II of the United States Constitution establishes
the Executive Branch and grants to this nation's Chief
Executive, the President, the power and authority to
execute the laws of the United States.
Formal Powers of the Presidency
President of the United States of America, by virtue
of formally granted constitutional powers, has several
significant leadership roles. While these roles are varied
and diverse, they can generally be divided into two large
areas of authority and responsibility: domestic policy
and foreign affairs. So distinct are the two realms of
presidential activity and so different are the degrees
of success within each that political scientists generally
refer to these two subdivisions as the "two presidencies."1
The Domestic Policy Presidency
the domestic arena, the President, as Chief Executive,
has the formal constitutional authority to oversee the
execution and implementation of the law. The President
also has the ability to significantly influence the legislative
and judicial branches. Through the exercise of these
powers, the President can exert wide-spread and long-lasting
influence on the domestic policies of the nation.
President, as the head of the Executive Branch, is the
Chief Executive Officer of the United States government.
The Chief Executive is sworn to see that the laws of
the land are faithfully executed, consistent with the
Constitution. The President also oversees the various
departments and agencies of the Executive Branch. With
the advice and consent of the Senate, the President appoints
the leaders of each Executive Branch department and works
with these individuals to implement the programs and
policies passed by the Congress.
President's role as Chief Executive is discussed in greater
detail in "Presidential
Leadership" and "Bureaucracy."
The President also has formally granted
authority to influence and participate in the legislative
process. While only members of Congress can introduce and
vote on legislation in the House and Senate, the President
plays an important role in setting legislative priorities
through inaugural addresses and State of the Union Addresses.
The Budget and Accounting Act of 1921 also requires the
President to submit a budget each year. While the Congress
reserves the right to significantly alter the President's
proposed budget, the submission of a budget provides an important
starting point for the Congress.
The President also has the Constitutional authority to veto
any legislation the Congress passes. Because a two-thirds
majority vote in each house is required to override a veto
and pass a bill over the President's objections, the President
can often use the threat of a veto to influence the legislative
process. Presidents have often publicly and privately stated
the conditions that must be met in particular pieces of legislation
to avoid vetoes.
Symbolism or Substance?
The amount of presidential influence on the legislative process is often
exagerated by extravagantly choreographed bill-signing ceremonies. Although
the Congress is generally responsible for almost all of the hard work on
the bills it passes, it is the President that is generally in the spotlight,
claiming credit for the legislation he signs. In the picture on the right,
Lyndon Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964, legislation he challenged
the Congress to pass. Notice, however, that none of the members of Congress
who toiled to make the legislation a reality are seated at the table with
The President also plays a significant role in shaping the composition
of the Supreme Court and of the Federal Court system. With the advice and
constent of the Senate, the President appoints Supreme Court justices and
other federal judges. By selecting individuals for these positions with
whom they share similar ideological perspectives, Presidents can influence
the direction of judicial decisions far beyond their tenure in office.
In recent years, the judicial nomination process has become much more
political than it once was. While past nominees were routinely scrutinized
to assure that only well-trained and qualified persons were appointed to
the courts, nominees today also face significant questions about their
political ideologies and their likely responses to specific cases that
may come before the courts.
The Foreign Policy Presidency
The Constitution establishes that the President of the United States shall
be the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. As such, the President is
the constitutional head of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines, commissions
all officers in the armed forces and appoints all high-ranking military
leaders, such as the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. More significantly,
while the Congress has the authority to "Declare War," Presidents
since Washington have "made war" without explicit congressional
cooperation. (PHOTO at Right: President Johnson Decorating a Soldier
The War Powers
the American system, the Congress and the President share the power
to make and declare war. From the beginning, however, Presidents
have been reluctant to involve the Congress in their decisions
to use military force in response to international crises. Thomas
Jefferson, without prior congressional approval, dispatched American
Naval ships to protect American vessels from pirates in the Mediteranean.
Though he later secured the Congress' support of the mission, Jefferson's
actions established an important precedent for future presidents.2 (PHOTO
at Right: President Bush Visiting Gulf War Soldiers).
the Congress has generally been supportive of Presidential actions
in response to threats against the United States, members of Congress
almost unanimously believed that Presidents Johnson and Nixon had
gone too far in conducting the "war" in Vietnam. Although the Congress
had never officially declared war against Vietnam, hundreds of
thousands of American soldiers fought and died there.
an effort to reassert its role in the exercise of the war powers,
the Congress passed, over a presidential veto, the War
Powers Resolution of 1973. In the Resolution, the Congress
required the President to consult with the Congress "in every possible
instance" before putting American soldiers in harm's way. The Resolution
further stipulates that the President must end hostilities within
sixty days unless the Congress has declared war,extended the sixty
day period or the safety of American troops would be jeopardized
by withdrawing in that time frame.
compliance with the War Powers Resolution has been uneven, at best.
