How the U.S. President Works

By: Josh Clark & Melanie Radzicki McManus  | 
Joe Biden
Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump to become America's 46th president. Biden, who turns 78 at the end of the month, will become the U.S.'s oldest president when he is inaugurated in January 2021. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

In 1823, President James Monroe, in the face of new republics emerging in Central and South America from former Spanish colonies, called for Europe to remain out of the Americas and not to intervene in the nascent countries. This decree, called the Monroe Doctrine, essentially divided the world into two hemispheres, with the United States at the helm of the West.

In 1963, President John F. Kennedy signed an executive order that transferred command of the Alabama National Guard out of the hands of Gov. George Wallace and into his. Under Kennedy's authority, the National Guard was ordered to protect two Black 20-year-old students, James Hood and Vivian Malone, as they entered the campus of the University of Alabama to enroll and begin desegregation of the school.


In 1964, most elderly and poor Americans didn't have health insurance. That year, President Lyndon Johnson issued his Great Society social reform package. The Great Society, among other things, created the federal health care programs Medicare and Medicaid. By 2019, nearly 40 percent of all Americans were receiving health care through these programs [sources: CMS, National Committee to Preserve Social Security & Medicare].

In 2012, President Barack Obama took executive action to halt the deportation of undocumented young people who had been brought to the U.S. as children. Under this immigration policy, known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, these people were also allowed to apply for work permits [source: Glastris and LeTourneau].

The actions of each of these men and all other presidents helped shape the world as we know it today. Often, these world-changing events resulted from a simple signature or a public address. But none of these changes could have been made were it not for the one thing each of these people had in common, that each was president.

How did this office become so powerful? How has it changed over time? In this article, we'll get to the nuts and bolts of how the U.S. presidency works and its evolution from the head of a nation to arguably the leader of the free world.

The Constitutional Requirements of the President

U.S. Constitution is signed
The U.S. Constitution is signed in Philadelphia, Sept. 17, 1787. MPI/Getty Images/Getty Images

When the framers of the Constitution considered an executive branch, they were still stinging from the despotic rule of King George III. Ultimately, the framers saw the need for a single person to head an executive branch with enough authority to be quickly responsive to crises.

There are few constitutional qualifications. The president must have been born in the United States (or on American soil abroad). He or she must be age 35 upon taking office and must have spent at least 14 of those years living within the United States (it doesn't specify if those years must have been consecutive) [source: U.S. Constitution Online]. As far as the Constitution is concerned, anyone who can meet those three requirements is eligible to be president of the United States. There are, however, some less formal prerequisites for taking the job.


The grueling campaign process is one obstacle that the American political system has created to vet candidates for the presidency. For more than a year, a candidate must compete against other members of his or her party in the primary race, be nominated at the convention and then campaign against nominees from other parties for the general election. Political connectedness and experience is typically essential, as is winning public opinion.

The Constitution lays out rules and duties for the president.

  • The president serves terms of four years.
  • During that time, he or she must oversee the faithful execution of U.S. laws.
  • He or she must take this oath: "I do so solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of the President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."
  • The president serves as commander in chief of the U.S. military and of state militias when they're activated under federal command.
  • The president can grant pardons, except in cases where he or she has been impeached.
  • He or she can make treaties with other nations, with consent of the Senate.
  • The president can appoint Supreme Court justices, ambassadors and other public officers (such as Cabinet secretaries), with Senate confirmation.
  • He or she can convene or adjourn both houses of Congress, if deemed necessary.
  • The president must report to Congress in a State of the Union address.
  • He or she must receive foreign heads of state and officials.
  • The president is compensated (currently, $400,000 a year, plus $50,000 in expenses, $100,000 in travel expenses and $19,000 for entertainment) [source: Akhtar and Hoff].
  • Should the president be accused of high crimes and misdemeanors, he or she can be removed from office through impeachment.
  • The president must propose bills to Congress.
  • He or she can block congressional bills from becoming law through the veto power.

This is the extent of the president's duties, and later amendments and laws further shaped the presidency. The 22nd Amendment (ratified after Franklin Roosevelt's record three full terms) limited the president to two terms, although these needn't be consecutive. President Grover Cleveland, for example, served two terms with a four year hiatus in between. The succession of power in the event of the president's removal or incapacitation was delineated in 1947: After the president is the vice president, followed by the speaker of the House, the Senate president pro tempore and then the Cabinet secretaries, in order of the post's creation.

