How Executive Powers Work

Teddy Roosevelt
Teddy Roosevelt stretched out the powers of the president. Stock Montage/Getty Images

When President William McKinley walked into the Palace of Music at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, on Sept. 6, 1901, he was an enormously popular figure with an accomplished record as chief executive. That's why, despite the intense heat, so many people had lined up to meet him at the scheduled reception. But when he stretched out his hand to a 28-year-old former steelworker named Leon Czolgosz, the young man pulled a .32-caliber pistol from his pocket and fired two bullets at point blank range.

President McKinley died of his wounds eight days later, and Czolgosz was executed the next month. The assassin was an avowed anarchist, and his reason for killing McKinley had nothing to do with the president personally; rather, he was motivated by an ideological belief that powerful rulers should be eliminated. There is no small irony in this because Czolgosz's action handed the presidency to a man who would do more to expand executive power than any president before him [source: Andrews].


Theodore Roosevelt had made his name as the commander of the Rough Riders cavalry unit in the Battle of San Juan Hill in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. After the war he successfully campaigned for the governorship of New York where he established a record as a popular and effective reformer. But this was the era of "political bosses," when powerful, unelected men smoking cigars in back rooms could make or break a political career. The political boss of the Republican Party in New York at the time, a man named Tom Platt, didn't want a reformer and decided to prevent a second Roosevelt term by shuffling the brash young politician into the innocuous role of vice president. As with the actions of the anarchist assassin, this strategy would backfire.

Theodore Roosevelt would be a ruler and reformer unlike any the country had ever seen. At 42, he was, and still is, the youngest person to have ever held the office of U.S. president. His view of his new position was simple, but unprecedented. Whereas previous presidents had, for the most part, followed the general rule that their role was to execute the laws created by Congress, Theodore Roosevelt felt that as Commander in Chief he was free to do as he pleased wherever, and whenever, he pleased unless the law specifically said he couldn't [source: Theodore Roosevelt Association]. It was a political philosophy that would change the U.S. presidency forever, ushering in a new era of executive power.

What Does a President Do All Day?

white house
A view of the White House's north side. KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images

Every American school child learns that the U.S. federal government is composed of three branches: the executive, the legislative and the judiciary. The legislative branch, made up of the House of Representatives and the Senate, creates the laws of the land; the executive puts those laws into practice and enforces them; and the judiciary takes a cold, hard look at the laws to make sure they're constitutional.

But, of course, things are bit more complicated than that. The executive branch, headed by the president, does indeed execute the laws created by the legislature, via the federal departments, boards, commissions and agencies it controls. The president is directly responsible for appointing the heads of the 15 different executive departments (including the Department of Defense, the Department of Transportation and the Department of Labor), in addition to hundreds of agencies (such as the Central Intelligence Agency, Environmental Protection Agency and the Federal Emergency Management Agency), boards (like the Federal Reserve Board) and commissions (e.g., the Securities and Exchange Commission) — not to mention nominating federal judges, Supreme Court justices and ambassadors.


As the person in charge of all of these organizations, the president can issue executive orders to them, and those orders automatically become law. While this is seen as a way for the president to effectively bypass the legislature, it's a method that has an important downside — namely that a successor can use that same executive power to reverse the orders of his or her predecessor.

So, for instance, when Barack Obama took office, his first executive order rescinded George W. Bush's executive order to make access to presidential archives more difficult.

As head of government, the president signs Congress's new legislation into law or vetoes it. Congress can override the veto but only with a two-thirds vote of both houses. The president is also, famously, the Commander in Chief of the country's vast armed forces and, as such, can take the country to war, although technically only with the permission of Congress (we'll come back to that technicality shortly).

The president is also the head of state, meaning that he or she is head of foreign relations and can negotiate trade deals and treaties, although here Congress really does have the last word and must ratify such agreements with the magic two-thirds vote.

And finally, the president can pardon anybody he or she wishes, as long as that person has been convicted of a federal crime [source:].

