The presidency of the United States is one of the truly original creations of democratic politics. When the framers of the U.S. Constitution decided upon a democratically elected unitary executive, they did so without any contemporaneous referents. While many of the authors favored the creation of a president that was little more than chief ambassador and head bookkeeper, others had witnessed the chaos under the weak executive of the Articles of Confederation and felt that stronger leadership was necessary. The final result is an institution that represents the attempt to balance the desire for a strong leader while avoiding the pitfalls of monarchy or tyranny.
The constitutional requirements for becoming president are relatively straightforward. All candidates for the office must be natural-born residents of the United States of at least thirty-five years of age. Rather than using a process of direct election, the authors of the Constitution opted for a process of indirect election. In this process, the voting public selects members of the Electoral College, and the Electoral College selects the president. Since the members of the Electoral College are selected by each state in a winner-take-all system, it is possible for a presidential candidate to win a majority in the Electoral College without receiving the most popular votes nationwide. This occurred in the elections of 1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000.
The constitutional powers of the president fall into four general categories: military, executive, diplomatic, and legislative. Within each category, the relative lack of specificity in the language has offered presidents some measure of flexibility to expand these powers when it suited their political or institutional needs.
The president’s military power resides in Article II Section 2, where the office is clearly designated as “the commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States.” The president has consistently been assumed to be the highest-ranking military official in the nation. While presidents may choose to delegate these powers to military officials in times of conflict, the president is entrusted with the final authority in the realm of military decisions, including the use of nuclear weapons.
The presidential executive powers address the president’s responsibility as the individual most responsible for overseeing the execution of federal law. Through this authority, the president oversees nearly all parts of the federal bureaucracy and is ultimately responsible for how these bureaucratic agencies apply the laws passed by Congress. The president is also granted the authority to appoint, with the approval of the Senate, members of the cabinet, federal judges, ambassadors, and most high-ranking administrative officials.
As the head of the Executive Branch, the president has the power to execute executive orders. These directives inform officials in the executive branch of the president’s desired policy implementation. Since the executive branch encompasses the vast majority of the federal bureaucracy, the president can use executive orders to cover a wide array of policy goals. Presidents have utilized executive orders to intern Japanese-Americans during World War II (Order 9066), prohibit employment discrimination based on race or gender (Order 11246), and to create new agencies, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Order 12148). Given the strength of presidential authority, the president’s power to mold policy through executive orders is clearly wide-ranging.
No formal review process exists for executive orders. Congress can pass laws that overturn executive orders, but since the president is virtually certain to veto such an act, Congress must gather enough votes to override a presidential veto in order to invalidate an executive order. Congress may also refuse to fund the section of the executive branch impacted by an executive order, though this also makes a veto more likely. Therefore, Congress rarely interferes with executive orders.
Although theoretically subject to review by the federal courts, the judiciary has overturned only two of the more than 13,000 executive orders issued by the office of the president since the Lincoln administration. Both rejections were grounded in the contention that the particular orders created new laws rather than modifying existing laws.
The power of the president in the area of foreign affairs clearly places the president at the forefront of the diplomatic apparatus. The president is specifically given the authority to receive all ambassadors and ministers from other nations. The president is also given the authority to negotiate and sign treaties with foreign nations pending Senate approval and to appoint ambassadors and other personnel to represent the interests of the United States abroad.
While the president’s powers in the legislative arena are somewhat limited, those limitations are as much in the eye of the beholder as anything. The president has veto authority, which gives him the power to prevent legislation from Congress from becoming law. While Congress has the power to override presidential vetoes, the supermajority needed for a successful override gives the president a significant advantage. In addition to the power to veto legislation, the president can call Congress into special session as deemed necessary. While he is required to inform Congress about the state of the union “from time to time,” he can use that event to recommend legislation to Congress that he believes to be necessary and appropriate.
In many ways, the power of the office of the presidency is shaped not by the Constitution, but by the individual. The remarkable specificity invested in the discussion of Congressional powers in Article I stands in stark contrast to the vague comments regarding presidential power in Article II (Pious 1979). While the authors of the Constitution had some general ideas of what they wanted the office to include, the relative lack of clarity has allowed occupants of the office to mold it to their own needs and desires.
