The powers of the American President

The powers of the American President

The position of the president dominates American Politics. The president is head of America’s executive; Congress heads America's legislative and the Supreme Court, America's judiciary. These three parts of the government, make up the federal structure of politics in America.

Usually the only two elected members of the Executive are the president and the vice-president. The president is also commander-in-chief of the armed forces - a position he takes immediately on taking the oath of office.

The president does not govern by himself. "The president of America is not the government of the US." (Bowles) The government of America is by co-operation and the theory is that the executive, legislative and judiciary should work together in harmony to formulate policy.

The president has to seek co-operation but he also has to be seen to be leading the nation. This is one of the great ironies of being ‘the most powerful man in the world’. As the leader of his nation he has to be seen to lead yet he is frequently engaged in negotiations etc. (either personally or by proxy) with politicians based in the Capitol. Instances do exist where this co-operation has broken down but it is rare and it is usual for all three partners in government to work together as anything else discredits the whole system. In the past, when a breakdown has occurred, Congress has received the blame thus giving the president an edge over it as an institution.

For normal day-to-day purposes the president has to accept that senators and representatives have their own legitimate power bases and these have to be recognised. 

"A president cannot lead unless he appreciates the perspectives of other elected politicians and accepts their legitimacy." (Bowles)

In Britain, the prime minister appoints his cabinet who are party members and who are there to support him and his party in power. In America, the cabinet of the president might have no other party colleague in his cabinet except the vice-president. In this sense, outsiders are brought in. However, they are picked because it is felt by the president that they can do the task and work with him and support his policies.

The federal system of government in America and the three distinct forms of government institutions in Washington limit presidential power. Bowles claims that presidents have to "bargain" with other politicians and that at times, presidential power is "illusory". The other politicians who work out of the Capitol building, are not controlled by the president - his only chance might be to influence them but the recent out spoken Democrat members who wanted Clinton to resign rather than drag down the name of the Democrat Party (over the release of the Starr report and the video tape recordings etc.) are indicative of how little influence the president has over his own party members in a time of crisis.

However, the president does have two great advantages :

he does have the ability to set the nation’s political agenda which he can do by exploiting the powers given to him by the Constitution (see below). he can negotiate and bargain with other politicians so that he gets their support for his policies which are then adopted by the Federal government.

Ironically the two above statements include the words one would least associate with a president : negotiate and bargain. That such a position as that of president of America has to do these despite being formally given power by the Constitution, is indicative of the position presidents find themselves in.

The powers of the Presidency as laid down by the Constitution:

The official power of the president can be found in Article II of the Constitution. When read as they are, it becomes obvious why the position of president is such an attractive electoral office.

the executive power of the federal government is vested in the president. the president has the power to appoint ambassadors, members of the Cabinet, Justices of the Supreme Court and Judges of the lower Federal Courts. This is one after in consultation with the Senate. the president may recommend to Congress such legislative measures as he believes are necessary and he may (subject to 2/3rds of both Houses of Congress overriding his decision) veto bills emerging from Congress. the president has the power to make treaties with other nations with the advice and consent of 2/3rds of the Senate. the president is commander-in-chief of the armed forces. the president can require in writing the thoughts and opinions of the principal officer in each of the Executive Departments. The president can grant reprieves and pardons (except in the case of impeachment). He is bound by the laws of the land and he can be removed from office for treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanours

Some of the above powers (such as the veto and granting of pardons) are purely presidential powers that rest with the incumbent. Others obviously rely on the president having to co-operate with the legislative side of government i.e. the Executive and Legislative working together on behalf of the people of America. However, over the years, the nature of the presidency has changed to match the time and the Supreme Court continues to act in the debate on the Constitution and who has what power.