A few presidents, like Chester Arthur and William Taft, took a narrow, exclusively constitutional interpretation of their powers. This has been the exception and not the rule, however. It's been the interpretation of the inherent powers — those not expressly granted in the Constitution — that's created the presidency we see today.

Evolution of the U.S. Presidency

Theodore Roosevelt
Theodore Roosevelt points into the crowd during a campaign rally speech in the early 1900s. He coined the phrase, the bully pulpit. Bettman/Getty Images

It was beneficial for the United States to have George Washington as the first president. Washington was aware his actions would be reviewed for centuries to come; he wrote that his foray into the first presidency was like "entering upon an unexplored field, enveloped on every side with clouds & darkness" [source: National Archives]. Washington had no model on which to base his actions, and every decision he made would set precedent for presidents to come.

To fully understand what a president does and how he or she does it, it's important to view a president not as an incumbent holding office for four or eight years, but as a part of a larger organism, the presidency itself. The office is a dynamic, ever-evolving thing that's molded, carved, expanded upon, battered and made different by every person who holds it. The presidency, in other words, is larger than any single president.


The presidency is founded on customs established by past presidents. President Washington established the president as the leader of the nation in foreign affairs and established the tradition of negotiating treaties with other nations without prior approval of Congress (confirmation of treaties now comes after). Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson established the president as the head of his or her political party. Theodore Roosevelt sharpened the inherent power of what he called the bully pulpit — the public limelight naturally afforded to every president, which can be used to gain popular support for policies.

Presidential powers and limitations also emerge from the interplay between the president and the other branches. A president can make a play for new power into uncharted territory; regardless of whether the action is upheld or struck down, a precedent has been set and the presidency molded anew. Thomas Jefferson purchased the Louisiana Territory from France without congressional consent. President George W. Bush's domestic spying policies gave immunity to telecommunication companies who'd illegally given their customers' information to the government. In cases like these, the president used his office to act, and Congress often falls in line after the fact.

The direction can also reverse. Congress perceived Richard Nixon as abusing a long-standing presidential power to impound funds appropriated for laws and programs. Previously, presidents could hold funds for administrative reasons, like accounting errors that required repair (accidentally adding a zero can really increase a fund, for example). President Nixon used the impound power to block bills he'd vetoed but Congress had overridden; with no funding, there was no legislation. In response, Congress passed the Budget and Impoundment Control Act in 1974, and the presidential power to impound appropriations was revoked.

How a presidency plays out is also largely based on the mood of Congress and the public (often created by the behavior of the president's predecessor) and the state of the nation. In times of relative national tranquility and calm, Congress is usually most powerful. Members can take a longer view and address issues that will affect future generations. But in times of crisis, such as a failing economy or war, the responsiveness and decisiveness of the presidency becomes vital. In times of crisis, presidential power is often greatly expanded. Franklin Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and George W. Bush all added sweeping powers to the presidency to address wars and economic crises like the Great Depression and the war on terror.

This is how the framers of the Constitution intended it; the three branches are meant to check and balance each other.

The President and the Other Branches of Government

Donald Trump
President Donald Trump addresses a rally in support of law and order on the South Lawn of the White House on Oct. 10, 2020 in Washington, D.C. Trump broke with presidential tradition by holding campaign rallies at the White House. Samuel Corum/Getty Images

The president's authority to lead the nation is limited by checks and balances that were added by the framers of the Constitution. Without approval by Congress, the president can't get legislation passed. Without the support of the Supreme Court, the president's actions can be deemed illegal.

To maintain a healthy balance of power, only Congress can create a law. Consider legislation a long circle. When the president has a piece of legislation he or she wants passed, the president will lobby Congress. Congress deliberates the bill and both houses vote on it. If Congress passes the bill, it's sent to the president, who signs it into law. This is the best-case scenario for a president. At any point, the legislative process can fall apart. Either house of Congress can fail to pass the bill. It can be killed in committee.


Congress also limits presidential power by its ability to confirm or reject presidential confirmations. Presidents appoint their Cabinet members, Supreme Court justices, diplomats and others to help them carry out their agenda. To prevent an army of bureaucrats, judges and high officials from carrying out the president's every whim, the Senate vets candidates and can confirm them only with a two-thirds vote.

The president's salary is another check established by the Constitution that prevents excessive power within the congressional/presidential balance. The president's compensation can't be increased or decreased during the year, so Congress can't tempt or punish a president into complicity by offering a raise or whittling away his or her salary.

