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President of the United States

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President of the
United States of America
Seal Of The President Of The United States Of America.svg
Official seal
Barack Obama

since January 20, 2009
Style Mr. President
The Honorable
Residence White House
Term length Four years, renewable once
Inaugural holder George Washington
April 30, 1789
Formation United States Constitution
March 4, 1789

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 substantially grown 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. Since 1951, presidents have been limited to two terms by the Twenty-second Amendment. In all, 43 individuals have served 55 four-year terms. On January 20, 2009, Barack Obama became the forty-fourth, and current, president.


The Flag of the President of the United States

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—the only federal institution—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 and the new American system was explicitly designed to prevent the rise of an American tyrant.

However, during the economic depression due to the collapse of the continental dollar following the American Revolution, the viability of the American government was threatened by political unrest in several states, efforts by debtors to use popular government to erase their debts, and the apparent inability of the Continental Congress to redeem the public obligations 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".

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.

Powers and duties

Article I legislative role

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:

  1. Sign the legislation; the bill then becomes law.
  2. Veto the legislation and return it to Congress, expressing any objections; the bill does not become law, unless each House of Congress votes to override the veto by a two-thirds vote.
  3. Take no action. In this instance, the president neither signs nor vetoes the legislation. After 10 days, not counting Sundays, two possible outcomes emerge:
    • If Congress is still convened, the bill becomes law.
    • If Congress has adjourned, thus preventing the return of the legislation, the bill does not become law. This latter outcome is known as the pocket veto.

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, 524 U.S. 417 (1998), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled such an alteration of the veto power to be unconstitutional.

Article II executive powers

War and foreign affairs powers

Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States who successfully preserved the Union during the American Civil War.

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:

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.]

Congress, pursuant to the War Powers Resolution, must authorize any troop deployments more than 60 days in length. Additionally, Congress provides a check to presidential military power through its control over military spending and regulation.

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.

Administrative powers

The president is the chief executive of the United States, putting him at the head of the executive branch of the government, whose responsibility is to "take care that the laws be faithfully executed." To carry out this duty, the president is given control of the four million employees of the federal executive branch.

Presidents make numerous executive branch appointments: an incoming president may make up to 6,000 before he takes office and 8,000 more during his term. Ambassadors, members of the Cabinet, and other federal officers, are all appointed by a president with the "advice and consent" of a majority of the Senate. Appointments made while the Senate is in recess are temporary and expire at the end of the next session of the Senate.

The power of a president to fire executive officials has long been a contentious political issue. Generally, a president may remove purely executive officials at his discretion. However, Congress can curtail and constrain a president's authority to fire commissioners of independent regulatory agencies and certain inferior executive officers by statute.

The president possesses the ability to direct much of the executive branch through executive orders. To the extent the orders are grounded in federal statute or executive power granted in the U.S. Constitution, these orders have the force of law. Thus, executive orders are reviewable by federal courts or can be rendered null through legislative changes to statute.

Juridical powers

The president also has the power to nominate federal judges, including members of the United States courts of appeals and the Supreme Court of the United States. However, these nominations do require Senate confirmation and this can provide a major obstacle for presidents who wish to orient the federal judiciary toward a particular ideological stance. However, when nominating judges to U.S. district courts, presidents often respect the long-standing tradition of Senatorial courtesy. Presidents may also grant pardons and reprieves, as is often done just before the end of a presidential term.

President George W. Bush delivering the 2007 State of the Union Address, with Vice President Dick Cheney and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi behind him.

Executive privilege gives a president the ability to withhold information from Congress and federal courts in matters of national security. George Washington first claimed privilege when Congress requested to see Chief Justice John Jay's notes from an unpopular treaty negotiation with Great Britain. While not enshrined in the Constitution, or any other law, Washington's action created the precedent for the privilege. When Richard Nixon tried to use executive privilege as a reason for not turning over subpoenaed evidence to Congress during the Watergate scandal, the Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Nixon, 418 U.S. 683 (1974), that executive privilege did not apply in cases where a president was attempting to avoid criminal prosecution. When President Bill Clinton attempted to use executive privilege regarding the Lewinsky scandal, the Supreme Court ruled in Clinton v. Jones, 520 U.S. 681 (1997), that the privilege also could not be used in civil suits. These cases established the legal precedent that executive privilege is valid although the exact extent of the privilege has yet to be clearly defined.

