Presidential Power

Article 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

The 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

In 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.

Chief Executive

The 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.

The President's role as Chief Executive is discussed in greater detail in "Presidential Leadership" and "Bureaucracy."

Chief Legislator

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.

Judicial Nominations

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 in Vietnam).

The War Powers

In 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).

While 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.

In 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.

Presidential 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 Grenada ).

Chief Diplomat

The 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

In 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."

The 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?

Citing 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 properly.

Indeed, 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?

Presidents 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.

Successful 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

Given 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:

Though 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.

1. Aaron Wildavsky, "The Two Presidencies," in Perspectives on the Presidency, edited by Wildavsky (Boston: Little, Brown, 1975).
2. Forrest McDonald, The American Presidency: An Intellectual History (Lawrence, Kansas: Kansas University Press, 1994), 218.
3. Thomas E. Cronin and Michael A. Genovese, The Paradoxes of the American Presidency (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 120-7.
4. George C. Edwards, At the Margins: Presidential Leadership in Congress (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989).
5. Richard Neustadt, Presidential Power.
6. McDonald, 481.