The lack of clear direction regarding presidential power from the Constitution has allowed for varying interpretations of the extent of presidential authority. Throughout the nineteenth century, the assumption was that the president was limited to the powers expressly granted under the Constitution. This limited view of presidential power is generally referred to as the Whig theory of presidential authority. Presidents that subscribed to the Whig theory saw themselves primarily as bureaucratic administrators and ambassadors. As President James Buchanan (1791–1868) noted, “My duty is to execute the laws … and not my individual opinions” (quoted in Brinkley 1962, p.142).
Eventually, the Whig theory was deemed to be too limited and fell out of fashion at the beginning of the twentieth century. The replacement was Theodore Roosevelt’s (1858–1919) much broader stewardship theory. Stewardship theory argues that presidential authority extends to all areas not specifically forbidden by the Constitution or statutory law. While the Whig theory saw the president as limited to the powers clearly expressed in the Constitution, stewardship theory looks for all possible outlets for presidential power and authority. Stewardship theory has remained the dominant approach to presidential authority since the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt (1882–1945).
The third theory of presidential power, the unitary executive theory, argues that all power to execute laws and manage the executive branch falls to the president. This theory, which has generated much controversy in the first decade of the twenty-first century, essentially argues that Congress passes laws but the executive branch can interpret the laws in terms of implementation. This has led to presidents issuing “signing statements” that indicate whether or not the president intends to enforce the law as Congress had it written. The unitary executive theory is seen by many critics as a violation of the separation of powers and an effort by the executive to supersede Congressional authority.
The nature of the relationship between the president and Congress is determined by several factors. The most important factor is the relative partisan control of each branch. When the majority in Congress is of the same party as the president (called unified government ), the president is often able to work with the leadership to achieve their common policy goals. When the president and at least one chamber are controlled by opposing parties (often called divided government), presidents are often forced to compromise with the opposition party in order to pass legislation. The common perception is that presidents and Congress accomplish more under unified government compared to divided government, but the evidence indicates that this is likely not the case (Peterson 1990).
In addition to majority-minority status, the second major factor in determining presidential relations with Congress is the president’s approval rating in the public. The more beloved the president is, the more likely Congress is to follow the president’s lead. Congressional leaders realize that a popular president can campaign for or against them in any given election, and the president’s popularity does have an impact on Congressional races. Conversely, an unpopular president can often find it difficult to move even small agenda items forward even under a unified government (Neustadt 1991).
In the era of broadcast media, presidents have often found it effective to use the public to generate pressure on Congress to pass a particular piece of legislation. This strategy, known as going public, is often used when presidents feel they need to exert external pressure on Congress to generate momentum (Kernell 2007). While these efforts do not always work, they give the president an additional, if unofficial, method to encourage Congressional action.
As a general rule, presidents and the judicial branch do not interact on a regular basis. The most common ground they cover is actually in the process of selecting new members of the judiciary. Presidents have the authority to nominate all judges in the federal judicial system subject to the confirmation of the Senate. Presidents generally use this power to nominate judges with political beliefs similar to their own. Research shows that it is common for well over 90 percent of a president’s judicial appointments to come from the same party as the president, and this becomes more relevant if the nomination involves an appellate court or the U.S. Supreme Court.
SEE ALSO Bush, George H. W.; Bush, George W.; Carter, Jimmy; Clinton, Bill; Congress, U.S.; Constitution, U.S.; Eisenhower, Dwight D.; Elections; Electoral College; Government; Grant, Ulysses S.; Jefferson, Thomas; Johnson, Lyndon B.; Judicial Review; Judiciary; Kennedy, John F.; Lincoln, Abraham; Madison, James; Media; Nixon, Richard M.; Reagan, Ronald; Roosevelt, Franklin D.; Separation of Powers; Truman, Harry S.; Voting; Washington, George; Wilson, Woodrow
Bond, Jon R., and Richard Fleisher. 1990. The President in the Legislative Arena. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Brinkley, Wilfred. 1962. President and Congress. 3rd ed. New York: Vintage.
Kernell, Samuel. 2007. Going Public: New Strategies of Presidential Leadership. 4th ed. Washington, DC: CQ Press.
Nelson, Michael, ed. 2006. The Presidency and the Political System. 8th ed. Washington, DC: CQ Press.
Pious, Richard. 1979. The American Presidency. New York: Basic Books.
Rossiter, Clinton. 1960. The American Presidency. 2nd ed. New York: Harcourt Brace.
Schlesinger, Arthur. 1973. The Imperial Presidency. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.