Legislative facilitator

While the president cannot directly introduce legislation, he can play an important role in shaping it, especially if a president's political party has a majority in one or both houses of the Congress. While executive branch officials are prohibited from simultaneously holding seats in the Congress, and vice versa, those executive officials often draft legislation and rely upon Senators and Representatives to introduce it for them. The president can further influence the legislative branch through constitutionally mandated, periodic reports to Congress. These reports may be either written or oral, but in modern times are given as the State of the Union address, which often outlines the president's legislative proposals for the coming year.

Pursuant to Article II, Section 3, Clause 2 of the Constitution, the president may convene either or both houses of the Congress. Conversely, if both houses cannot agree on a date of adjournment, the president may appoint a date for the Congress to adjourn.

Selection process

George Washington, the first President of the United States of America


Article II, Section 1, Clause 5 of the Constitution sets the principal qualifications one must meet to be eligible to the office of president. A president must:

  • be a natural born citizen of the United States;
  • be at least thirty-five years old;
  • have been a permanent resident in the United States for at least fourteen years.

A person who meets the above qualifications is still disqualified from holding the office of president under any of the following conditions:

  • Under the Twenty-second Amendment, no eligible person can be elected president more than twice. The Twenty-second Amendment also specifies that if any eligible person who serves as president or acting president for more than two years of a term for which some other eligible person was elected president, the former can only be elected president once. Scholars disagree whether anyone no longer eligible to be elected president could be elected vice president, pursuant to the qualifications set out under the Twelfth Amendment.
  • Under Article I, Section 3, Clause 7, upon conviction in impeachment cases the Senate has the option of disqualifying convicted individuals from holding other federal offices, including the Presidency.
  • Under Section 3 of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Constitution prohibits an otherwise eligible person from becoming president if that person swore an oath to support the Constitution, and later rebelled against the United States. However, the Congress, by a two-thirds vote of each house, can remove the disqualification.

Campaigns and nomination

The modern presidential campaign begins before the primary elections, which the two major political parties use to clear the field of candidates in advance of their national nominating conventions, where the most successful candidate is made the party's nominee for president. Typically, the party's presidential candidate chooses a vice presidential nominee, and this choice is rubber-stamped by the convention.

Nominees participate in nationally televised debates, and while the debates are usually restricted to the Democratic and Republican nominees, third party candidates may be invited, such as Ross Perot in the 1992 debates. Nominees campaign across the country to explain their views, convince voters and solicit contributions. Much of the modern electoral process is concerned with winning swing states through frequent visits and mass media advertising drives.

Election and oath

Presidents are elected indirectly in the United States. A number of electors, collectively known as the Electoral College, officially select the president. On Election Day, voters in each of the states and the District of Columbia cast ballots for these electors. Each state is allocated a number of electors, equal to the size of its delegation in both Houses of Congress combined. Generally, the ticket that wins the most votes in a state wins all of that state's electoral votes and thus has its slate of electors chosen to vote in the Electoral College.

The winning slate of electors meet at its state's capital on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December, about six weeks after the election, to vote. They then send a record of that vote to Congress. The vote of the electors is opened by the sitting vice president, acting in his capacity as President of the Senate and read aloud to a joint session of the incoming congress, which was elected at the same time as the president.

Pursuant to the Twentieth Amendment, the president's term of office begins at noon on January 20 of the year following the election. This date, known as Inauguration Day, marks the beginning of the four-year terms of both the president and the vice president. Before executing the powers of the office, a president is constitutionally required to take the presidential oath:

I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

Although not required, presidents have traditionally used a Bible to take oath of office and suffixed "So help me God!" to the end of the oath. Further, though no law requires that the oath of office be administered by any specific person, presidents are traditionally sworn in by the Chief Justice of the United States.

Tenure and term limits

Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected to four terms before the adoption of the Twenty-second Amendment.

The term of office for president and vice president is four years. George Washington, the first president, set an unofficial precedent of serving only two terms, which subsequent presidents followed until 1940. Before Franklin D. Roosevelt, attempts at a third term were encouraged by supporters of Ulysses S. Grant and Theodore Roosevelt; neither of these attempts succeeded. In 1940, Franklin Roosevelt declined to seek a third term, but allowed his political party to " draft" him as their presidential candidate and was subsequently elected to a third term. In 1941, the U.S. became involved in World War II, which later led voters to elect Roosevelt to a fourth term in 1944.

