Executive Power


Executive Power: An Overview

In its first three articles, the U.S. Constitution outlines the branches of the U.S. Government, the powers that they contain and the limitations to which they must adhere. Article II outlines the duties of the Executive Branch.

The President of the United States is elected to a four-year term by electors from every state and the District of Columbia. The electors make up the Electoral College, which is comprised of 538 electors, equal to the number of Representatives and Senators that currently make up Congress. The citizens of each state vote for slates of electors who then vote for the president on the prescribed day, selected by Congress.

In order to become president, a person must be a natural born citizen of the United States. Naturalized citizens are ineligible, as are persons under the age of 35. In the case that the president should be unable to perform his duties, be it by death or illness, the vice-president becomes the president. Amendment XXII placed a two-term limit on the presidential office.

The president:

  • is the Commander in Chief of the armed forces. He or she has the power to call into service the state units of the National Guard, and in times of emergency may be given the power by Congress to manage national security or the economy.
  • has the power make treaties with Senate approval. He or she can also receive ambassadors and work with leaders of other nations.
  • is responsible for nominating the heads of governmental departments, which the Senate must then approve. In addition, the president nominates judges to federal courts and justices to the United States Supreme Court.
  • can issue executive orders, which have the force of law but do not have to be approved by congress.
  • can issue pardons for federal offenses.
  • can convene Congress for special sessions.
  • can veto legislation approved by Congress. However, the veto is limited. It is not a line-item veto, meaning that he or she cannot veto only specific parts of legislation, and it can be overridden by a two-thirds vote by Congress.
  • delivers a State of the Union address annually to a joint session of Congress.

War Powers

Congress holds the power to declare war. As a result, the president cannot declare war without their approval. However, as the Commander in Chief of the armed forces, many presidents have sent troops to battle without an official war declaration (ex. Vietnam, Korea). The 1973 War Powers Act attempted to define when and how the president could send troops to battle by adding strict time frames for reporting to Congress after sending troops to war, in addition to other measures.


The president is responsible for nominating candidates for the head positions of government offices. A president will nominate cabinet officials and secretaries at the beginning of his or her presidency and will fill vacancies as necessary. In addition, the president is responsible for nominating Federal Circuit Court judges and Supreme Court justices and choosing the chief justice. These nominations must be confirmed by the Senate.

Executive Orders

In times of emergency, the president can override congress and issue executive orders with almost limitless power. Abraham Lincoln used an executive order in order to fight the Civil War, Woodrow Wilson issued one in order to arm the United States just before it entered World War I, and Franklin Roosevelt approved Japanese internment camps during World War II with an executive order. Many other executive orders are on file and could be enacted at any time.


The U.S. Constitution gives the president almost limitless power to grant pardons to those convicted of federal crimes. While the president cannot pardon someone impeached by Congress, he or she can pardon anyone else without any Congressional involvement.