The executive branch of government: President

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  • Created on: 23-04-19 15:30

The executive branch of government: President

Where does the American presidency derive its powers from? 

The formal powers of the president are enumerated in Article 1 of the Constitution.

The informal powers of the presidency and executive have occured over time and reflect changing expectations and priorities in society. 

For example, the USA has emerged as a global superpower, so has the significance of the president's role as commander-in-chief of the armed forces. 

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The executive branch of government: President

The president is the head of the executive and is charged with 'faithfully executing the laws'. 

One example of this power in action was in December 2016, when President Obama used an obscure provision of a 1953 law, the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, to ban permanently drilling on portions of the ocean floor from Virgina to Maine and along much of Alaska's coast. 

As commander in chief, the president has the power to deploy US forces in combat zones without asking Congress formally to declare war. This was how George W. Bush managed to send US forces into Afghanistan and later Iraq to remove their leaders - the Taliban and Saddam Hussain respectively - in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. 

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The executive branch of government: President

What are the main formal and informal powers of the US President? 

Formal Powers

The formal powers of the Constitution are loose and vague as the framers did not envisage a powerful head of state. 

  • Chief executive: only the president can appoint members of government and heads of federal bodies such as NASA and the CIA. The president has the power of pardon and draws up the annual budget, which Congress must then approve.
  • Commander-in-chief: the president is the leader of the US armed forces and is responsible for their deployment. 
  • Chief diplomat: the Constitution states that the president has the power to make treaties with foreign powers.
  • Chief 'law maker': the president can veto laws passed by Congress. 
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The executive branch of government: President

Implied Powers

  • Chief legislator: presidents are always elected on the back of a set of promises and policies, as well as vaguer slogans such as 'making America great again'. Once in power, there is the expectation that these pledges are fulfilled.
  • Leader of the free world: modern global politics requires the USA to take a lead in world affairs on behalf of western countries.
  • Party leader: the president is seen as a party political figure and leader. Although presidents cannot assume the complete loyalty of their party's members in Congress.
  • Communicator in chief: the presidenet has a high media profile - what they say in media briefings, articles or interviews will be widely reported by the media. Sometimes known as the 'bully pulpit', the president can use this power to seek to win over public and political opinion. 
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The executive branch of government: President

  • 'First-responder in chief': in times of national emergency such as the 9/11 terror attacks or hurricanes Sandy or Katrina, the president is expected to give a lead, appear in control and exude determination, compassion and toughness as appropriate. 
  • Executive manipulator in chief: presidents become adapt at bypassing uncooperative Congresses by making full use of their executive authority. This is done by making executive agreements rather than formal treaties with other governments. Executive orders are another way a president can implement policy unilaterally. President Trump used executive orders at the start of his presidnecy to impose stricter immigration controls on visitpors from some Muslim countries seen to pose a high terrorism threat.
  • Superior access to intelligence and policy resources: the president benefits from a large bank of policy advisers who are handpicked, and the resources of knowledge and intelligence from bodies such as the CIA. 
  • Head of state: the president assumes the ceremonial duties, such as formally welcoming foreign leaders, that in the UK are undertaken by the monarch. 
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The executive branch of government: President

What are the main restrictions on the power of a US president? 

Formal restrictions 

  • The presidential veto being overturned by a two-thirds vote in both houses of Congress. This is rare due to the supermajority required. President Obama had 1 of his 12 vetoes overturned, while George W. Bush had 4 out of 12 overturned. 
  • The Senate can refuse to confirm a presidential appointment. The last time a nominee was rejected in a Senate vote was in 1989, when John Tower, President George H. W. Bush's pick for defence Secretary, lost his confirmation vote 53-47. 
  • Being impeached by Congress, as attempted with Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky affair. No US President has ever been successfully impeached though Nixon resigned rather than face probable impeachment and removal from office. 
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The executive branch of government: President

  • Having an action declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, such as the detention without trial of 'enemy combatants' in Hamden v Rumsfeld (2006). 
  • Congress refusing to pass legislation proposed or asked for by the president, as was the case with gun control measures and immigration reform in the Obama years. In extreme cases, Congress can also refuse to pass the annual budget, which can lead to a temporary shutdown of parts of the federal government. 
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The executive branch of government: President

