Presidency of the United States

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President Donald Trump meets with service members at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, Feb. 6, 2017.

Every four years, on the first Tuesday after the first Monday of November, millions of Americans go to the polls to choose a new leader in a free and open election. The candidates, nominated during the preceding summer at the conventions of their respective political parties, have waged vigorous campaigns. Through the media of radio, television, newspapers, and magazines, they have made known their views on both national and international affairs and have become familiar faces to the people of the nation.

On Inauguration Day, January 20, the successful candidate for the high office of president of the United States takes this oath of office:

" 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."

This the same oath that has been taken by every American president since George Washington. And yet, in the two centuries since the first president was inaugurated, the obligations and duties implied in the oath have changed. The key to the changes lies in the words, "the Office of the President." Exactly what is the office of the president? What was it originally intended to be? And what has it become?

The Growth Of The Presidency

The men who wrote the Constitution of the United States were opposed to the idea of an all-powerful head of state. America's Founding Fathers thought of the presidency as an office of great honor and dignity, but one with little real power. The American colonists in general favored the parliamentary system of government but did not believe that all governmental powers should rest within any one body. So, in framing the Constitution, they provided for three separate branches—legislative, executive, and judicial.

Article I of the Constitution deals with the functions of the House of Representatives and the Senate. Not until Article II is any mention made of the president. This article states that the president shall be the head of the executive branch of the government. But to limit and restrict the office, the Constitution provides Congress with checks against any president who may try to assume too much authority.

The framers of the Constitution believed that in the presidency they had created an office of prestige but little power. They would be astounded if they knew the changes that have occurred. The powers and responsibilities of the president have grown enormously. The president has become the leader of his country in fact as well as in name. His words and deeds affect the course of history not only in the United States but in every country throughout the world.

The men who were presidents early in the history of the republic were able to carry on the duties of their office with little assistance. When George Washington served as first president of the United States, his staff consisted of a secretary, one or two clerks, and household servants who acted as messengers. But with the enormous growth in presidential power and responsibilities, the office of the presidency now must be run by a large staff. Today the president of the United States requires the assistance of over 1,500 people.

The employees assigned to jobs directly relating to the office of the presidency are staff members of the Executive Office of the President. The Executive Office was created by Congress, but it can be reorganized by the president through executive orders.

The Cabinet

The president's cabinet is one of the most important parts of the executive branch of the government. The cabinet was not provided for by the Constitution, nor was it created by an act of Congress. It developed through necessity. The cabinet traces its beginnings to George Washington's assembling his department heads in 1793 to discuss U.S. neutrality in the French Revolutionary wars.

The cabinet is made up of the heads of the 15 executive departments of the government. Its function is to advise the president on matters of the greatest importance. One of the first tasks of a new president is to select a cabinet. You can read more about this presidential advisory group in the Cabinet of the United States article in this encyclopedia.

The first executive posts, which became the president's cabinet, were created in 1789. They were the following:

  1. Secretary of Foreign Affairs (State)
  2. Secretary of War
  3. Secretary of the Treasury
  4. Attorney General
  5. The present-day cabinet includes the following heads of executive departments:
  6. Secretary of State
  7. Secretary of the Treasury
  8. Secretary of Defense
  9. Attorney General (Justice Department)
  10. Secretary of the Interior
  11. Secretary of Agriculture
  12. Secretary of Commerce
  13. Secretary of Labor
  14. Secretary of Health and Human Services
  15. Secretary of Education
  16. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development
  17. Secretary of Transportation
  18. Secretary of Energy
  19. Secretary of Veterans Affairs
  20. Secretary of Homeland Security

The president may also choose other members of government to serve in the cabinet; the vice president, the White House chief of staff, and the director of the Office of Management and Budget may all join the cabinet at the president's discretion.

Presidential Leadership

The vast and complicated structure needed to run today's government has brought many changes to the office of the presidency. With each new president, the machinery of government becomes more complex.

