The Presidency and Executive Branch

What role does the executive branch play? Explore different roles, their powers and limitations.

35 years old
Executive order
Executive privilege
8 years
Every four years
Vice President
Healthy eating and physical activity

Presidential Roles and Eligibility Requirements

The President of the United States is the head of state, head of government, and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces.


It is the highest executive office, and holds immense power, which extends from the appointment of federal officials, legislative approval and veto, military command, international diplomacy, and judicial appointment and pardon.

There are three basic eligibility requirements to be qualified to be President or Vice President according to the United States Constitution. The person must be at least 35 years old; they must have been born in the United States or born abroad to at least one parent who is a U.S. citizen.

The Presidential Powers

The presidential powers can be summarized as follows:

Chief Executive: The President is responsible for the implementation of federal laws and the management of the executive branch of the government, including the appointment of cabinet members, ambassadors, and other federal officers.

Legislative Power: The President is responsible for approving bills passed by Congress. They also have the power to veto such bills, although Congress can override the President’s veto of a bill with a two-thirds majority vote in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Executive Orders: The President of the United States has the power to issue legally binding directives, bypassing congress, that have the same force as laws.


Military Powers: As commander-in-chief of the US military and has the power to order military operations and deploy troops.

Diplomatic Powers: The President has the power to conduct foreign policy and negotiate treaties with other nations.

Judicial Powers: The President has the power to appoint federal judges, including Supreme Court justices, and to grant pardons and reprieves for federal crimes.

Controversy and Necessity of Executive Orders

Presidential executive orders, which have the same force as laws passed by congress, are frequently controversial.

On the one hand, executive orders are essential in cases of emergency, presenting a way to quickly and directly address a crisis. For example, 12 days following the September 11th terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush authorized the freezing of assets of individuals and organizations identified as supporters of terrorism.

However, because these orders bypass Congress, they can also be used to deliberately enact policy without bipartisan approval. As such, they are often subject to legal challenges if they are deemed unconstitutional or overly broad in scope.


For example, in 1952, President Truman attempted to seize control of steel mills during a labor dispute but his action was blocked by the Supreme Court on grounds that it exceeded his authority under Article II of the Constitution.

Executive Privilige

As well as these powers of presidential office, the president also has what’s known as an “executive privilege”.

Executive privilege is a legal principle that allows the President of the United States, as well as other high-ranking government officials, to withhold certain information from the public or other branches of government, such as the judiciary or Congress. This can include confidential information related to national security, diplomatic negotiations, or internal decision-making processes.

While executive privilege is not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution, the confidentiality of certain information has been recognized as necessary by the Supreme Court.


This privilege is not unlimited and can be challenged if deemed to be interfering with the functioning of other branches of government or violating other laws. For example, in 1974, President Nixon invoked executive privilege during the Watergate scandal but was ultimately forced to turn over tapes and other evidence after being subpoenaed by Congress.

Limitations and Checks on Presidential Power

The president’s powers are not absolute; they must abide by the Constitution, laws established by Congress, and international law. Moreover, there are several codified limitations and checks on the president’s powers, imposed by the legislative and judicial branches of government:

Judicial Review: The President is accountable to the federal courts, which have the power to interpret the Constitution and federal laws, and to declare executive actions unconstitutional or illegal.

Congressional Oversight: Congress has the power to investigate and oversee the actions of the executive branch, and can also pass legislation to limit the President’s power.

Impeachment: The President can be constitutionally removed for “high crimes and misdemeanors”—a process initiated by Congress which requires a majority vote in the House of Representatives and a two-thirds vote in the Senate.

Budgetary Constraints: Although the President issues a proposal for the Administration’s priorities for spending and revenue each year, the allocations of funds for the federal budget ultimately lies with Congress.

Term Limits and "Lame Duck" Presidency


The United States Constitution limits the number of years a president can serve to 8 (constituting two 4 year “terms” of office), in order to ensure they cannot become too entrenched in power.

This can result in a period of what is known as “lame duck” presidency during the latter half of the president’s second term, when they are ineligible for re-election.

Since other politicians and world leaders begin to focus on the next election rather than working with the current president, “lame ducks” are limited in their ability to pass legislation and advance their agenda.

On the other hand, with no re-election campaign to worry about, a “lame duck” president can use their remaining time in office to focus on policies they feel are important for the country, even if they are unpopular with some segments of the population.