The president is meant to temper the other branches as well. Just as Congress isn't required to pass legislation, the president isn't required to sign a bill that Congress hopes will become law. The president is invested with the veto power. This is the ability to refuse to sign a bill into law. Once a president vetoes a bill, Congress can override the veto, but it's a difficult process. Both the House and the Senate must produce a two-thirds vote. This can be tough, especially with a bill that didn't enjoy overwhelming support in Congress before the veto. A president can also effectively kill a bill through a pocket veto, which occurs when a president doesn't formally veto a bill, but instead keeps it unsigned until the legislative session ends.

At times, a president simply threatening a veto is enough to send Congress back to the drawing board to come up with a compromise the president will agree to pass. Some presidents used their veto powers more than others. Franklin Roosevelt and Grover Cleveland rank highest with 635 and 414 vetoes, respectively. Eight presidents never vetoed a single bill; all of them served before 1882 [source: United States Senate].

The judicial and executive branches also interact to check and balance one another. The judiciary can rule a presidential decision or law illegal, thus overturning it. Historically, the Supreme Court has sided with the president, though not in all cases. In one landmark case during the administration of President Harry Truman, the Supreme Court ruled that the president doesn't have the power to seize private businesses.

The president balances the judiciary with the pardoning power. Through pardons, the president can essentially overrule a judgment against a person or group of people who have been convicted in U.S. courts. On Christmas Day in 1868, President Andrew Johnson pardoned all Civil War soldiers who had fought for the Confederacy and against the Union, arguing it was a reconciliatory gesture. President John Kennedy managed to overrule both the judicial system and Congress with a single pardon. Kennedy issued a blanket pardon for Americans who'd been convicted under the Narcotics Act, which he considered an unfair law. President Bill Clinton outraged many through his 396 pardons, which included a pardon of his younger brother, Roger Clinton, who was jailed on a drug charge, and financier Marc Rich, a Clinton supporter charged with tax evasion and illegal trading with Iran. And President Donald Trump raised eyebrows when he proclaimed he had the power to pardon himself — something which, if ever done, could threaten the system of checks and balances [source: Walsh].

The U.S. President as Chief Executive

The American president is essentially the CEO of the country. He or she makes decisions based on information gathered by division heads. The marketing department suggests ways to better get the company's point across. Accounting tells the CEO how much a new initiative will cost. The manufacturing division lets the CEO know it needs a better benefits package for the laborers. Major decisions must be passed by the board of directors. All of these factors shape a CEO's agenda of what direction the company should go to bring each vision to a reality.

This is similar to the duties carried out by the president of the United States. As chief executive, the president enters office with an agenda — where he or she wants to lead the country — and uses the resources available to carry out that agenda. Some are broad and can be lumped into clear categories; Democrats often focus on expanding social services, whereas Republicans often seek to narrow government spending. Others are much more personal and are unique to each president. Andrew Jackson had been marginalized by big business and political bosses, which he took on during his administration.


But if running a single corporation is difficult enough, running the country is exponentially harder. There are too many factors for a single person to address alone, so presidents surround themselves with advisers and appoint 15 Cabinet heads. Cabinet members serve as leaders of federal divisions, such as the Departments of Defense, State, Treasury and Labor. In addition, the president receives advice from quasi-governmental agencies (those supported but not directly managed by the government) like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Federal Reserve Bank System.

The president is the major legislative force in the United States. During his or her inaugural address, the president reveals the goals of the administration. Throughout the years in office, the president adds new goals or refines old ones during the annual State of Union address. The presidential agenda is the basis for much of the legislation Congress deliberates throughout the president's tenure. It's not an automatic process, however; the president doesn't decree what he or she wants while Congress scrambles to respond. There is work to be done on both sides, with the bulk of it on the president's shoulders.

For an agenda to be realized, a president has to have a good working relationship with Congress, the support of the public and/or willingness to compromise. The president usually has to negotiate; a bill that's based on part of a president's agenda commonly includes porkmoney that funds legislators' states rather than the country as a whole.

Public opinion also counts for a lot in deciding whether a president will get his or her agenda passed. President George W. Bush's appeal for public support for his $700 billion Wall Street bailout plan (a use of the bully pulpit) is a good example. Constituents contacted their representatives to express support and, in turn, Congress passed the plan in just over a week.