After the war, and in response to Roosevelt's shattering of precedent, the Twenty-second Amendment was adopted. The amendment bars anyone from being elected president more than twice, or once if that person served more than half of another president's term. Harry S. Truman, who was president when the amendment was adopted, and so by the amendment's provisions exempt from its limitation, also briefly sought a third (a second full) term before withdrawing from the 1952 election.

Since the amendment's adoption, four presidents have served two full terms: Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush sought a second term, but were defeated. Richard Nixon was elected to a second term, but resigned before completing it. Lyndon B. Johnson was the only president under the amendment to be eligible to serve more than two terms in total, having served for only fourteen months following John F. Kennedy's assassination. However, Johnson withdrew from the 1968 Democratic Primary, surprising many Americans by stating, "I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president." Gerald Ford sought a full term, after serving out the last two years and five months of Nixon's second term, but was not elected.

Vacancy or disability

Vacancies in the office of president may arise under several possible circumstances: death, resignation and removal from office.

Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution allows the House of Representatives to impeach high federal officials, including the president, for "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors." Article I, Section 3, Clause 6 gives the Senate the power to remove impeached officials from office, given a two-thirds vote to convict. The House has thus far impeached two presidents: Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998. Neither was subsequently convicted by the Senate; however, Johnson was acquitted by just one vote.

Under Section 3 of the Twenty-fifth Amendment, the president may transfer the presidential powers and duties to the vice president, who then becomes acting president, by transmitting a statement to the Speaker of the House and the president pro tempore of the Senate stating the reasons for the transfer. The president resumes the discharge of the presidential powers and duties when he transmits, to those two officials, a written declaration stating that resumption. This transfer of power may occur for any reason the president considers appropriate; in 2002 and again in 2007, President George W. Bush briefly transferred presidential authority to Vice President Dick Cheney. In both cases, this was done to accommodate a medical procedure which required Bush to be sedated; both times, Bush returned to duty later the same day.

Under Section 4 of the Twenty-fifth Amendment, the vice president and a majority of the Cabinet may transfer the presidential powers and duties from the president to the vice president once they transmit a written declaration to the Speaker of the House and the president pro tempore of the Senate that the president is unable to discharge the presidential powers and duties. If this occurs, then the vice president will assume the presidential powers and duties as acting president; however, the president can declare that no such inability exists and resume the discharge of the presidential powers and duties. If the vice president and cabinet contest this claim, it is up to Congress, which must meet within two days if not already in session, to decide the merit of the claim.

The United States Constitution mentions the resignation of the president but does not regulate the form of such a resignation or the conditions for its validity. Pursuant to federal law, the only valid evidence of the president's resignation is a written instrument to that effect, signed by the president and delivered to the office of the Secretary of State. On August 9, 1974, facing likely impeachment in the midst of the Watergate scandal, Richard Nixon became the only president ever to resign from office.

The Constitution states that the vice president becomes president upon the removal from office, death or resignation of the preceding president. If the offices of president and vice president both are either vacant or have a disabled holder of that office, the next officer in the presidential line of succession, the Speaker of the House, becomes acting president. The line then extends to the president pro tempore of the Senate, followed by every member of the cabinet in a set order.


Presidential pay history
Date established Salary Salary in 2009


September 24, 1789 $25,000 $566,000
March 3, 1873 $50,000 $865,000
March 4, 1909 $75,000 $1,714,000
January 19, 1949 $100,000 $906,000
January 20, 1969 $200,000 $1,175,000
January 20, 2001 $400,000 $487,000

The president earns a $400,000 annual salary, along with a $50,000 annual expense account, a $100,000 non-taxable travel account and $19,000 for entertainment. The most recent raise in salary was approved by Congress and President Bill Clinton in 1999 and went into effect in 2001.

The White House in Washington, D.C. serves as the official place of residence for the president; he is entitled to use its staff and facilities, including medical care, recreation, housekeeping, and security services. Naval Support Facility Thurmont, popularly known as Camp David, is a mountain based military camp in Frederick County, Maryland used as a country retreat and for high alert protection of the president and his guests. Blair House, located adjacent to the Old Executive Office Building at the White House Complex and Lafayette Park, is a complex of four connected townhouses exceeding 70,000 square feet of floor space which serves as the president's official guest house and as a secondary residence for the president if needed.

For ground travel, the president uses the presidential state car, which is an armored limousine built on a heavily modified Cadillac-based chassis. One of two identical Boeing VC-25 aircraft, which are extensively modified versions of Boeing 747-200B airliners, serve as long distance travel for the president, and are referred to as Air Force One while the president is on board. The president also uses a United States Marine Corps helicopter, designated Marine One when the president is aboard.

