Presidential Powers

The Federal Constitutional Republic of the United States of America is governed by three separate branches of power, namely:

  • The Legislative: Consisting of the two houses of the national bicameral legislature (the Senate and House of Representatives), that design federal laws and manage the republic.
  • The Judiciary: Consisting of the court system and judicial officers who interpret and enforce state and federal laws.
  • The Executive: Consisting of the president, vice president, and cabinet members that serve as the executive arm of the government.

The original intent of separation of powers by our Founding Fathers was to ensure a natural system of checks and balances that will encourage the establishment a more efficient culture of governance with a strong emphasis on accountability while minimizing the risks of the emergence of a dictatorial center of power inside the republic.

The de-facto leader in this governing model was an elected President, whose responsibility and scope of authority were engraved in Article II of the Constitution. Despite the legendary, all-conquering powers often associated with the office, the powers of our presidents are actually relatively limited. In fact, take away his role as “Commander In Chief” of the U.S. “Army and Navy and of the Militia of the several States,” his position is largely ceremonial.

His powers, as defined by the Constitution (excluding the always contentious implied inherent powers), are as follows:

  • Appointment of his vice-president and fifteen heads of executive departments (his cabinet)
  • The power to “grant Reprieves and/or Pardons for Offences against the U.S. except where it concerns Cases of Impeachment”
  • To establish treaties with foreign nations, with the approval of at least two-thirds of the Senate
  • To nominate, with the approval of at 2/3 of the Senate, “Public Ministers, Ambassadors and Consuls, Supreme Court Justices, and other U.S. Officers”
  • During a Senate recess period, the President is allowed to appoint senior federal officials, but it must be approved by the Senate once they reconvened.
  • Presents the annual State of Union address to Congress.
  • On “extraordinary occasions,” he may convene and adjourn the Senate and/or the House of Representatives.
  • Receive foreign ambassadors and ministers
  • Commission senior officers of the armed forces (with the rank of Major and above; lower ranks are conferred by the Secretary of Defense).
  • Sign bills into law (although unsigned bills can still be passed by the Senate with a two-thirds majority)
  • Oversee that the laws of the nation are obeyed by its officials, and the judiciary and legislative branch.

It would not be remiss to say that, in fact, the Executive (and by extension, the presidency) is the least powerful branch of the United States government. Some have even likened the role of the president to that of the ‘chief negotiator’ of the federal government, as, by and large, the president and his advisors spend most of their days negotiating with members of the Senate and House of Representatives.

The power of the president is only evident during times of war, as the president will inevitably take command of all military-related decisions. This extra-constitutional 20th-century development of presidential muscle has often been attributed to the cumbersome and time-consuming manner of the Congress’ decision-making process. See also this post about the History of the Presidential Debate.

Despite the obvious limitations, the president remains, without doubt, the most powerful and influential figure in the country. He is the head of state and a living symbol of the nation, a figurehead of the ruling elite, a piñata for the proletariat and the object of veneration for the young. He sets the national agenda, harnessing the might and powers of the judiciary and legislative branches to create a better future (and now) for Americans, all the while guided by an unflinching core of righteousness and goodness.

Their task is a thankless one, subject to an unending stream of criticisms that in some cases, cost them their very lives. Four American presidents were assassinated in office, while attempts were made on fourteen more.