The president and vice president are the only officials elected by all citizens of the United States; both serve four-year terms. Although the president shares power with Congress and the judiciary, he or she is the most powerful and important officeholder in the country. The president has no vote in Congress but proposes much of the legislation that becomes law. As the principal maker of foreign policy, the president of the United States has become one of the world’s most important leaders in international affairs.


At first, the Founders were uncertain about the kind of executive power they desired for the United States. In 1787 they debated at length about how to choose a president and how much authority to give such a person. The drafters of the Constitution gave the president fewer specific powers than they extended to Congress because they were worried about placing too much power in the hands of one individual. The Founders then created an electoral college as the means of selecting the executive of their new country.

The electoral college is composed of presidential electors representing each state. The number of electors per state is equal to the sum of the state’s senators and representatives in Congress. The Founders intended these electors, chosen as each state thought best, to meet and vote according to their individual preferences. This process excluded the influence of Congress as well as that of voters, who in these early days of the United States were not believed to be competent to choose a president.

This system depended on states to determine how electors would be chosen, an arrangement that removed the choice of the president from the direct vote of the people. Even today Americans do not vote directly for a presidential candidate. Instead, if a presidential candidate receives a majority of the state’s popular vote, a slate of electors pledges to cast all that state’s electoral votes for that candidate. Two exceptions are Maine and Nebraska, where electoral votes can be divided among candidates depending on the proportion of votes the candidates received.

Such a process makes some Americans fear the possibility of a presidential candidate winning the popular vote and losing the electoral vote. Since the system works mostly on a winner-take-all basis, the electoral vote of most states is always unanimous, but the popular vote may be very close. It is possible for a candidate to garner a majority of the popular vote but then, by losing certain key states with large numbers of electoral votes, to fail to win a majority in the electoral college. In 1888, for example, Democrat Grover Cleveland received 5,540,000 votes to Republican Benjamin Harrison’s 5,444,000 but lost the electoral college 233 to 168. More recently, in 2000, Democrat Al Gore won 50,994,082 votes to 50,461,080 for Republican George W. Bush, but Bush won the presidency by capturing 271 electoral votes to Gore’s 266.

Of the three branches of government, the presidency has changed the most in the last 200 years. At first, presidents mostly served as administrators carrying out the laws passed by Congress. But in time they have come to stand at the center of the national government. In fact, presidential power had increased so much by the middle of the 20th century that in 1951 the states ratified the 22nd Amendment, which limited the presidency to two terms.

Responsibilities of the President

In the United States today, the chief executive has many responsibilities. The president appoints personnel—including ambassadors, White House staff, and members of various boards and commissions—to more than 3,000 positions; oversees the many components of the executive branch of government; and proposes legislation to Congress—including the yearly federal budget. The president also directs foreign policy, commands the armed forces, negotiates and signs treaties, and serves as a symbol of the nation and a head of state with ceremonial duties.

Responsibilities of the President - Executive Agencies

The increasing power of modern presidents does not violate the Constitution by encroaching on the other branches of government. Rather, executive authority has expanded because of the loosely defined nature of the president’s powers in the Constitution. In Article II of the Constitution, the president is charged with seeing that “the Laws be faithfully executed.” It would be difficult for one individual to oversee all aspects of a modern industrialized society like that of the United States. Thus the executive branch has established a large number of agencies that carry out some of the executive functions of the government. Many full-time government employees participate in defining, regulating, and carrying out the various functions of the executive branch.

There are 15 departments of the executive branch. The heads of these departments, called secretaries, make up the Cabinet, a body that advises the president on matters of policy and government administration. There are also more than 140 executive agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the National Labor Relations Board, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and the United States Postal Service.

The difference between departments and executive agencies is both historical and functional. Departments, many of which were created in the 19th century, are authorized by Congress; their chiefs sit in the Cabinet, and they often deal with large policy issues. Executive agencies, on the other hand, are usually designed to carry out specific tasks. Most executive agencies are contained within departments, as one part of a larger organization. For example, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is an agency within the Department of the Treasury that fulfills the highly specialized function of regulating taxation. However, a few executive agencies, such as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), are independent.