The United States Secret Service is charged with protecting the sitting president and his family. As part of their protection, presidents, first ladies, their children and other immediate family members, and other prominent persons and locations are assigned Secret Service codenames. The use of such names was originally for security purposes and dates to a time when sensitive electronic communications were not routinely encrypted; today, the names simply serve for purposes of brevity, clarity and tradition.


Presidents Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon, George H. W. Bush, Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter dedicate the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in 1991.
Group portrait of five presidential men in dark suits and ties
Presidents George H. W. Bush, Barack Obama (incumbent), George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter in the Oval Office on January 7, 2009.

Beginning in 1959, all living former presidents were granted a pension, an office and a staff. The pension has increased numerous times with Congressional approval. Retired presidents now receive a pension based on the salary of the current administration's cabinet secretaries, which is $191,300 as of 2008. Some former presidents have also collected congressional pensions. The Former Presidents Act, as amended, also provides former presidents with travel funds and franking privileges.

Until 1997, all former presidents, and their families, were protected by the Secret Service until the president's death. The last president to have lifetime Secret Service protection is Bill Clinton; George W. Bush and all subsequent presidents will be protected by the Secret Service for a maximum of ten years after leaving office.

Some presidents have had significant careers after leaving office. Prominent examples include William Howard Taft's tenure as Chief Justice of the United States and Herbert Hoover's work on government reorganization after World War II. Grover Cleveland, whose bid for reelection failed in 1888, was elected president again four years later in 1892. Two former presidents served in Congress after leaving the White House; John Quincy Adams was elected to the House of Representatives, serving there for seventeen years, and Andrew Johnson returned to the Senate in 1875. John Tyler served in the provisional Congress of the Confederate States during the Civil War and was elected to the Confederate House of Representatives, but died before it convened. More recently, Richard Nixon made multiple foreign trips to countries including China and Russia, and was lauded as an elder statesman. Jimmy Carter has become a global human rights campaigner, international arbiter and election monitor, and a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Bill Clinton has taken on some work as an 'elder statesman', most notable for his involvement in the negotiations that led to the release of two American Journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee from North Korea. Bill Clinton has also been active politically since his presidential term ended, working with his wife, Hillary Clinton on her presidential bid.

Currently there are four living former presidents:

Presidential libraries

Each president since Herbert Hoover has created a repository known as a presidential library for preserving and making available his papers, records and other documents and materials. Completed libraries are deeded to and maintained by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); the initial funding for building and equipping each library must come from private, non-federal sources. There are currently thirteen presidential libraries in the NARA system. There are also a number of presidential libraries maintained by state governments and private foundations, such as the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, which is run by the State of Illinois.


During America's history, there has been criticism not only of particular presidents and their policies, but also of the presidency itself. Each of these criticisms generally fall into one of the following categories:

