President of the United States of America
Article II, section 1 of the U.S. Constitution vests the executive power of the federal government of the United States in the president. As such, and although the article goes on to provide for other executive officers including a vice president and executive department officers, the American presidency stands out from the chief executive offices of most other democratic political systems for its unitary responsibility.
As of 2021, 45 men have been president, beginning with George Washington in 1789. However, the current president, Joe Biden, is counted as the 46th, because Grover Cleveland, who served two non-consecutive terms during the late nineteenth century, is counted as both the 22nd and the 24th president.
Eligibility and Selection
Any natural-born American citizen who has resided in the United States for at least fourteen years and is at least 35 years old is eligible to become president. While the original Constitution did not place any term limits on the presidency, the 22nd Amendment, which was ratified in the aftermath of Franklin Roosevelt's four-term presidency, prohibits anyone from being elected president more than twice or serving more than ten years in the office.
As set out in Article II, section 1 of the Constitution, a president is selected every four years by an Electoral College consisting of a number of electors corresponding to the total congressional representation for each state. In the event that no individual garners at least a majority of the Electoral College vote, presidential selection falls to the House of Representatives. The constitutional Electoral College system remains largely in place; however, it has undergone a number of changes since it was first established.
The first formal change was made in 1804 with the ratification of the 12th Amendment to the Constitution subsequent to the emergence of political parties in the United States. Before this amendment was passed, each elector voted for two individuals without any specification as to whether they were to be president or vice president; the highest electoral vote-getter was then named president while the second-highest became vice president. The 12th Amendment changed this procedure so that electors cast a single vote on each of two separate ballots, one for president and one for vice president.
The Constitution's 23rd Amendment, which was ratified in 1960, makes the somewhat more modest change of providing the District of Columbia, which lacks congressional respresentation, with three Electoral College votes.
There have been some less formal changes, as well. For example, the Constitution leaves it up to each state to determine how its electors are to be selected and allocated. At first, the electors in most states were appointed by their respective state legislatures. As time went on, however, the states began tying their electoral votes to the popular vote, typically through a "winner-take-all" system in which a state's popular vote winner receives all of that state's electoral votes. Nevertheless, the states still retain the constitutional power to choose their electors through the alternative method of their choosing.
In addition, the process through which presidential candidates are selected, which is not addressed at all in the Constitution, has undergone considerable change. Starting with the emergence of political parties during the 1790s, the congressional members of each party would meet in their respective caucuses to choose their nominees. This "King Caucus" system fell by the wayside during the 1824 election, however, and was subsequently replaced by national nominating conventions. Efforts to make candidate selection more directly reflective of the will of the people began during the Progressive Era, when reformers pushed for the adoption of direct primaries. Direct primaries did not catch on as well as reformers would have liked, however, as state parties were disinclined to sponsor primaries and candidates were disinclined to run in them. No more than 17 states held primaries in any single election year between 1920 and 1968 and several individuals, including Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and Hubert Humphrey in 1968, won their parties' nomination without running in a single primary election. In the aftermath of its 1968 national convention, the Democratic Party appointed the Commission on Party Structure and Delegate Selection, also known as the McGovern-Fraser Commission, to make recommendations for the reform of presidential nominee selection.
Powers of the President
Several presidential powers are laid out in Article II, section 2 of the Constitution. Over time, additional powers have accumulated, either by explicit congressional grant, tradition, or by the President winning political battles with the other branches.
As established in Article II of the Constitution, the president's constitutional powers include serving as commander in chief of the armed forces, the power to pardon offenses, the power to negotiate treaties, and the power to appoint a variety of federal government officials including ambassadors and Supreme Court justices. In addition, Article I, section 7 of the Constitution explicates the president's power to sign or veto legislation passed by Congress.
None of the president's constitutional powers is absolute. While he is commander in chief of the armed forces, the Constitution assigns other war powers, including the power to declare war and the power to raise and maintain the armed forces, to Congress. A president may not grant pardons in cases of impeachment. The Senate's "advice and consent" is required for a president to utilize his treaty and appointment powers. Finally, the president's veto power is circumscibed by the power of Congress to override his veto with a two-thirds vote in each house.
While the Constitution stipulates a bilateral policymaking process in which the president and Congress cooperate to produce legislation, several tools that enable presidents to make policy unilaterally have developed over the course of presidential history. The oldest such tool is the executive order, essentially a legally binding directive issued by the president to administrative units within the executive branch, which was first used by George Washington in 1789. Since then, every president except William Harrison (who died shortly after his inauguration) has issued at least one executive order.
History of the Presidency
The Articles of Confederation established a very limited presidency consisting of a single member of Congress whose sole function was to preside over that body for a one-year term.
The defects of the system led to the proposal for a single chief executive, who would serve a limited term. The limited term and allowing re-election, along with the method of election and limitations on the powers of the President were argued (in the Federalist Papers) to give the Presidency the advantages of a monarchical executive without the disadvantages of a hereditary monarch.
It is reported that the authors of the Constitution had intended that George Washington would serve as the nation's first President, and that the office was designed with him in mind, but also that the Framers were aware that in the future the office would be occupied by much lesser men, and the office was designed to limit the damage a poor president could do. George Washington was, in fact, elected as the first President, and served two terms of office. On leaving office after his second term, he said that no man should serve more than twice, and until the re-election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1940, no man served more than two terms. After the death of Roosevelt, the 22nd Amendment was passed, limiting the number of terms a President could serve.
Aside from scandals over corruption, some of the primary controversies over the office of President have been those over the war powers of the President versus the Congress; the respective roles of the President and the Senate in the appointment of executive and judicial officers; and the authority of the President to "impound" (or refuse to spend) money appropriated for specific purposes by the Congress; as well as the method of electing the President.