For example, President Obama used his final weeks in office to normalize relations with Cuba, which had been a long-standing foreign policy challenge for the United States.

Elections: Campaigning, Fundraising, and Voting

Presidential elections are held every four years and involve a complex process of campaigning, fundraising, and voting.

Before competing in the general election, presidential candidates must first secure their party’s nomination with a series of primary elections and caucuses held in each state.

During this time, they will often travel across the country to meet with voters and discuss their policies, and rely heavily on television advertisements and social media outreach to potential supporters.

Financing such campaigns is a major expense, and requires extensive fundraising from individuals as well as political action committees (PACs). President Trump raised around $800 million for his re-election bid while Joe Biden raised over $1 billion n—both record amounts for a single candidate’s campaign.

Vice President: Roles and Responsibilities

The Vice President is the second-highest official after the President, and is elected alongside the President on a joint ticket. They serve as the President’s successor in the event that the President is unable to carry out his or her duties.

The Vice President has several other key responsibilities and functions, including:

Presiding over the Senate: The Vice President serves as the President of the Senate and presides over Senate sessions, but can only cast a tie-breaking vote in the event of a tie.

Assisting the President: The Vice President works closely with the President and provides support and advice. They may also be called upon to represent the Administration in public appearances and events.


Other duties as assigned: The Vice President may be assigned additional duties or special projects by the President. For example, Vice President Kamala Harris has been tasked by President Joe Biden with leading the Administration’s efforts to address the root causes of migration from Central America.

The First Lady


The First Lady—the spouse or partner of the president—is an unofficial position within government, largely determined by the interests and priorities of the individual holding the position.

A common area of responsibility for the First Lady has been in hosting social events at the White House, such as state dinners and receptions with foreign leaders, diplomats, and other officials, and supporting the President’s policies and initiatives.

Many First Ladies have also engaged in promoting charitable causes and awareness campaigns. For example, during her time as First Lady, Michelle Obama focused on healthy eating and physical activity through her “Let’s Move!” initiative.

There is also scope for the First Lady to promote the President’s policies and initiatives, advocating for specific issues, such as education or healthcare, and collaborating with government agencies, non-profit organizations, and other stakeholders to advance these goals. For example, during Bill Clinton’s presidency, Hillary Clinton chaired the Task Force on National Health Care Reform.

Understanding Federal Bureaucracy

The federal bureaucracy refers to the large and complex network of government agencies, departments, and offices that make up the executive branch of the U.S. government.

The bureaucracy includes a wide range of entities, including: Cabinet departments, (i.e. the Department of Homeland Security, State, and Treasury); Executive agencies, such as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA); and regulatory agencies, responsible for enforcing specific laws and regulations.


In addition, the bureaucracy includes Independent agencies and Government corporations.

Independent agencies are not part of any cabinet department but still report to Congress, such as NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration); Government corporations are quasi-public entities that provide services like postal delivery or student loan programs; they receive funding from both public sources and private investors.

Cabinet Departments

Cabinet departments are the primary units of the executive branch of the United States government. There are currently 15 Cabinet departments, each headed by a secretary appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate.

The Cabinet departments are responsible for carrying out specific functions and services for the federal government, such as foreign affairs (State Department), defense (Department of Defense), and finance (Treasury Department).

By selecting individuals who share their vision for a particular issue or department, the president can shape how policies are implemented on a day-to-day basis.

For example, Donald Trump’s selection of Scott Pruitt as Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency: Pruitt was a lobbyist and advocate for environmental deregulation.

Under his leadership, the EPA subsequently rolled back a number of regulations related to climate change, air and water pollution, and toxic chemicals. This reflected President Trump’s vision of reducing regulatory burdens on businesses and promoting economic growth.

EOP: Supporting and Advising the President

The Executive Office of the President (EOP) is a group of offices and agencies designed to provide the President with the support and resources needed to carry out the responsibilities of the presidency, and to ensure that the President has access to the best available advice and expertise.

The EOP was created in 1939 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and has since grown to include dozens of offices and agencies.

Among these are The White House Office, which includes the President’s senior staff and advisers, and The National Security Council, which advises the President on matters of national security and foreign policy, and The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, which negotiates trade agreements with other countries.

Its public facing components include the Press Secretary, who briefs the media daily about the President’s agenda.

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