What Are The Powers Of The President?

Learn more about the powers and duties of the President of the United States and how the current occupant, Donald Trump, has handled the role.
President Donald Trump, May 30, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

President Donald Trump, May 30, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

What is the role of the President of the United States?

The President of the United States is the head of the Executive Branch, one of the three branches of government created by the Constitution. Though President Donald Trump famously claimed that Article II means “I have the right to do whatever I want as president,” it actually defines the powers and limits the scope of the office. The president acts as the official figurehead of the U.S. government, greets foreign dignitaries, and has specific constitutional powers, but is not above or more powerful than the other two branches of government.

The Executive Branch enforces the laws or executes the laws enacted by Congress, and the president has wide latitude with the agencies that do so, identifying priorities and, to some extent, the structure of the agencies. A president appoints a Cabinet consisting of the Secretaries of various departments that carry out that work, the Vice President and the Attorney General, all of whom must be confirmed by Congress.

The president cannot create or change laws, and when signing a bill into law, he does not have the power to alter it, though she or he can prioritize how the executive departments enforce or implement the laws through Executive Orders. Even with that power, the president must “faithfully execute” the laws.

“From time to time,” as per the Constitution, the president informs Congress on the “State of the Union.” She or he has a broad power to issue pardons, which does not require congressional approval. The president also appoints ambassadors, judges and justices, with Senate confirmation.

The Executive Branch is one of three co-equal branches of government, and though the president acts as head of government, he or she does not control the other two branches.

How does one become President?

To be president, one must be a “natural born” US citizen (or a US citizen at the time of the adoption of the Constitution, which is edging toward unlikely in 2020), at least 35 years old and must have lived in the US for the most recent 14 years. While not required by the Constitution, these days a candidate must win a major party primary to have a genuine shot at the White House; the party nomination ensures that the candidate appears on the ballot in every state, though the candidates must meet state requirements to appear on the ballot for the primaries.

A presidential hopeful can run as an independent but has to then meet the state’s individual rules for access to the ballot. Third parties–like the Green Party or Libertarian Party–can also seek access to the November ballot. Some, like the Libertarian Party in 2016, are completely successful and appear on the ballot in all 50 states. The Green Party in 2016 didn’t make the ballot in three states and only appeared as a write-in option in two more. Not great odds for winning.

The third possibility is as a write-in candidate, but there’s probably a better chance of being alive when the Constitution was adopted.

Every four years in November, on a date fixed by Congress as per the Constitution, Americans cast our votes for both the candidate of our choice and, by default, the “slate” of electors who will vote for that candidate in December when the electoral college convenes. This year, the election falls on November 3, 2020.

In all but Maine and Nebraska, the person who wins the popular vote in a state wins all of the electoral votes. A candidate can win the national popular vote by a wide margin and still not obtain the 270 of 538 electoral votes required to win, as happened in 2016, when Hillary Clinton topped Donald Trump by about 2.9 million votes, but Trump managed to seize the electoral college, thus securing the presidency.

If one makes it triumphantly through all that, congratulations Ms./Mr. President! See you on January 20, 2021, for your inauguration, as specified by the 20th Amendment, for your four-year-term as per Article II. The 22nd Amendment limits a president to serving two terms, so don’t get too comfortable.

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What are the most important presidential powers?

The Constitution provides the president with the following important powers:

Signing Bills into Law (Article I, Section 7)

The president signs bills into law after they pass both houses of Congress, or she or he can veto them. Congress can override a presidential veto with a 2/3rds vote. A president cannot alter legislation or use a “line item veto,” as the Supreme Court found the practice unconstitutional in the case Clinton vs. New York. While Trump threatened to ignore watchdog provisions from the COVID-19 stimulus, he does not have the power to do so. Subsequently, he removed the Pentagon Inspector General Glenn Fine, who would have overseen the funds.

Chief Executive (Article II, Section 1)

The “Vesting Clause” of Article II Section 1 makes the president the Chief Executive of the federal government. As such, she or he heads all of the agencies organized under the Executive Branch, including the Department of Justice (DOJ); Health and Human Services (HHS), home of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC); the Department of Education; the Department of State; Homeland Security, including ICE and Customs and Border Control; the Department of Energy, the Department of Defense, the Department of the Treasury, and many more departments, agencies, sub-agencies and bureaus. While some, like the FBI, are most obviously involved in law enforcement, all of the bodies under the Executive Branch, and subject to the Chief Executive, involve the implementation of law or policy.

