The Powers and Duties of the President

The president is given the responsibility to run the government and is given the powers necessary to do so under Article II. As is the case with Congress’ legislative powers outlined in Article I, there has been some dispute whether the powers listed in Article II exhaustively define the limits of the president’s executive powers or if they are merely examples of those powers. Nonetheless, the president’s Article II powers have been interpreted to be broad enough to provide sufficient authority to execute policy in many areas.

The president’s duties require that he be head of the civil government and head of the military. The president is also the United States’ principal foreign affairs officer, charged with sending and receiving ambassadors. The powers that the president has been given are textually vague and thus arguably broad. Some of those powers are circumscribed by the requirement that the chief executive consult with and receive the approval of other governmental actors. Although quite powerful, the president is still constrained by the checks and balances exercised by the other branches of government.

The Pardon Power

The President has the power to pardon anyone of any crime for which they have been convicted. The idea of pardon power is particularly tricky—in some ways it appears royal and arguably anti-democratic to the extent that it gives the president the power to waive punishment that has been determined to be consistent with the law. Predictably, many Anti-Federalists assailed this feature suggesting it would lead to tyranny. Conversely, the pardon power may be used to rectify a punishment that was consistent with the letter of the law but not its spirit. And finally, the power to offer pardons to rebels and insurrectionists may be used as a tool for negotiating their surrender. As with many presidential powers, the content of the power may matter less than how and when it is used.

The Appointment Power

The president is the head of the civil authority. In that vein, the president runs the government and appoints many people to fill the upper reaches of the government, including Supreme Court justices. However, the president’s appointment power is limited. The president must receive the advice and consent of the Senate with respect to many of the people he nominates. If the Senate declines to consent, the nomination fails. This is just one example of the enormous power the president has, but it also illustrates that the power is circumscribed. The president may make appointments without the advice and consent of the Senate when it is in recess. However, a recess appointment is temporary and has been known to create a backlash in the Senate, making future appointments more difficult.

Commander-in-Chief

The president also is the head of the military, serving as commander-in-chief of the armed forces. However, given that the Congress has the power to declare war, the president’s role as commander-in-chief is arguably limited to executing war once Congress had decided to engage in war. The issue remains with us, but it is generally resolved through political considerations. That is, the president uses the military as he believes necessary, consistent with his role as commander-in-chief, while consulting with Congress to make sure the military action continues to be funded. Whether this comports with the way the constitutional check and balance is supposed to work is a matter for debate.

The Veto Power

Within a republican form of government, it is the legislature that draws “all power into its impetuous vortex” (Federalist No. 48). In accordance with the Lockean ideal of legislative supremacy, Congress was granted broad power to legislate, along with adequate control of the executive to keep it in check. However, the Framers had learned from many of the state constitutions written in 1776 which gave the state legislatures far too much power, resulting in an “excess of democracy.” They sought to correct this problem in the federal government, and therefore imbue the executive with greater means of checking the legislature. 

Under the British constitution, the King had exercised an absolute veto over the acts of Parliament. This prerogative gave the King a powerful shield which he could use to protect himself from encroachments by the legislative branch. Most Framers, however, were not willing to place so much untrammeled authority into the hands of the president. The Constitution therefore stipulates that a president may veto any legislation for any reason, but Congress may override that veto if it can muster two-thirds of its members in both Houses.

A Blending of Powers

Does the Veto Power violate the Separation of the Executive from the Legislative?

Although veto power does give the president some participation in the legislative process, this blending of the different powers of government is, ironically, meant to reinforce the separation of powers. Since legislatures within popular governments often possess “a disposition to encroach upon the rights of other members of the government,” some protective measures of the president are needed for his own defense. According to Hamilton in Federalist No. 73: “The primary inducement to conferring the power in question upon the executive is to enable him to defend himself.” The veto can be used to protect the legitimate authority of the president’s office against the encroaching tendency of the legislature. Even the threat of a veto, it was suggested, would have the tendency to keep the legislature on its best behavior. The secondary reason for the veto was that it was hoped that the occasional call for Congress to rethink its decisions would result in better laws.