How Executive Powers Work

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.

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.

Related Articles

More Great Links


  • American Presidency Project. "Executive Orders: Washington – Obama." UC Santa Barbara. (Dec. 4, 2016)
  • Andrews, Evan. "The Assassination of President William McKinley." History. Sept. 6, 2016. (Nov. 29, 2016)
  • Bill of Rights Institute. "Federal Power: Theodore Roosevelt." 2016. (Dec. 2, 2016)
  • Cesca, Bob. "A Reality Check on Executive Orders and the 'Dictator Obama' Myth." Huffington Post. Jan. 31, 2014. (Nov. 29, 2016)
  • CNBC. "Executive orders coming? Here's how they work." Jan. 28, 2014. (Dec. 6, 2016)
  • Cornell University Legal Information Institute. "Executive Power." (Nov. 29, 2016)
  • Dallek, Robert. "Power and the Presidency, from Kennedy to Obama." Smithsonian. January 2011. (Nov. 24, 2016)
  • Gebelhoff, Robert. "Is the modern president too powerful?: A primer." The Washington Post. Jan. 11, 2016.
  • "How Government Works." (Nov. 29, 2016)
  • Ilan, Shahar. "Study: Parliamentary Systems Have Longer Shelf Life Than Presidential Ones." Haaretz. Oct. 24, 2006. (Nov. 25, 2016)
  • NPR. "Could Trump 'Undermine the Legacy of the Obama Presidency' With the Stroke of a Pen?" Fresh Air. Nov. 15, 2016. (Nov. 24, 2016)
  • Office of the Federal Register. "Federal Register." (Nov. 29, 2016)
  • Parliament of Canada. "About the House of Parliament." (Nov. 29, 2016)
  • "How Parliament Works." (Nov. 25, 2016)
  • Theodore Roosevelt Association. "The President." (Nov. 29, 2016)
  • U.S. Department of the Interior. "8 Presidents Who Shaped America's Public Lands." Feb. 12, 2016. (Dec. 6, 2016)
  • U.S. Government Publishing Office. "Executive Order 13489." Jan. 26, 2009. (Dec. 1, 2016)
  • "A-Z Index of U.S. Government Departments and Agencies." (Nov. 29, 2016)
  • Wellford, Rachel. "Here's every presidential executive order going back to George Washington." PBS Newshour. June 18, 2014. (Nov. 29, 2016)
  • "The Executive Branch." (Nov. 24, 2016)