The president only serves as Chief Executive of the agencies in that branch of government and in the role of meeting with foreign dignitaries; the Legislative Branch, meaning Congress, and the Judicial Branch are co-equal to the office of the president, not subject to or below it. The Speaker of the House and the Majority Leader of the Senate lead the Legislative Branch, and the Supreme Court acts as the head of the judiciary. A full list of executive branch departments and agencies can be found here.

As the Chief Executive, the president has the power to issue executive orders. Not laws, these orders tell the departments within the executive branch how to conduct business and can set priorities. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA was an executive order from President Obama dictating priorities to immigration enforcement. Trump’s Muslim Ban is also an executive order, a use of executive power the Supreme Court upheld in 2018.

Commander in Chief (Article II, Section 2)

The Constitution appoints the president as Commander-in-Chief, head of the military. Even though the president acts as Commander in Chief, s/he does not have the power to declare war. According to the War Powers Clause of the Constitution (Article I, Section 8, Clause 11) only Congress can declare war. After Vietnam, Congress passed the War Powers Resolution of 1973 which underscores the constitutional division, limiting the ability of the president to enter into military conflict without Congress’ consent. After Trump killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Suleimani in January, 2020, a bipartisan resolution rebuking him for his violation of the act passed the Senate in February, though it is unlikely to become law.

Trump also displayed this power when relieving Navy Capt. Brett Crozier of the USS Theodore Roosevelt of his duties after he wrote a letter describing the spread of COVID-19 on his vessel and pleading for help. Trump called the letter “terrible.” Though Trump claimed he did not make the decision to fire Crozier, as the Commander in Chief, he had the ultimate power to initiate or prevent the reprisal.

Pardons (Article II, Section 2)

The president has the power to grant reprieves pardons “for Offenses against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.” It is a broad power, allowing the president wide discretion in pardoning federal crimes. A president cannot pardon state crimes, though, only the executive of the state, the governor, can do that.

The pardoning power may be the widest of the presidential powers, as it requires no oversight from the other two branches of government. That said, prior presidents generally followed DOJ protocols when issuing pardons; it is not clear that Trump has done the same. For an in-depth look at presidential pardons and their history, check this out.

Treaties and Appointments (Article II, Section 3)

The presidential power to make treaties is subject to the “advice and consent” of the Senate, and the Senate must approve a treaty by a 2/3rds vote. But the president can unilaterally withdraw from treaties under current law, and Trump has so done, pulling out of six international treaties, renegotiating others, and questioning some, like the World Health Organization (WHO).

Appointing ambassadors, department heads and Supreme Court justices also falls under the president’s umbrella, though again, subject to the “advice and consent” of the Senate. Majority Leader of the Senate Mitch McConnell most infamously wielded this clause as a cudgel against Obama, completely refusing to take up the nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. Claiming appointments were not appropriate in an election year, he held the vacancy left by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia until Trump-appointed Justice Neil Gorsuch. McConnell also refused to seat other Obama judicial nominees, though he recently asked older conservative judges to retire so Trump can appoint new ones. He also confirms that he would fill a Supreme Court vacancy if one opens up in 2020, an election year.

What are the limits on the President’s powers?

With its structure of checks and balances, intending each branch to limit the power of the other two, the Constitution ensures that the power of the federal government does reside in any one individual. Presidential powers like appointments and treaties require the advice and consent of the Senate. The courts have the power to review the constitutionality of executive orders.

The Faithful Execution or Take Care Clause of Article II Section 3 requires the president enforce the laws as passed by Congress. Trump refusing to enforce the watchdog provisions of the COVID-19 stimulus would violate this clause. In 2018, Seven states filed suit against the government, claiming Obama violated the Take Care Clause with the creation of DACA.

One of the biggest intended restraints on presidential power is the impeachment clause, Article II, Section 4, which provides for the removal of the president by the Senate after impeachment by the House. What we recently witnessed, however, is the Constitutional check of power is only as strong as the people enforcing it.

The differentiation between state and federal government works as another check on the power of the president. The 10th Amendment reserves all power not specifically vested in the federal government to the states or the people, and every state has its own constitution and its own executive, in the form of its governor. While the states are subject to federal law, they are not subject to following executive policy. The president does not have authority over the governors of the states, and cannot, for example, “order” them to end any emergency measures they have taken in light of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

How does a president select their Cabinet?

The president has great latitude in choosing the members of the cabinet, and that generally happens long before inauguration, allowing for full vetting. The president then nominates candidates for each position, and the Senate holds confirmation hearings, deciding whether to confirm.