The power of the president:

Throughout the C20th, presidents have claimed "inherent powers" while in office and/or powers implied by the Constitution. Many areas of government have not been provided for in the Constitution - they were never meant to be:

"Had the convention attempted a positive enumeration of the powers necessary and proper for carrying their other powers into effect, the attempt would have involved a complete digest of laws on every subject to which the Constitution relates; accommodated too not only to the existing state of things, but to all the possible changes which futurity may produce……..No axiom is more clearly established in law, or in reason, than that whenever the end is required, the means are authorised; whenever a general power to do a thing is given, every particular power to do a thing is given, every particular power for doing it is included." (Chief Justice Marshall)

It was deemed impossible to cover every aspect and eventuality of government. Presidents have claimed for themselves certain powers which they feel come with the authority granted to them in Article II. They have also claimed powers implied by Article II. The Supreme Court has stepped in when it felt that the president had overstepped the mark (FDR and the appointment of judges and Truman and the use of martial law in 1952).

Inherent power is a contentious issue. Even the Supreme Court has failed to resolve what exactly is meant by "inherent" powers. This relies on the judges to interpret the Constitution - which is a minefield. One issue that clouds a president’s claim is the circumstances behind which a president claims inherent powers. One of the more commonly used circumstances is the phrase that "it is in the national interest".

One of the more problematic issues is the fact that the Constitution is brief and very generalised - as its writers intended it to be to allow for flexibility as the nation grew. This flexibility leaves it open to interpretation. Society and government have become far more complicated as this century has progressed. Gaps within the government that were unnecessary in bygones years, have now been filled and this has been necessary if the government is to be effective. The process by which these gaps have been filled, has been "untidy, intellectually inconsistent and highly contentious." (Bowles) But it has had to be done as the government has grown and evolved. The process has involved not only the Executive but also the Judiciary and the Legislative. The views of interest groups have also been sought. Therefore, there is a shared ownership of the end result and a semblance of democracy can be claimed by the government i.e. the process has not been imposed on the system by the Executive.

What is the extent of inherent powers? The president has "special prerogatives" in foreign affairs - this has been acknowledged by both the Congress and the Supreme Court since 1936. In this year the Supreme Court came to the decision that Federal authority in foreign issues was far greater than Federal power in domestic issues. It also concluded that the two (domestic and foreign) were two distinctly separate areas and that the president’s power in foreign affairs was "special and pronounced". Therefore the president has acquired a great deal of power in foreign issues but he does not have a free rein.

Presidents have been less successful in areas involving domestic power. Nixon spent much effort in expanding presidential power but the Supreme Court frequently ruled against him. In the Watergate affair, Nixon wanted to withhold presidential tape recordings claiming that they were privileged material not for the general consumption of the public. The Supreme Court did not agree that the president had such powers and ordered that they should be passed over. Clinton also had to bow before the power of the Judiciary by being ordered to answer to an investigating committee over his private life and whether he lied on oath. 

President Bush has bucked this trend though. An expansion of domestic federal authority under President Bush, after the September 11th terrorist attacks, met with little or no opposition in Congress or the Supreme Court. It would have been very difficult for either to have put obstacles in the way of the president and the authority he has, after such an outrage. Linked to President Bush's very high approval rating after September 11th, horizontal federalism seemed to have taken a dip in favour of vertical federalism.   

The use of inherent powers and their growth in the C20th and early C21st is probably a reflection of the growth in importance of both the government and the president. The Federal branch of government has acquired two huge responsibilities which have continued to expand in size and therefore have expanded the power of the Federal government. These two responsibilities are

the management of national economic policy the direction of foreign and defence policies.

These two responsibilities have had four related results :

the budget and programmes of the Federal government have increased in size and number. the relation of the Federal to the State governments has changed and become far more complex fiscally, organisationally and politically. the nature of the presidency has altered as its prominence has increased and its centrality in the political life of a nation has become permanent. the relationship between the President, the Executive and Congress has become the most important in American politics. A president has to maintain a positive and productive relationship with both to ensure that his policy priorities proceed without interference.

The growth in the political importance of the presidency has also seen a knock-on effect on government in general which has grown accordingly.


MLA Citation/Reference

"The powers of the American President ". HistoryLearningSite.co.uk. 2014. Web.






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