Executive agencies have expanded in the 20th century to keep pace with a changing society and its growing needs. Large programs, such as Social Security, have grown to require more government workers to administer them. National security needs have also grown as the United States has taken a more active role in the world. The CIA and the National Security Agency (NSA) were created to protect Americans and maintain the security of the United States.

Many executive agencies establish safety standards. For instance, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services, issued rules in 1998 requiring drug companies to conduct wider testing of drugs in order to have more precise information about the use of medications on children. While drug companies challenged these regulations as burdensome, consumer and parent groups praised them as important safeguards.

Americans sometimes complain about the size of the federal government and especially that of the executive branch, which employs 98 percent of all national government personnel. This impression, however, should be measured against the growth of the American work force and the increases in state and local bureaucracies. In 1998 nearly 4.2 million people worked for the executive branch: 1.4 million were uniformed military employees and 2.7 million were civilians. However, the proportion of federal workers to the total American work force has not increased since 1950 and in fact has been declining since the 1980s. It has also declined relative to the number of local public employees, suggesting that although the number of federal employees is large, if measured against the general population, its growth has not been disproportionate.

Responsibilities of the President - Foreign Policy

In addition to authority as head of the many executive departments and agencies, the president also has primary responsibility for making foreign policy. The Constitution established the president as commander of the armed forces and gave the president the authority to make treaties “with the Advice and Consent” of Congress. As a result, both Congress and the courts have generally supported energetic presidential action in the area of foreign policy. The president has the power to recognize new governments, to attend summit meetings with the heads of other nations, and to make executive agreements with foreign governments. Executive agreements have the force of law, but unlike treaties, they do not require congressional approval. Most Americans consider it in their best interests to allow the president some freedom of action in foreign affairs, recognizing that the president may be required to respond quickly to international challenges.

In conducting foreign policy, the president is helped by professionals at the State and Defense departments, by the National Security Council, by foreign affairs advisers in the White House, and by experts in the NSA and the CIA. In fact, one of the reasons that the president has dominated the direction of foreign policy in the late 20th century has been this access to superior intelligence information, which allows the president to make rapid and informed decisions.

Limitations on Presidential Power

Despite their wide-ranging authority, presidents have limits on their power. While the Supreme Court, the media, and public opinion can affect presidential actions, Congress has the greatest ability to limit the president’s power. Congress can check presidential power by refusing to appropriate funds for a presidential initiative, whether domestic or international. It can also refuse to confirm presidential appointees, such as ambassadors or Supreme Court justices. And ultimately only Congress can write and pass the laws that the executive branch is constitutionally obligated to implement.

Current Trends and Issues

It has always been necessary for presidents to work with Congress, but in the second half of the 20th century, relations between the two have often been strained and divided by political-party affiliation. Until after World War II (1939-1945) most presidents worked with a government in which their political party also controlled the House and Senate, making relations smoother. But since 1952 presidents have often confronted a Congress where the opposition party has a majority in at least one House. Such circumstances have limited the effectiveness of presidential leadership.

In an age when presidents initiate more legislation and relations with Congress are often chilly, the chief executive’s public image and persuasive abilities have become more important. Because the one voice of the president commands attention in a way that the 535 voices of Congress cannot, the president often uses public opinion to gain support for his or her agenda. Presidents distribute news releases, give favored reporters and journalists anonymous news leaks, and send their advisers to talk on news shows. Increasingly in the 20th century the voice of the people has come to be heard in sophisticated polls and interviews conducted by the media, which in turn influence the way that presidents respond to specific issues.

The presidency also needs to find a way to deal more effectively with the large numbers of administrative agencies that exert influence over legislative policies. Over the years, Congress has given broad authority over certain public issues to regulatory agencies. In turn, these agencies make regulations that frequently affect the way laws are carried out. These regulations have the force of law, though there is no review of them. Often, administrative orders read like acts of Congress or executive orders, despite the fact that no elected official had anything to do with them. Sometimes these regulatory agencies have better relationships with Congress than with a president who may not agree with their policies. This closeness diminishes the authority of the president over the bureaucracy.