Compromise is also key in seeing an agenda come to fruition. President Woodrow Wilson is an oft-cited example of an unyielding executive. After signing the League of Nations treaty with U.S. allies after World War I, Wilson wouldn't allow Congress to modify the treaty. So the Senate refused to ratify it. Conversely, Lyndon Johnson's vast Great Society agenda was passed due to compromises he made with the legislative branch.

The U.S. President as Commander in Chief

Dwight Eisenhower
President Dwight Eisenhower had an easy transition to the role of commander in chief; he'd served as commander of the American Forces in the European theatre of World War II. M. McNeill/Fox Photos/Getty Images

Arguably, the most solemn role of the president is to serve as the leader of the U.S. military. Under the president's direction, the United States can carry out retaliatory invasions, such as the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Wars can be indirectly prompted or unprompted, as with the U.S. invasions of Iraq in 1990 and 2003. U.S. military involvement can be massive, like that in Vietnam and Korea. Or the U.S. military can strike from the air, as occurred against Iraq under President Bill Clinton in 1998 or the Special Forces invasion of Panama in 1989. The United States can commit troops to larger organizations of which it's a member, like NATO and the United Nations. All of these actions share the commonality of being ordered by the president of the United States.

The Constitution gives Congress alone the power to declare war; it charges the executive with carrying out the war as commander in chief. But in the history of the United States, Congress has formally declared war just 11 times — against 10 countries that were involved in five different conflicts: the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War and the two World Wars [source: United States House of Representatives]. All other U.S military action undertaken by the United States throughout its history has been under presidential order. Like most other powers, the president's ability to wage and operate war evolved over time.


Perhaps no other president defined presidential wartime powers like Abraham Lincoln did. In 1861, while Congress was adjourned, he activated the military, sent troops to Southern states, ordered the Navy to blockade the port of New Orleans and appropriated funds from the Treasury. Lincoln was also the first to declare martial law (the temporary removal of power from the courts) and suspend habeas corpus (the right for a prisoner to petition the legality of his or her imprisonment).

Lincoln's actions were vast and unprecedented (and unconstitutional). But as we've learned, in times of crises, the executive branch enjoys the most power. Congress has historically gone along with presidential wartime actions, even if they didn't agree. Tactics in the context of war, like the troop surge in the Iraq War in 2007 or the detention of Japanese-Americans in internment camps during World War II, were congressionally unpopular, but were ultimately approved by the legislative branch.

Presidents following Lincoln's example during the Civil War have learned how to make end runs around Congress to wage wars. Most commonly seen have been executive orders. These are decrees issued by the executive branch (without formal input from Congress) that have the effect of law over federal agencies. They can be used, among other things, to direct the military into action. Executive orders led the United States into war in Korea and Vietnam. Without congressional approval, they technically weren't wars, which is why Vietnam and Korea are referred to as conflicts.

The language found in some treaties, like those with NATO and the United Nations, may also be used by presidents to declare war without congressional approval. President George W. Bush's decision to launch an attack on Afghanistan was supported by the charters of the U.N. and NATO, both of which the United States is formally bound to, which allow for retaliation by a nation that's been attacked.

The military isn't the only tool of the president's war power. Intelligence and covert agencies like the CIA, the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Central Security Service can all provide the president with surreptitious, nonmilitary options in dealing with threats abroad. These agencies can also provide information for decisions concerning strategy in times of war.

Domestic Responsibilities of the U.S. President

Franklin Delano Roosevelt
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt sits behind the wheel of his car outside of his home in Hyde Park, New York, mid-1930s. He often held "fireside chats" via radio to explain his policies. FPG/Getty Images

Throughout his administration, President Franklin Roosevelt held what he called fireside chats, regular radio addresses to Americans explaining recent political decisions and new ideas for the country. The fireside chats overwhelmingly contributed to the immense popularity Roosevelt enjoyed during his tenure as president. He was the only president elected four times.

Roosevelt personified one of the major roles the president is expected to fulfill, that of leader of the nation. Before Roosevelt, President Andrew Jackson solidified the president's position as protector of the citizens. He took on established political and economic concentrations of power, which he felt unfairly balanced wealth and policymaking in favor of an elite stratum. Not all presidents have fulfilled that role, but in one form or fashion, all have led the country in the direction each saw fit.


