Learn all about the duties and roles of the U.S. president in just a few minutes! Scot Schraufnagel, chair and professor of political science at Northern Illinois University, walks through the American president's responsibilities as head of the executive branch; commander in chief of the armed forces; chief diplomat; and chief executive with the power to nominate federal judges, appoint executive officers and ambassadors, and fill vacancies in executive offices.
Constitutional Roles of the President
The Constitution states that the president is head of the executive branch, commander in chief of the armed forces, chief diplomat, and the individual with the power to nominate judges and executive branch officials. The president also has the power to veto laws and to grant pardons.
Specific roles are given to the president of the United States by the Constitution in Article 2, Sections 2 and 3. Section 2 states that the president fills the following roles and responsibilities:
Head of the executive branch, with the responsibility to enforce federal law, the power to require chiefs of the executive departments to provide information on their official activities, and the responsibility to report to Congress on the state of the union, which presidents generally carry out now in a televised address to a joint session of Congress made in January or February
Commander in chief of the army and navy of the United States and the militias of the states if they are acting in the service of the United States
Chief diplomat and maker of treaties, though those treaties must be approved by the U.S. Senate by a two-thirds vote
Chief executive with the power to nominate federal judges; appoint executive officers and appoint ambassadors of the United States, with the consent of the U.S. Senate; and fill vacancies in executive offices during a Senate recess
Under Article 1 of the Constitution, a president must sign a bill for it to become law but also has the power to prevent a bill from becoming law. When Congress passes a law, a president is given 10 days to sign it into law. The president can choose to exercise the veto, which is action by a president to reject legislation passed by Congress. If the president vetoes a piece of legislation, Congress has the option to override the veto, the action by Congress to pass a bill over a president's veto, which requires a two-thirds vote of both chambers. A president can also employ a pocket veto,an action in which a president refuses to sign a bill during the 10-day signing period while Congress is in adjournment. The fact that Congress is adjourned means that it cannot vote to uphold or override the veto. Article 2 grants the president the power to grant pardons for federal crimes. A pardon is the action by a president that forgives a person convicted of a crime, removing or ending any punishment and blocking further prosecution of that person for that crime.
Presidential Vetoes and Control of Congress
Additional Roles of the President
The president has several roles that are not directly described in the Constitution, including country's head of state, chief economic planner, and major spokesperson for the country as well as party leader and fundraiser.
The president is the head of state, the country's highest representative both at home and abroad. In the United States the head of government, the president, is also the head of state. In countries with a parliamentary system, the head of state and head of government are different people. The head of state could be a monarch—as in the United Kingdom or Sweden—or an elected president—as in Germany or India—but the head of government is the prime minister, chancellor, premier, or equivalent title.
The president also serves as an economic planner for the entire country, working with the Council of Economic Advisors and other members of the executive branch to craft economic policy. That policy is implemented in part through the national budget, which the president devises with the assistance of the Office of Management and Budget and the heads of the executive departments. The president also attempts to implement economic policy by proposing legislation and commenting on pending bills to achieve policy and spending goals.
The president also fills some nongovernmental roles, including as party leader and the party's principal fundraiser. The president meets with delegations of citizens, members of groups and associations, and national leaders to discuss policy issues or as part of ceremonial events. Presidents can use the office as a "bully pulpit"—as President Theodore Roosevelt put it—to express their thoughts on issues they believe have national importance. Those issues can be political, social, or cultural. Presidents also use speeches and public appearances to try to comfort or console people suffering in the wake of a natural disaster or major calamity. For example, President George W. Bush rallied Americans when he visited New York City after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and President Barack Obama gave a moving tribute to the victims of a 2015 shooting in a Charleston, South Carolina, African American church.
Evolution of Presidential Power
Presidential power has grown substantially over time due to the growing U.S. role in the world, the growth of the executive branch, increased media attention on the presidency, and the exercise of power in domestic policy by presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan.
As the result of several factors, presidential power has steadily grown since the early 20th century. One reason is the president's leading role in the country's foreign policy and the growing U.S. role in the world since World War II. Additionally, the government today is far larger and more involved in more areas of American life than it was in the 1790s and throughout the 19th century. Much of that involvement is carried out by the executive branch, giving the president more power as a result. Media and political attention have put more focus on presidential actions than on congressional activity, and that greater focus has resulted in presidents having more influence. The forceful exercise of executive power in domestic policy by Theodore Roosevelt (1901–09) and Woodrow Wilson (1913–21) was given more momentum by the response of Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933–45) to the Great Depression. Later 20th-century presidents such as Lyndon Johnson (1963–69) and Ronald Reagan (1981–89) also increased presidential power. Due to these changes, the president has a far more expansive role in the government—and American life—than the framers imagined.
Presidential Character and Performance
According to a prominent political scientist, presidential performance is a result of character traits, including style and view of the world, the situation in the country and the world during the presidency, and public expectations of the president and the moment.
Over the years, scholars have analyzed presidential performance in an effort to determine what contributes to a successful presidency. According to political scientist James David Barber, presidential success is related to patterns of the president's character, including style and view of the world, the situation in the country and the world during the presidency, and public expectations of the president and the moment. Barber argues that presidential character can be judged on two dimensions—activity-passivity and positive-negative attitude. The first pair refers to how much energy the president puts into the office. By the second, Barber refers to the president's level of satisfaction with the other dimension. In this view, presidential character can be viewed as one of four combinations of the two dimensions—active-positive, passive-positive, active-negative, or passive-negative. Barber classifies Franklin D. Roosevelt and his successor Harry Truman (in office 1945–53) as active-positive presidents who were committed to presidential action and reveled in exercising power. Passive-positive presidents such as William Howard Taft (1909–13) and Reagan, in his view, see the world optimistically but seek approval; they tend to be more conciliatory than confrontational. For examples of passive-negative presidents, Barber points to Calvin Coolidge (1923–29) and Dwight Eisenhower (1953–61). Their style was to serve out of a sense of duty but to have little confidence in success. Active-negative presidents, according to Barber, seek to attain and use power but have a sense of personal failings that makes success unlikely. Examples of this type include Wilson, Lyndon Johnson, and Nixon. Barber's typology has been criticized, as has his categorization of particular presidents. It has, however, proven a lasting discussion point in efforts to analyze the occupants of the White House.