The rise of presidential power did not come about all at once. Nor did the growth of leadership follow a fixed and steady course. Some presidents have strongly exercised the power of leadership. Others have been relatively weak leaders.

Since the time of George Washington many presidents have contributed to changing the powers of the office. People often have different views as to whether a president has acted wisely and exercised his power for the general good of the entire nation. Leadership takes many forms, and all leaders cannot appeal to all people. The leadership qualities of a few presidents, however, will serve to show how some have used the power of their office.

Thomas Jefferson was the nation's third president. Even though he served so early in the history of the office, he understood that in order to gain the results he desired, he would have to exercise a great deal of political power. Jefferson skillfully organized his sympathizers in Congress into a strong political group. These men worked together so well that they often were able to defeat their opponents in many important matters. This plan of Jefferson's was the start of the system of political parties as we know it today.

Andrew Jackson, seventh president of the United States, was another strong leader. Jackson was the first man of the people to be elected to the presidency. Many of the men in the government were not friendly to the new president or to his views. But Jackson was determined to overcome his opponents. In critical issues he relied on the support of the people and removed cabinet members who disagreed with his policies. By the skillful use of his leadership qualities, he was able to carry out many of his programs.

The strongest desire of President Abraham Lincoln was to preserve the Union. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Lincoln did not have the power to call up troops or to take certain other actions. But he knew that in order to protect the Union he would have to assume wartime powers. Many people disapproved of his actions. But Lincoln seized the power he felt he must have. By exercising leadership in a time of crisis, he succeeded in preserving the Union.

Woodrow Wilson, during whose term the bitter battles of World War I were fought, had one great dream. The dream was for the creation of a League of Nations that would help to prevent future wars. The League of Nations finally was established at the close of the war. But in spite of Wilson's strength, his own country refused to join. Wilson died a disappointed man. But under his leadership the office of the presidency outgrew the bounds of the United States and became an office with international responsibilities.

In another period of serious trouble for the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt served as president. During the Depression of the 1930's Roosevelt sought tremendous powers. He recommended to Congress legislation that would create jobs for those who could find no work, in order to get the country back on its feet. He even attempted to change the structure of the Supreme Court by increasing the number of justices. During World War II he extended United States influence in the field of international relations.

Even though the president of the United States is today one of the most important individuals in the world, he is not all-powerful. There is an authority that is higher than that of the president. It is the will of the people of the United States, who have reserved to themselves the final authority that is called sovereignty.

Duties and Powers of the President

"The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America. He shall hold his Office during the Term of four Years…."

These words form the opening of Article II of the Constitution, outlining the powers and duties of the president. The four sections of the article also state how the president shall be elected and paid, and who shall succeed him if he is unable to serve out his term. This Article, written in a careful and straightforward manner, suggests that the document's framers were on their guard against the possibility of a too ambitious president. It gives little hint, however, that they had any idea of how enormous and important the office of the presidency would one day become.

To the average citizen it often seems that the power of the president is unlimited. But that is far from the truth. What acts is the president permitted to perform without restrictions of any kind? What is he prohibited from doing? The answers to these questions give some idea of the powers of the president and of the system of checks and balances provided by the Constitution.

Article II states that the president shall be commander in chief of the Army and the Navy. He shall have the power to make treaties—provided two-thirds of the Senate agrees. He shall appoint ambassadors, Supreme Court justices, and other officials—"by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate." Section 3 of the Article provides that he shall address Congress on the state of the Union, see that laws are carefully carried out, and receive foreign ambassadors and ministers. Basically, all these provisions of the Constitution are still in force today.

Even within the framework of the Constitution the duties and powers of the president have become highly complex. The best way to understand them is to examine the various branches of the government and see how the president functions in each.

Executive and Administrative Powers

The president stands at the head of the executive branch of the government. He is elected by the entire nation and is responsible for carrying out and administering the laws approved by the legislative branch—Congress. The Constitution outlined these powers only in the most general terms. Most presidential authority, therefore, has been granted by acts of Congress.

