The media give the impression that the United States has a presidential system, at least in the midst of a presidential election. All of the
focus is on the personalities of the leading candidates for president and vice president rather than the simultaneous election for Congress.
That’s understandable because of the interesting personalities involved and because it is difficult to cover 538 congressional races all at
once. Also, the outcome of the congressional race does not appear to be in doubt. Nonetheless, it is important to keep in mind that the
United States is not a presidential system in which the president is the dominant figure of government; it is a separated system. Because
of separation of powers with checks and balances, the president has an important role but not a dominant role. In some policy areas, the
president leads, but by no means all and not all of the time.
The Constitution requires the president to be a natural-born American citizen at least 35 years old. That excludes Arnold, the
“Governator,” but not John McCain who was born of military parents in the Panama Canal Zone. In practice, all of our presidents have
been white, male, Christians of western European ancestry, but that could change with an Obama election. John Kennedy was the only
president who wasn’t protestant. Other candidates this year challenged the mold, including Mitt Romney (a Mormon), Hillary Clinton (a
woman), Rudy Giuliani (an Italian American), and Bill Richardson (a Latino).
Presidents serve a maximum of two four-year terms. George W. Bush is now a lame duck, that is, an officeholder who is ineligible to
seek reelection and therefore has seen his influence diminish.
Presidents can be removed through the impeachment process, which has two stages. The House impeaches, which literally means “to
accuse,” by majority vote. The Senate votes on whether to remove the president and that requires a two thirds margin. Presidents
Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton were impeached, but neither was removed from office.
If the president dies, resigns, or is removed, he is succeeded by the vice president. Next in line are the speaker of the House, president pro
tempore of the Senate, secretary of state, and on through the cabinet.
The vice president was once an office essentially without duties (unless something happened to the president), but now has become an
important advisor to the president. The VP is not a co-president, but has become a powerful figure in his own right. VP Cheney, for
example, was Bush’s foremost advisor, especially on energy and the war in Iraq.
The president exercises two sets of powers:
, that is, powers that are shared with other branches of government because of
separation of powers with checks and balances, and
, which are powers that the president can exercise without the
support or approval of other political actors.
The outline of the presidential office can be found in Article II of the Constitution. One cannot understand the contours of presidential