The President of the United States is the head of state and head of government of the United States. The president leads the executive branch of the federal government and is the commander-in-chief of the United States Armed Forces.
Article II of the U.S. Constitution vests the executive power of the United States in the president and charges him with the execution of federal law, alongside the responsibility of appointing federal executive, diplomatic, regulatory, and judicial officers, and concluding treaties with foreign powers, with the advice and consent of the Senate. The president is further empowered to grant federal pardons and reprieves, and to convene and adjourn either or both houses of Congress under extraordinary circumstances. Since the founding of the United States, the power of the president and the federal government have grown substantially and each modern president, despite possessing no formal legislative powers beyond signing or vetoing congressionally passed bills, is largely responsible for dictating the legislative agenda of his party and the foreign and domestic policy of the United States. The president is frequently described as the most powerful person in the world.
The president is indirectly elected by the people through the Electoral College to a four-year term, and is one of only two nationally elected federal officers, the other being the Vice President of the United States. The Twenty-second Amendment, adopted in 1951, prohibits anyone from being elected to the presidency for a third full term. In all, 43 individuals have served 55 four-year terms. On January 20, 2009, Barack Obama became the forty-fourth and current president.
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In 1783, the Treaty of Paris left the United States independent and at peace, but with an unsettled governmental structure. The Second Continental Congress had drawn up the Articles of Confederation in 1777, describing a permanent confederation, but granting to the Congress of the Confederation—the only federal institution created—little power to finance itself or to ensure that its resolutions were enforced. In part, this reflected the anti-monarchy view of the Revolutionary period; the new American system was explicitly designed to prevent the rise of an American tyrant.
By the end of the Revolutionary War, the Continental dollar had depreciated to the point of worthlessness. The viability of the federal government was threatened by political unrest in several states, efforts by debtors to use popular government to erase their debts, and the inability of Congress to raise revenue to pay off the public debts incurred during the war. The Congress also appeared unable to become a forum for productive cooperation among the States encouraging commerce and economic development. In response, the Philadelphia Convention was convened, ostensibly to devise amendments to the Articles of Confederation, but which instead began to draft a new system of government that would include greater executive power while retaining the checks and balances thought to be essential restraints on any imperial tendency in the office of the president.
Individuals who presided over the Continental Congress during the Revolutionary period and under the Articles of Confederation had the title "President of the United States in Congress Assembled", often shortened to "President of the United States". However, the office had little distinct executive power. With the 1788 ratification of the Constitution, a separate executive branch was created, headed by the "President of the United States". This new Chief Executive role no longer bore the duties of presiding over Congress in a supervisory role, but the title "President" was carried over nevertheless. This title was a major understatement of the actual role empowered to the office by the Constitution, and this choice of words can be seen as a deliberate effort by the Founding Fathers to prevent the head of state position from evolving toward becoming a monarchical position, with the accompanying potential for abuse of such power.
A president's executive authority under the Constitution, tempered by the checks and balances of the judicial and legislative branches of the federal government, was designed to solve several political problems faced by the young nation and to anticipate future challenges, while still preventing the rise of an autocrat.
The first power conferred upon the president by the U.S. Constitution is the legislative power of the presidential veto. The Presentment Clause requires any bill passed by Congress to be presented to the president before it can become law. Once the legislation has been presented, the president has three options:
In 1996, Congress attempted to enhance the president's veto power with the Line Item Veto Act. The legislation empowered the president to sign any spending bill into law while simultaneously striking certain spending items within the bill, particularly any new spending, any amount of discretionary spending, or any new limited tax benefit. Once a president had stricken the item, Congress could pass that particular item again. If the president then vetoed the new legislation, Congress could override the veto by its ordinary means, a two-thirds vote in both houses. In Clinton v. City of New York, , the U.S. Supreme Court ruled such a legislative alteration of the veto power to be unconstitutional.
Perhaps the most important of all presidential powers is command of the United States armed forces as commander-in-chief. While the power to declare war is constitutionally vested in Congress, the president commands and directs the military and is responsible for planning military strategy. The framers of the Constitution took care to limit the president's powers regarding the military; Alexander Hamilton explains this in Federalist No. 69:
Congress, pursuant to the War Powers Resolution, must authorize any troop deployments longer than 60 days, although that process relies on triggering mechanisms that have never been employed, rendering it ineffectual. Additionally, Congress provides a check to presidential military power through its control over military spending and regulation.The President is to be commander-in-chief of the army and navy of the United States. ... It would amount to nothing more than the supreme command and direction of the military and naval forces ... while that [the power] of the British king extends to the DECLARING of war and to the RAISING and REGULATING of fleets and armies, all [of] which ... would appertain to the legislature. [Emphasis in the original.]
Along with the armed forces, the president also directs U.S. foreign policy. Through the Department of State and the Department of Defense, the president is responsible for the protection of Americans abroad and of foreign nationals in the United States. The president decides whether to recognize new nations and new governments, and negotiates treaties with other nations, which become binding on the United States when approved by two-thirds vote of the Senate.
Although not constitutionally provided, presidents also sometimes employ "executive agreements" in foreign relations. Frequently, these agreements regard the orientation of executive discretion in the administration of matters germane to executive power; for example, the extent to which either country presents an armed presence in a given area, how each country will enforce copyright treaties, or how each country will process foreign mail. However, the 20th century witnessed a vast expansion of the use of executive agreements, and critics have challenged the extent of that use as supplanting the treaty process and removing constitutionally prescribed checks and balances over the executive in foreign relations. Supporters counter that the agreements offer a pragmatic solution when the need for swift, secret, and/or concerted action arises.