Informal restrictions

  • A Congress controlled by the other party, a situation Obama faced in his second term, can seriously undermine attempts to get legislation, especially controversial measures, enacted.
  • Poor approval ratings in the polls can reduce a president's power to persuade members of Congress to cooperate. By contrast, cooperating with an unpopular president could affect their own chances of re-election. 
  • The culture of 24/7 media makes it harder for the presidnet to respond effectively at all times to criticism and comment. The rise of the more partisan media makes it difficult to persuade and influence voters. 
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The executive branch of government: President

Informal restrictions

  • Some foreign policy actions require cooperation from America's allies for a president to feel confident about going ahead. The Commons' vote rejecting air strikes on Syria in 2013 is widely held to have dissuaded Obama's administration from going ahead with their own intervention at the time. 
  • The potential embarrasment of being subject to judicial investigation comprising a federal prosecutor and a grand jury, as with Clinton and the Whitewater affair in the 1990s. 
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The executive branch of government: President

What are the other parts of the executive?

  • The cabinet (posts such as the secretary of state and treasury secretary).
  • EXOP (Executive Office of The President): this is the President's personal bureaucracy. It contains a number of departments, including the NSC (national security council) and the Office of Management and Budget, which is the largest section of the EXOP. 
  • Federal agencies: these include bodies such as NASA and the EPA (environmental protection agency). 
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The executive branch of government: President

Is the position of US president imperilled (weak) or imperial (strong)? 

The imperilled dimensions on presidency

  • When a hostile Congress blocks their legislative programme.
  • When a president encounters an adverse Supreme Court decision.
  • When a president makes decisions (usually in secret) and they turn out badly. It's even worse if they try to cover them up - Nixon and Watergate.
  • When a two-term president is in his final two years of office, the 'lame duck' stage of presidency, and all eyes are on the next likely occupant of the White House. 
  • When presidential appointments work out badly and there are frequent and turbulent changes. For example, Trump's first two press secretaries, Sean Spicer and Anthony Saramucci, were both gone within six months. 
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The executive branch of government: President

The imperial dimensions on presidency

  • When a supportive Congress is willing to enact policy measures.
  • When a president takes risky decisions, especially in foreign and military affairs, and they prove to be successful. 
  • When a president makes effective use of the considerable resources available to them, such as the Cabinet and executive bureaucracy.
  • The use of executive orders that require no prior approval from Congress, such as those temporarily banning travellers to the States from seven Muslim countries, issued at the start of Trump's presidency. 
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Who has greater power: the US president or the UK

Advantages possessed by the British prime minister

The prime minister is the sole and elected leader of their party and can rely on the loyalty of their MPs.

Backbench revolts are more common now. For example, attempts to relax further Sunday trading laws were blocked by a backbench rebellion of 27 Tory MPs in 2016. 

The prime minister normally commands a majority in the House of Commons, and the contents of the Queen's Speech are very likely to become law. 

The doctrine of cabinet collective responsibility ensures that all ministers must support the prime minister and decisions made in cabinet, or else must resign. 

They are less likely to have their actions struck down by the UK Supreme Court.

The prime minister can serve for more than two terms.

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Who has greater power: the US president or the UK

Advantages possessed by the US president? 

The president enjoys huge administrative and policy advice resources of his personal bureaucracy, e.g. EXOP. 

The president has a personal mandate through being directly elected in a separate election: the prime minister is in post only by virtue of being party leader and can be removed by a coup within the party, as happened with Margaret Thatcher in 1990. Congress equally can possess such a mandate and claim to speak 'for the people'.

The president has clearly defined formal constitutional powers. They can veto legislation, a power that is rarely overturned.

The powers of patronage enable supporters and trusted aids to be part of the government. 

The power to appoint Supreme Court justices when vacancies occur can enable a lasting change of judicial tone and direction to occur. In Britain, this opportunity does not exist as all judicial appointments are made independently by the Judicial Appointments Commission.

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Who has greater power: the US president or the UK


In terms of formal powers, it could be said that a prime minister with a large Commons majority and a relatively united party has more immediate power, especially in domestic policy. 

'Presidential' PMs such as Thatcher and Blair were able to railroad through controversial policies such as the poll tax and tuition fees in a way that US presidents could not. 

In foreign policy, US presidents are more powerful simply by virtue of the size of America's military muscle. As commander-in-chief of the armed forces resourced by the world's biggest military budget, they can wield enormous power and influence beyond their own country. 

Congress can do little to stop foreign interventions from beginning and depsite measures such as the War Powers Act, is usually reluctant to apply the brakes mid-campaign. Military operations are long, costly and can tarnish a whole presidency if they fail. 



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