Powers of the US President

The Powers of US Presidents

Roosevelt: 1933-45
Roosevelt: 1933-45

How powerful is the US President? It is usually thought that the post of President contains great powers. Potentially, US Presidents do have great power. However, many of these powers are significantly checked and balanced by the other two branches of the US political system.

Truman 1945-53
Truman: 1945-53

The position and powers of the President are set out in article III of the Constitution. 

The Founding Fathers saw the President as both Head of State and Head of Government.

The Founding Fathers wished to avoid the British fused system of overlap between government, parliament and crown that they had fought to overthrow. They wanted to avoid creating an over-powerful President.

The Constitution created a limited/checked Presidency, not an over-powerful executive.

The US system of government is based around the important concepts of separation of powers and checks and balances – this means that no single part of the US system is more powerful than any other.

For the system to function, the executive branch of government (President), the legislative branch of government (Congress) and the judicial branch of government (the courts, up to the Supreme Courtcheck and balance the power of each other, and must work together if the system is to function effectively.

No single part of the system has complete power.

The principle of separation of powers is based on the idea that the power of government needs to be fragmented.

Each branch of government – executivejudiciary and legislature – should hold and exercise different powers separate from each other.

For the theory to work, individuals within it must be independent from other branches of the system and appear in no more than one part of government. Unlike, say, the UK where the Prime Minister is both head of the government and a member of the legislature (because he/she is an MP in Parliament).

The President is more than ‘just a politician’ – ‘I’m the King and the Prime Minister’ (Theodore Roosevelt).

The Constitution (article II) also creates a ‘singular’ executive where the Cabinet is NOT a decision making body. Executive power rests in the hands of the President, it is not shared.

The Constitution also created a President who would be indirectly elected through an Electoral College.

Finally, the Constitution set out how an American President guilty of ‘high crimes and misdemeanours’) could be got rid of. This is the process known as ‘impeachment’. It has only been used on three occasions (most recently, against Donald Trump in 2019). President Nixon, rather than be impeached’ resigned in 1974.

Presidential powers

Eisenhower: 1953-60
Einsenhower: 1953-60

The powers of the President are outlined in Article II of the Constitution.

Presidential powers may be described as ‘constitutional’

These are formalenumerated powers – they’re in the Constitution.

Formally, constitutionally – the President is:

Kennedy: 1960-63
Kennedy: 1960-63

Chief of the Executive – controls executive branch of government, responsibility for federal budget, sets out and implements policies/agendas for the USA. Powers include those of patronage (giving people jobs and positions of authority) and pardon (excusing and removing convictions or the threat of conviction – this becomes important when you study Presidents Nixon and Ford). The President also has the power to nominate executive branch officials and all federal judges.

Commander in Chief – the President leads, commands and deploys US armed forces (but cannot declare war, that’s the job of Congress). This particular power becomes important when you study presidents such as TrumanJohnsonKennedy and Ford.

Chief diplomat – the power to make treaties with other countries that are then ratified by Senate.

All three formal powers are checked and balanced by Congress.

Some Presidential powers have developed since the Founding Fathers drafted the Constitution. Modern Presidents need to act in ways the Founding Fathers could not have imagined. These are known as implied powers and roles.

These might be referred to as informal powers – they’re not in the Constitution.

Johnson: 1963-69
Johnson being sworn-in as President after the assassination of John Kennedy in 1963. The woman on Johnson’s left is Jacqueline Kennedy.

Informally – the President is:

Chief Legislator

Most US legislation starts in the executive branch and is presented to Congress by the President in the State of the Union Address.

Not all legislative proposals from the President will become law.

The President does have the power of veto (the power to block a bill from becoming law in Congress. This is usually seen as a sign of weakness if a President has to use them because it suggests the President has not been able to persuade Congress to ‘do the right thing’. Congress can agree (by a 2/3 majority) to reject any Presidential veto.

World Leader

President – global presence, status, world stage etc. Presidents such as Roosevelt and Truman were genuine ‘global’ politicians and leaders because of World War Two. Kennedy saw himself as a world leader in terms of standing up to what the USA regarded as the aggressive foreign policy of the Soviet Union (Russia). President Nixon did much to increase western influence in China whilst President Carter spent a lot of time and effort attempting to find peace settlements in the Middle East

Party leader

Presidents are not chosen/ elected as in UK, they become ‘leader’ by default of being President. American parties in opposition have no real ‘leader’ comparable with UK.

They may be ‘party leader’ but are often unable to control their party. Many Democrats disagreed with Roosevelt’s New Deal policies, for example.

Head of State

The President is a national symbol of the USA.

The President ‘becomes’ America and are a focal point for loyalty of the people to the nation.

The post of President combines the ceremonial head of state with political as head of executive – ‘Prime Minister and King’.

Carter, Fordd, Nixon
From the right – Nixon, (1969-74) Ford, (1974-76) Carter (1976-80)

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