Though we typically think of the most visible cabinet members if thinking of presidential appointments at all, in 2016, Trump had about 4,000 appointments to fill. In February of 2017, Trump announced he did not intend to fill most of the positions.

While most presidents or presidential candidates engage in a rigorous vetting process, Trump appears to have used a different marker: money. According to Politico, 38% of his appointments went to big-dollar donors.

The Cabinet consists of the Vice President and 15 executive department heads, including the Secretaries of:

  • Agriculture,
  • Commerce,
  • Defense,
  • Education,
  • Energy,
  • Health and Human Services,
  • Homeland Security,
  • Housing and Urban Development,
  • Interior,
  • Labor, State,
  • Transportation,
  • Treasury,
  • Veterans Affairs, and;
  • the Attorney General.

Who is the current President?

The current president is Donald Trump, who was sworn in on January 20, 2017. Described as an immigration “hardliner,” his nativist policies include ending DACA, enacting the Muslim Ban, “zero tolerance” family separation, and a wealth test for immigrants. That test was recently upheld by a Supreme Court to which he added two Justices, Neil Gorsuch, who usurped the seat to which Obama appointed Merrick Garland, and controversial Brett Kavanaugh, whose Senate confirmation hearing included testimony alleging he committed sexual assault.

Trump’s signature legislation is the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), a major revision of the tax code passed in the early part of his term, when Republicans held the majority in the House and the Senate. The TCJA shifted tax benefits upward, so the top 20% of earners reaped 72% of the rewards.

In addition to undoing countless health, safety and environmental regulations, in 2018, Trump dismantled the National Security Council pandemic team. In September of 2019, shortly before the novel coronavirus hit Wuhan in China, Trump ended Predict, a US Agency for International Development program used to anticipate potential pandemics. In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S., Trump appeared more concerned with “his numbers,” than doing the widespread testing required to prevent a COVID-19 pandemic. At one point, Trump refused to allow passengers to disembark from a cruise ship where people were infected, saying on March 7, 2020 “…I like the numbers being where they are. I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship.”

On March 16, 2020, asked if he took any responsibility for the lack of testing, Trump said: “I don’t take responsibility at all.” As of the time of this writing, there are 495,750 confirmed coronavirus cases, and 18,430 Americans have died of COVID-19.

Trump will face Biden in the November 3, 2020 election. You can read about every week of Donald Trump’s presidency in Rantt’s Unpresidented column.

List Of US Presidents

  1. George Washington
  2. John Adams
  3. Thomas Jefferson
  4. James Madison
  5. James Monroe
  6. John Quincy Adams
  7. Andrew Jackson
  8. Martin Van Buren
  9. William Henry Harrison
  10. John Tyler
  11. James K. Polk
  12. Zachary Taylor
  13. Millard Fillmore
  14. Franklin Pierce
  15. James Buchanan
  16. Abraham Lincoln
  17. Andrew Johnson
  18. Ulysses S. Grant
  19. Rutherford B. Hayes
  20. James Garfield
  21. Chester A. Arthur
  22. Grover Cleveland
  23. Benjamin Harrison
  24. Grover Cleveland
  25. William McKinley
  26. Theodore Roosevelt
  27. William Howard Taft
  28. Woodrow Wilson
  29. Warren G. Harding
  30. Calvin Coolidge
  31. Herbert Hoover
  32. Franklin D. Roosevelt
  33. Harry S. Truman
  34. Dwight D. Eisenhower
  35. John F. Kennedy
  36. Lyndon B. Johnson
  37. Richard M. Nixon
  38. Gerald R. Ford
  39. James Carter
  40. Ronald Reagan
  41. George H. W. Bush
  42. William J. Clinton
  43. George W. Bush
  44. Barack Obama
  45. Donald J. Trump

The Rantt Rundown

The President serves as the head of the federal government, though the Executive Branch is co-equal to the Legislative Branch and the Judicial Branch. Fulfilling the functions of Chief Executive, the president implements and enforces the law, and sets priorities through executive orders, which are subject to judicial review. As Commander in Chief, the president leads the military. The president meets with foreign dignitaries, issues pardons, and signs or vetoes bills. With Senate confirmation or approval, the president appoints Cabinet members, ambassadors and judges and enters into treaties. The power of the president is limited by the Constitution’s inherent checks and balances, and the power of our government does not rest in the hands of any one person.

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Rantt 101 // Donald Trump / Executive Branch / Government