Power of Appointment and Removal

The president has the power to appoint important officials. The list of these officials includes ambassadors, members of the cabinet and their assistants, federal judges, military and naval officers, heads of agencies, and United States attorneys and marshals. In almost all cases Senate approval is assured. The president does, therefore, exercise a great deal of power in the choice of the people named for key government posts. In 1926 the Supreme Court ruled that since the president has the power to appoint officers, the president also should have the power to remove them.

Executive Ordinances

Administration of policies outlined by Congress usually is left to the executive branch. The president (or subordinates acting for him) spells out the details in the form of executive orders that have the force of law.    

Legislative Powers

The president is given certain legislative powers that make it possible for him to exert considerable influence over Congress.

Power to Recommend Legislation

At the beginning of each session of Congress the president delivers his "State of the Union" message. In his address he recommends a legislative program. This is followed by a proposed budget and economic report. The president also may submit special messages from time to time on particular subjects. In this way he makes known to Congress the laws he considers necessary.

Veto Power

Every bill or joint resolution passed by Congress must be sent to the president for action. If he signs it, it becomes law. If he vetoes it, he must send it back with the reasons for his veto. The veto power enables the president to act as a check on Congress.    

Judicial Powers

The chief executive can exercise judicial power in several ways. He recommends to the Senate his choices for attorney general (to head the Department of Justice) and Supreme Court justices. In every district of the country he appoints federal court judges and the U.S. district attorneys.

Pardoning Power

The president has the power to pardon a citizen of an offense. He may also grant a reprieve, or postponement of punishment. He cannot exercise this power in impeachment cases, where a pardon can never be granted.    

Powers in Foreign Affairs

The president has enormous powers in the field of foreign affairs. He is the nation's chief diplomat. He receives diplomatic representatives, ambassadors, and ministers from foreign countries, and sometimes attends special international conferences.

Power of Recognition

The president has the power of recognition—the formal approval of the government of a foreign country. Without recognition, normal trade and diplomatic relations cannot exist between two countries. 

Treaty Power

If the United States wants to enter into commercial pacts, define its boundaries, make peace, or enter into any other international agreement, the president may negotiate a treaty with the country or countries concerned. The president shares this power with the Senate. Two-thirds of that body must ratify, or approve, a treaty before it goes into effect.

Executive Agreements

Agreements between the president and the chief executive (rather than the official government) of a foreign country are not subject to Senate approval.    

Military Powers

As stated in the Constitution, the president is commander in chief of the armed forces. This position guarantees that the people always shall control the Army through their elected civilian leaders. Here, too, the president's powers are shared with Congress. Congress makes rules for the armed forces, sets apart funds for defense, and has the power to declare war. Appointments or commissions of military officers must be confirmed by the Senate. But in many national emergencies, the president can act without the consent of either house of Congress. He may use armed forces in combat abroad without a formal declaration of war. He may send troops to protect the mails and interstate commerce. At the request of a governor or state legislature, he may send troops into a state in case of domestic violence which is beyond the control of state and local police.

Political Party Leader

The president is the leader of his party. In this role he influences party policy in national and international affairs. He makes wide use of his patronage power—the power to appoint members of his own party to government posts. He also has the power to grant favors of many kinds to officials of either party.

The Presidency Today

The United States and its position in the world have changed greatly since the president's duties were outlined in the Constitution. The role of the president has grown from that of a largely honorary officer to a powerful leader in national and international affairs. He is the single, unifying force in a political system in which power is highly dispersed. Probably no other person exercises as much influence in today's world as the president of the United States. What the president does cannot fail to affect the course of history.

But no matter how popular or powerful a president may be, his term of office is limited. At the end of four years he must submit his record to the people. If they do not re-elect him, he must surrender his power. The 22nd Amendment to the Constitution provides that no president can be elected more than twice. As long as these safeguards exist, sovereignty will remain subject to the people's will.

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