The domestic responsibilities of the president fall largely into two categories: economy and the law. The president ensures the laws of the United States are carried out. This is why federal regulating agencies like the Federal Trade Commission and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) fall under the authority of the executive branch. Both were created to oversee sectors of the United States to ensure laws are being followed, with the Justice Department serving as the prosecutorial division of the executive branch.

Presidents also may oversee the creation of new regulatory bodies; President Woodrow Wilson oversaw the creation of the Department of Labor (which created a new Cabinet position). The department enforces the federal minimum wage and regulates business to ensure eight-hour workdays and child labor laws are being observed. In effect, President Wilson wrestled rights for American workers from industry.

The other major aspect of presidential domestic policy is concerned with the economy. A president's legal activity immensely but indirectly affects the economy. Presidential responsibilities such as creating the national budget, proposing legislation that increases or cuts taxes, and levying tariffs on imports and exports, much more directly impact the economy and lives of all Americans.

Creating a national budget is a huge undertaking, which requires a huge staff (more on that later). Within the budget, the funding for all programs, services, military activities and recent legislation is spelled out in detail. The choices made for funding of programs affects enormous sections of Americans; for example, an increase in defense spending may lead to a decrease in welfare programs. The president's decision on spending also can lead to an increase in taxes.

As in times of war, when the United States faces an economic crisis, the president has taken more power due to the responsiveness and decisiveness of the executive branch. During the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt created new programs to alleviate widespread poverty and unemployment. Many of these programs approached socialism, like the Works Progress Administration, which created federal jobs for American workers. In 2008, George W. Bush largely took control of the sinking economy, directing the Federal Reserve Bank to issue massive loans and the Treasury to purchase stakes in failing major corporations.

Not all presidential policies fit neatly into a domestic category. Some walk the line between domestic and foreign policy, like the president's ability to negotiate tariffs with other nations. These tariffs can affect U.S. importers and exporters by increasing the taxes they pay on goods shipped in and out of the country. But tariffs can also extend U.S. aid to struggling nations by eliminating a tariff, or penalize hostile nations by increasing a tariff, creating an embargo or freezing their economy from a vast consumer market.

Foreign Policy Responsibilities of the U.S. President

Gorbachev, Reagan, signing
President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev sign the arms control agreement banning the use of intermediate-range nuclear missiles, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Reduction Treaty in 1987. Bettman/Getty Images

When President Ronald Reagan took office, one of his highest priorities was to carry out the War on Drugs declared by Richard Nixon. President Reagan beefed up funding for the Drug Enforcement Agency, lobbied Congress to create legislation that increased prison sentences for offenders caught with the emerging drug crack cocaine, and negotiated with the foreign nations where drugs funneling into the United States originated.

Reagan created new extradition treaties with Central American governments that allowed foreign drug dealers, like members of Colombia's Medellín cartel, to be tried in American courts. Official corruption in foreign nations didn't extend into the United States, though the U.S.'s legal arm now reached outside of the nation's borders.


Creating treaties is a constitutional power afforded to the presidency, and George Washington solidified the president's authority in negotiating with other nations. Washington established the use of treaties, leaving it to Congress to approve them. For the most part, Congress has complied. The United States currently has extradition treaties with more than 100 countries because of presidential negotiations [source: Council on Foreign Relations]. In addition, the United States is a member of NATO, the United Nations and a host of other international organizations because presidents saw fit to join and lobbied Congress to approve the treaties. Conversely, if a president decides a treaty isn't in the best interest of the nation, the decision rests solely in his or her hands as seen in President Bill Clinton's decision not to sign the Kyoto Treaty on climate change.

The president also acts as head diplomat for the United States. He or she is responsible for visiting foreign heads of state to press U.S. policy and to maintain good foreign relations. The president, in the eyes of other nations, serves as the figurehead for the entire country. This is a double-edged sword; the president can be beloved by residents of foreign nations or hated.

Much of how the United States decides to react to international affairs has been molded by presidential decisions. The U.S. policy of leading the Western Hemisphere (created by James Monroe) was added to by the (Theodore) Roosevelt Corollary that allowed the United States to intervene in the affairs of the rest of the Americas. The Truman Doctrine made the United States essentially the police of the world, and the (George W.) Bush Doctrine of preemptive war gives the United States license to strike unprovoked against foreign nations it perceives as a threat.