Some Presidents have consulted Congress in some instances and only
informed Congress after the fact in other instances. The instances
in which Presidents have adhered most closely to the Resolution
were George Bush before the Gulf War and Bill Clinton before the
Kosovo bombing campaign. (PHOTO at Right: President Reagan
Consulting with Members of Congress Before the Invasion of
Constitution also establishes that the President shall receive all
foreign ministers and ambassadors. The President, then, is the nation's
Chief Diplomat, the primary representative of the United States of
America in the international arena. The President engages in informal
discussions and negotiations with other world leaders, negotiates
treaties and establishes "executive agreements" with the leaders
of other nations.
Informal Powers of the Presidency
addition to the formal powers granted by the Constitution, the President
of the United States holds and exercises other more informal powers.
The President is widely recognized as the symbol of America and American
government. When a crisis arises, when tragedy strikes, when the
nation celebrates a holiday or great achievement, the nation listens
to and watches the President, the nation's "first citizen" and "voice
of the people."
President is also, by definition, the highest elected official in
his political party. Members of the President's party turn to him
to lead their party, set party priorities and rally the troops. Presidents
regularly campaign and raise money for their parties and their members.
Is the Presidency Too Strong?
the excesses of Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, some
observers of the American Presidency have declared that the President
wields too much power, and that the office has more power than any
king has ever held. Others, pointing to weak presidents like Gerald
Ford and Jimmy Carter, argue that the Presidency is, if anything,
too weak and too dependent on energetic leadership to make it function
presidential leadership is highly dependent upon the personalities
and skills of the individual who holds the position. Even the most
dynamic leaders, however, find there are significant limits on the
exercise of presidential power. As has been noted, presidents must
work together with the Congress to secure the policy changes they
seek. Their actions can also be reviewed and limited by the Supreme
Court. Presidents must also constantly seek to build public support
for their policy agendas--unpopular presidents are very unlikely
to get the congressional cooperation they need. Other factors also
significantly limit the exercise of presidential power--a sprawling
and often unresponsive bureaucracy, the complexity of the policy
agenda, domestic and foreign policy crises over which presidents
have no control, the need to run for reelection after four years
and two-term limit on holding the office.
Judging Presidential Performance
What makes a good President? A bad one? Who decides?
are judged from a variety of perspectives by a wide variety of
groups and individuals. To some degree, the assessment of a President
depends on the perspective from which he is judged. However, the
most popular presidents, those who are judged favorably by almost
everyone, share three important characteristics: vision, skill
and good timing.
presidents have had a powerful vision of a better America. They
have also possessed the necessary skills to communicate that vision
to others and to work with other political leaders to make it a
reality. Perhaps most importantly, they came into office at a time
when the nation was in need of such a vision and strong leadership.3
the limits on presidential authority, some political scientists have
concluded that Presidents can only influence the public policy process "at
the margins"4the president's ability
to persuade and bargain with other political actors.5 As
for the impact of the Presidency on American politics and the political
system, Forrest McDonald has observed:
the powers of the office have sometimes been grossly abused,
though the presidency has become almost impossible to manage,
and though the caliber of the people who have served as chief
executive has declined erratically but persistently from the
day George Washington left office, the presidency has been responsible
for less harm and more good, in the nation and in the world,
than perhaps any other secular institution in history.6
The Framers of the Constitution clearly saw the need for a strong
executive. One of the primary weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation
was the lack of an independent executive with the authority to lead
the nation effectively. However, the Framers did not create an all-powerful
Chief Executive. Indeed, the presidential power is limited in significant
ways, many of which have been discussed. To summarize, however, Presidents
share power with two other branches of government, they must work with
others in the political system to forward their agendas and they are
limited by public opinion and the political environment in which they
find themselves. Because the obstacles to presidential power are more
pronounced in the domestic arena, presidents are often tempted to focus
most of their time and energy on foreign affairs. Doing so, however,
is not without risk. Mistakes in international affairs can have much
more dire consequences than domestic policy missteps generally do.
And, especially problematic for first term presidents, concentrating
too much on problems outside the nation can leave an incumbent President
open to accusations of ignoring pressing domestic problems.
Wildavsky, "The Two Presidencies," in Perspectives on the Presidency,
edited by Wildavsky (Boston: Little, Brown, 1975).
Forrest McDonald, The American Presidency: An Intellectual
History (Lawrence, Kansas: Kansas University Press, 1994),
Thomas E. Cronin and Michael A. Genovese, The Paradoxes
of the American Presidency (New York: Oxford University
Press, 1998), 120-7.
George C. Edwards, At the Margins: Presidential Leadership
in Congress (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989).
Richard Neustadt, Presidential Power.