Executive Powers Through the Ages, Part I

teddy roosevelt
A man with a plan (President Theodore Roosevelt) sits in a steam shovel at the site of the future canal in Panama. George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

Theodore Roosevelt later said of his presidency that while he didn't seize power, he did stretch executive authority beyond its previous scope [source: Bill of Rights Institute]. On the home front, for instance, he intervened personally to settle labor disputes, pressed hard to regulate (and break) corporate monopolies and exercised his authority to conserve vast tracts of wilderness in the American West.

He was also extremely active on the foreign stage, becoming the first American to receive a Nobel Peace Prize for his negotiations to end the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. And his initiative to buy a section of Panama and dig a big ditch through it laid the groundwork for America's emergence as a world power in the 20th century. It wasn't that the Constitution explicitly forbade presidents from doing such things, it's just that it didn't explicitly say they could. As far as Teddy Roosevelt was concerned, absence of prohibition was an invitation to action. He had a number of things he wanted to accomplish and felt that the executive branch was the venue in which to accomplish them.


Since Roosevelt, successive presidents have sought to expand the reach of their power. Take that "technicality" mentioned earlier — the requirement that a president receive approval from Congress before taking the country to war. This protocol was respected through both world wars, but the Cold War created special conditions. In the 1950s, fear of the Soviet threat was such that presidents could skirt Congress in the interests of national defense. So, for example, Harry Truman was able to able to engage U.S. troops in the Korean conflict without Congressional approval by avoiding war terminology. It was a police action, he said, undertaken jointly with the UN — nothing Congress needed to worry about. It was a precedent that others, including Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton, would follow.

By the time Dwight Eisenhower took office, the president had a shady new tool to use — the Central Intelligence Agency. With clandestine operations fully in play, constitutional niceties were unofficially off the table. When John F. Kennedy took office in 1960 it was generally understood that the president, and not the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was now the big boss of U.S. international affairs.

But great power confers a special vulnerability. Harry Truman famously said, "The buck stops here" — and that's just it. If a president who wants to wield enormous authority goes out on a limb, that limb bends with the weight of popular opinion. When the Korean War went south, Truman was held responsible (since he was), and his approval numbers went south with it.

Understanding the need for popular support, Eisenhower extracted the U.S. from Korea and used diplomacy, brinkmanship and covert operations to successfully contain the Soviet threat. Thanks to these methods, which required less blood and treasure than outright war, he was able to maintain his popularity, which in turn secured his hold on executive power in the sphere of foreign relations [source: Dallek].

Executive Powers Through the Ages, Part II

A direct apology in the wake of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion actually boosted JFK's popularity. Bettmann/Getty Images

Kennedy took a page from Eisenhower's book and then added chapters of his own. Having learned the crucial lesson that popular support was key to presidential power, Kennedy exploited the important new medium of TV to communicate directly and eloquently with the American citizenry. Deploying his considerable charm and wit, Kennedy was able to maintain his popularity even in the face of an early setback like the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco. When the U.S.-backed "invasion" of Cuba was annihilated by Fidel Castro's troops, Kennedy went before the cameras to candidly assume full responsibility for the disaster. The public forgave him, and his popularity ratings actually rose. His successor, Lyndon Johnson, failed to learn the lesson and acted without Congressional or popular support in Vietnam, ending up politically ruined.

Since then, presidential power has waxed and waned with a given leader's ability to gather and maintain public support. This ability has rested on the president's communication skills. Presidents possessed of the rhetorical talent necessary to connect with the public have fared better than those more prone to operate on the down-low.


The 1970s Watergate scandal was a major blow to executive authority because it revealed just how much Richard Nixon was hiding from the electorate. Clandestine operations gone wrong during the Carter and Reagan administrations further eroded executive authority to such an extent that when George H.W. Bush decided to go to war with Saddam Hussein in 1991, he asked Congress for a resolution first.

In subsequent years, presidents have done a bit of both, getting congressional support where necessary and conducting unilateral operations where expedient and unlikely to damage popularity ratings. Barack Obama's use of drone strikes is a clear example of a president conducting military actions abroad without risking the blood and treasure that sank George W. Bush's numbers so low in the wake of the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions. While George W. had supportive resolutions from Congress for these actions, he didn't have proper declarations of war, which might have helped spread the blame for those unpopular conflicts more evenly and saved him from the catastrophic drop in his popularity.

