper functioning of the country, but not all are of equal weight in terms of the process of governing. For example, the President as Chief Executive has enormous power to work with the vast bureaucracy to pass rules, regulations, instructions and orders which in many cases have binding force of law. And when legislation is passed through Congress and signed by the President, the implementation phase is marked by specificity and complexity since the laws are often broadly written and lack defined procedures to ensure compliance. In recent years because of a divided Congress, President Joe Biden has resorted to executive orders to implement policies that would not pass Congress. Often in cases where there is a disagreement between the President and Congress over an executive order, the federal courts become involved to determine the legality of the executive order.

In the area of foreign policy, the President has the power to negotiate treaties with foreign countries, but because Congress must be a partner in this process, the final treaty must require a two-thirds vote of approval by the Senate. In many cases, the two-thirds vote is a difficult hurdle to cross leaving treaties unsigned, rewritten or without proper implementation. But while foreign treaties face key obstacles, the role of the President as Commander in Chief allows him greater latitude to make military decisions without specific approval of the Congress. Although declaring war is the constitutional responsibility of the Congress, the President can use his role as Commander in Chief to order troops into a specific country or region to achieve a military objective. United States intervention in Vietnam, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, Kosovo and Afghanistan for example were the result of the President using his power as Commander in Chief to send troops into a war zone. Using the power of Commander in Chief to attain a military objective, however, does create tension with the Congress, which retains the power of the budget and spending and often criticizes the President for lack of proper consultation and forcing through appropriations for troops and weapons. Nevertheless, the President’s foreign policy and military powers are two areas of responsibility that remain under his control and give him considerable power to develop policies in matters of external relations.

Because our system of government is one of separation of powers and checks and balances, Presidents must be politically adept as they respond to the demands of a two-party framework and the constitutional role of the courts. Moreover, Presidents must have the skills to marshal public opinion in ways that support their legislative agenda. The Founding Fathers purposely made the governing system of our country complicated with tripartite power centers and numerous means of restraining excessive power. Yet over the history of our country, Presidents who have succeeded in managing these restraints and demands achieved success in responding to domestic crises, strengthening our economy and protecting our nation from foreign threats.