  • Presidency is too powerful. Most of the nation's Framers expected Congress, which was described first in the Constitution, to be the dominant branch of government; they did not want or expect a strong executive. However, numerous critics describe the presidency today as too powerful, unchecked and unbalanced and "monarchist" in nature. Critic Dana D. Nelson believes presidents over the past thirty years have worked towards "undivided presidential control of the executive branch and its agencies." She criticizes proponents of the unitary executive for expanding "the many existing uncheckable executive powers – such as executive orders, decrees, memorandums, proclamations, national security directives and legislative signing statements – that already allow presidents to enact a good deal of foreign and domestic policy without aid, interference or consent from Congress." Constitutional scholars have criticized excessive presidential power and described presidents as "constitutional dictators" with "an incentive to declare emergencies" to assume "quasi-dictatorial powers." David Sirota sees a pattern that "aims to provide a jurisprudential rationale for total White House supremacy over all government." Another critic wrote that the expanded presidency was "the greatest threat ever to individual freedom and democratic rule."
  • Images and public relations. Some argue that images of the presidency have a tendency to be manipulated by administration public relations officials as well as by presidents themselves. One critic described the presidency as "propagandized leadership" which has a "mesmerizing power surrounding the office"; another described the aura surrounding the presidency with the word "cult." Administration public relations managers staged carefully-crafted photo-ops of smiling presidents with smiling crowds for television cameras; in one instance of a televised photo-op, viewers were influenced by images and not by the story. One critic wrote the image of John F. Kennedy was described as carefully framed "in rich detail" which "drew on the power of myth" regarding the incident of PT 109 and claimed that Kennedy understood how to use images to further his presidential ambitions. Even presidential funerals are staged affairs with high production values to give an impression of "regal grandeur". As a result, Americans have unrealistic expectations of presidents, who are expected to "drive the economy, vanquish enemies, lead the free world, comfort tornado victims, heal the national soul and protect borrowers from hidden credit-card fees."
  • Deficit spending. Few presidents over the past hundred years have been adept at keeping spending within limits. Presidents who promised to rein in spending had difficulty controlling budgets. The long-term historical pattern has been for the nation to have had moderate surpluses except during recessions or wars, and this pattern lasted until the 1980s. Reagan increased substantial deficits without a recession or war, and budget deficits as a percent of GDP climbed from 1.6% in 1979 to 4.0% to 6.0% for most of the 1980s, although there was a four-year period of surpluses beginning 1998 during the tenures of Clinton and Bush. After 9/11, spending returned under Bush and remained high. In 2009, the budget office estimated total federal debt would reach $12 trillion, including interest payments of $565 billion, or 4 percent of GDP. In the first decade of 2000, $632 billion was added to the budget. In 2009, the United States may be forced to borrow nearly $9.3 trillion over the next ten years, according to one estimate. A critic and senator warned this "clearly creates a scenario where the country's going to go bankrupt." Obama inherited a budget deficit in 2009 of a staggering 10% of GDP. The high levels of federal employment brought about by Roosevelt's New Deal have held steady relative to increased economic output and population. In 1962, for example, there were 13.3 federal workers per 1000 population, while in 2007 there were only 8.7 federal workers per 1000 population, an overall decline of about one million employees. Nevertheless, total federal personnel in 2007 numbered 4,127,000 who work in a long list of federal agencies. In addition, employees for state and local governments have doubled since the 1960s.
Federal government spending 1940–present
Decade Spending as % of GDP Surplus(+) or deficit(-)?
1940s -9.67 Deficit
1950s -0.39 Deficit
1960s -0.79 Deficit
1970s -2.37 Deficit
1980s -3.93 Deficit
1990s -2.16 Deficit
2000s -1.62 Deficit

Note: Largest deficit was for WW2. 1998–2002 had surpluses. For brevity, annual numbers were combined into ten-year averages. Source: US Government statistics.