When a president's popularity wanes, he often feels the pain in the form of a midterm election that lands him with a hostile Congress, which can veto his veto and/or simply refuse to work with him. In such cases, a president usually turns to the consolation of executive orders. And when a president starts seriously wielding his executive orders in order to bypass Congress, he's almost always accused of being an "imperial president." This is a charge Republican members of Congress have repeatedly levelled at Barack Obama.

A glance at the archives shows that while Obama has made liberal use of executive orders to further his political agenda, he's got nothing on his predecessors. He has issued fewer than 300 orders, while predecessors like Ronald Reagan (381), Dwight Eisenhower (484), Harry Truman (907) and Woodrow Wilson (1,803) far outstrip him. Topping the list is Mr. Executive Order himself, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, with a jaw-dropping 3,721 [source: American Presidency Project].

How Powerful Are Presidents?

nixon resigns
Presidential powers extend only so far, as Richard Nixon found out. Wally McNamee/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

"Leader of the free world," "The most powerful person on the planet" — how often have we heard these phrases in reference to the U.S. president? But is the president really all that? Yes and no. While the president does wield enormous power through his (so far just his) executive authority, there are protocols and procedures, chains of command and a vast bureaucratic machinery in place, all of which make it difficult for him to dictate abrupt changes in policy. There's also that business of "checks and balances" set up by the Founders, designed specifically to prevent despotic rule by a single tyrant. The other branches of government can put the brakes on a misbehaving president (as Richard Nixon learned to his sorrow when impeached by Congress in 1974).

In fact, a quick comparison of the American president with the leaders of other democracies reveals that the U.S. leader is considerably less free to act than his counterparts. In a country like Canada, for instance, which follows the Westminster parliamentary system created in the UK, the prime minister can never be a "lame duck." That's because there are no checks and balances, and the entire system is quite different. For a start, the prime minister is not popularly elected at the federal level. Rather, each party elects its own leader from among its ministers of Parliament (roughly equivalent to representatives in the U.S.). When a given party gains enough seats in the House of Commons (something like the House of Representatives) it can take power, and its leader becomes the prime minister [source: Parliament of Canada].


Often there are multiple parties in parliament, and some of them might band together to gain enough seats to have the majority necessary to govern. In any case, the prime minister can never be in a position where he or she is prevented from carrying out policy. If, say, a party that's part of a government coalition really doesn't like the direction things are going, they can vote against it. Such a vote means that the current government can no longer govern, and it more or less automatically triggers a new election [source: Parliament of Canada]. As a result, gridlock, as it occurs in Washington, is next to impossible in the Westminster system.

While such a system can have its downsides (squabbling coalitions, sometimes frequent elections) studies have shown that it's actually much more stable than presidential systems of government. In fact, with the notable exception of the U.S., most presidential systems have tended to lapse all too quickly into dictatorship. On average, parliamentary democracies last at least twice as long as the average presidential systems, and only three presidential systems make it onto the list of the 20 longest-lived democracies. Because clashes between the different branches of a presidential system can create governmental paralysis, this can foment a political climate that valorizes the rule of a strong, individual leader, which in turn establishes the slippery slope to despotism [source: Ilan].

A long, proud tradition of anti-tyrannical democracy has helped the U.S. avoid this fate for nearly two and a half centuries; let's hope that tradition holds strong for many centuries more.

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Author's Note: How Executive Powers Work

I've been trying to think of a metaphor for the American presidency and having a hard time coming up with something convincing. Baseball manager? Hotel chef? The navigator of a really big ship? More like the captain of a heavily populated iceberg in a powerful ocean current. He can't really do much to alter the general drift, but he can run around encouraging people to build more shelters or, alternatively, chip away at the edges. ... No, on the second thought, there are no serviceable parallels that I can think of. It's just too weird and unique a position to sum up.

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More Great Links

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