  • Legislative and budgetary powers. Some critics charge that presidents have usurped important legislative and budgetary powers that should normally belong to Congress. Presidents control a vast array of agencies that can make regulations with little oversight from Congress. One critic charged that presidents could appoint a "virtual army of 'czars' – each wholly unaccountable to Congress yet tasked with spearheading major policy efforts for the White House". Presidents have been criticized for making signing statements when signing congressional legislation about how they understand a bill or plan to execute it, and commentators have described this practice as against the spirit of the Constitution. Signing statements "tip the balance of power between Congress and the White House a little more in favour of the executive branch" and have been used by the past four presidents. This practice has been criticized by the American Bar Association as unconstitutional. One critic, George F. Will, sees an "increasingly swollen executive branch" and "the eclipse of Congress". He argued that this process has been continuing "for decades" and criticized the "marginalization" of Congress.
  • Abuse of power. Presidents have sometimes resorted to illegal and extra-legal activities, particularly during wartime. Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War; Wilson imprisoned suspected communists without trial during the Palmer Raids; and Roosevelt interned over a hundred thousand Japanese-Americans during World War II. FDR used federal investigators to study tax and financial records of opposition politicians. In an effort to prevent terrorism, George W. Bush authorized warrantless wiretaps which were later ruled unconstitutional as well as torture and denying detainees due process. Nixon broke numerous laws by asking operatives to burglarize the offices of a political opponent's psychiatrist as well as the Democratic National Committee then tried to cover up White House involvement with hush money in what became the Watergate scandal. Nixon's actions were, in a way, predicted by Tocqueville in Democracy in America (1835). Tocqueville argued that the re-electability of presidents was a grave cause for concern, since presidents running for re-election were tempted to not only lose their impartiality but use the vast machinery of the State to further their re-election. Tocqueville warned:
The President ... no longer governs for the interest of the State, but for that of his re-election; he does homage to the majority, and instead of checking its passions, as his duty commands him to do, he frequently courts its worst caprices ... Intrigue and corruption are the natural defects of elective government; but when the head of the State can be re-elected these evils rise to a great height, and compromise the very existence of the country. When a simple candidate seeks to rise by intrigue, his manoeuvres must necessarily be limited to a narrow sphere; but when the chief magistrate enters the lists, he borrows the strength of the Government for his own purposes. In the former case the feeble resources of an individual are in action; in the latter, the State itself, with all its immense influence, is busied in the work of corruption and cabal.
  • Starting wars without a declaration from Congress. Some critics charge that the executive branch has usurped Congress's Constitutionally defined task of declaring war. While historically presidents initiated the process for going to war, they asked for and got formal war declarations from Congress for the War of 1812, the Mexican–American War, the Spanish–American War, World War I, and World War II. However, presidents did not get official declarations for other military actions, including Theodore Roosevelt's military move into Panama in 1903, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the invasions of Grenada and Panama (1990). However, while not getting an official declaration of war, presidents got Congressional approval in the first Iraq war (1991) and second Iraq War (2003) In 1993, one critic wrote "Congress's war power has become the most flagrantly disregarded provision in the Constitution."
  • Election advantages of incumbent presidents. Presidents, in office, and seeking a second term have an advantage over challengers, and critics have charged that this is unfair. Since 1936, in the thirteen presidential elections where there was an incumbent, incumbents won ten times, challengers only three times (see table). Incumbent presidents seeking re-election enjoy advantages that challengers lack, including the power to command greater media coverage and influence events as well as dispense government grants. One reporter noted "nearly all incumbents raise far more (money) than do their challengers" which brings an advantage to incumbents. PACs give most of their money to incumbents because they are more likely to win. One political forecaster suggested incumbency added 5 percentage points to a candidate's likely re-election results, although circumstances such as economic growth and inflation could influence the outcome.
Presidential elections since 1936 with one incumbent
Year Candidate Votes Candidate Votes Winner Notes
1936 Roosevelt 523 Landon 8 Incumbent
1940 Roosevelt 449 Willkie 82 Incumbent
1944 Roosevelt 432 Dewey 99 Incumbent
1948 Truman 303 Dewey 189 Incumbent
1956 Eisenhower 457 Stevenson 73 Incumbent
1964 Johnson 486 Goldwater 52 Incumbent
1972 Nixon 520 McGovern 17 Incumbent
1976 Carter 297 Ford 240 Challenger
1980 Reagan 489 Carter 49 Challenger
1984 Reagan 525 Mondale 13 Incumbent
1992 Clinton 370 GHW Bush 168 Challenger
1996 Clinton 379 Dole 159 Incumbent
2004 GW Bush 286 Kerry 252 Incumbent

Note: elections with no incumbent and third party candidates were excluded. Numbers are Electoral College votes. For further information: see election results.

  • Misusing the power to pardon. Presidents have been criticized for abusing this power. For example, Ford pardoned the person who had earlier chosen him to be vice president, Nixon; Ford's decision was criticized as a misuse of the pardon power. Presidents have been criticized for other pardon decisions as well, including an official suspected of hiding notes relating to the Iran-Contra scandal, issuing 140 pardons on the last day in office, pardoning fugitives and prominent campaign contributors. A president commuted the sentence of a staffer who had covered up administration complicity in the Valerie Plame Wilson matter.
  • Foreign policy management. Since there is no requirement that presidential candidates have foreign policy or military or diplomatic expertise, and presidents manage foreign policy, the quality of decision-making has varied from president to president. Assessments by foreign policy experts list both successes and failures in the past half-century. Important successes within the last half century included the breakup of the Soviet Union and avoiding World War III as well as the handling of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. But numerous presidential decisions have been criticized, including the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, specific military choices, trading arms for hostages with Iran, and decisions about initiating wars. The occupation following the Iraq War was criticized as being "catastrophically unplanned" and overall strategy with Iraq was called a "self-defeating alienation of allies." One critic noted a trend of the "militarization of U.S. foreign policy." Presidents have been accused of supporting dictators such as the Shah of Iran, Musharraf of Pakistan, and Marcos of the Philippines. Overall strategy regarding the Middle East has been criticized as well as the handling of North Korea and Iran. Critics have charged that partisan politics have interfered with foreign policy.


The Office of the President is the highest political official in the United States by influence and recognition. Due to the United States' status as the only remaining superpower, the president is generally regarded as the most powerful person in the world and is colloquially called the Leader of the Free World.

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