Treaties are subject to two-thirds approval in the Senate, but presidents use executive agreements as a way around Senate involvement in their dealings with foreign nations. Like executive orders, these have the binding effect of law over federal agencies, but don't require the consent or confirmation of Congress. Because of the unchecked power they provide, presidents have relied more heavily on executive agreements over the years. At the outset of World War II, the United States was party to 800 treaties and 1,200 executive agreements; between 1940 and 1989, the United States ratified 759 treaties and created 13,106 new executive agreements [source: FindLaw].

The president also has the sole ability to recognize other nations, a powerful foreign relations tool. A nation that seeks favor with the United States may curtail activities that Americans find contrary to human rights in order to become recognized by the United States. Formal recognition is an important factor in international affairs, and being recognized by the United States often creates recognition by other nations as well.

Technical and Logistical Support for the U.S. President

"Today's White House is a supercharged engine made up of superbly capable but quite diverse presidential instruments," wrote a researcher at the University of Virginia. It hasn't always been that way. Originally, the president's duties were expected to be limited enough that he or she could carry them out virtually alone. Thomas Jefferson had one clerk and a messenger to assist him. Until 1857, Congress didn't fund any presidential staffers; presidents were expected to pay their help. Slowly, staff numbers grew until 1939, when the White House staff grew exponentially under President Franklin Roosevelt. It was under his administration that the Executive Office of the President (EOP) was created.

The EOP initially consisted of the Budget Office and the White House Office, but has grown as successive presidents have added new offices. These offices represent the different divisions that are sometimes concerned with powers and initiatives outside of the expressed duties in the Constitution. Some of the units include the Office of Science and Technology, the Office of Drug Control Policy and the Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives. When a president creates a new office, it reflects a part of the administration's unique agenda. As new presidents come in, they may use or largely ignore the offices created by their predecessors, depending on the new administration's agenda.


There are some offices that are far too vital to be ignored, however. The National Security Council, the Council of Economic Advisors and the Office of Management and Budget assist the president in some of the major endeavors he or she will undertake, including military action, addressing economic crises, expanding the U.S. economy or creating the annual budget for presentation to Congress.

The president appoints the leaders of the sub-offices (there's also a presidential appointment secretary to assist with that responsibility), who in turn hire their staff.

Closest to presidential decision-making is the president's personal staff and — depending on the administration — the vice president. The president's personal staff includes the press secretary, White House counsel, assistant for congressional liaison and chief of staff, the president's closest adviser. These close advisers and allies of the president help him or her recruit congressional and public support for initiatives, determine the best course of action in response to crises and clarify the legality of potential actions. The personal staff works alongside the president in the West Wing of the White House and is the first layer between the president and the rest of the world.

The vice president can play a large role in an administration or a small one. Al Gore, vice president for President Bill Clinton, served in a large capacity for the administration, taking on new initiatives to overhaul the executive branch. Other advisers can play a major role as well. Alexander Hamilton, Treasury secretary to George Washington; Henry Kissinger, adviser to President Richard Nixon; and Karl Rove, deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush, were all vital to presidential decision-making.

Since the president cuts a conspicuous figure, the role of the Secret Service can be a vital one. The agency was created in 1865 but wasn't officially charged with protecting the president's life until 1907, following the assassination of William McKinley. The agency also protects the vice president, presidents-elect, and candidates and nominees for president during the campaign.

The Secret Service also provides protection for the first family. Read about presidential families and their official residence.

The First Family and the White House

Jackie, John and Caroline Kennedy
Jacqueline Kennedy reads to her daughter Caroline while her husband President John F. Kennedy sits on a lounge chair at their summer home. Bettmann/Getty Images

Presidents generally take every effort to keep their families out of the limelight afforded by the office, though they're not always successful. The American press has always held a fascination with the first family; a president's family directly reflects on his or her ability to lead and the moral guidance he or she is expected to give the nation. As such, some first ladies have helped to frame their husband's character for the nation. Sarah Polk and Lucy Hayes, for example, both banned liquor in the White House in the mid-19th century.

Some presidential children have found themselves the subject of tabloid fodder. Jenna Bush, daughter of President George W. Bush and granddaughter of President George H.W. Bush, made headlines when she was arrested for underage possession of alcohol at age 19 in 2001 [source: Roiphe]. Others have been targeted simply because of their famous parents. President Bill Clinton's 13-year-old daughter, Chelsea, was once referred to as a "dog" by conservative talk host Rush Limbaugh in 1993, much to the public's distaste [source: Evon]. Donald Trump's youngest child, Barron, is rarely seen in public, perhaps to avoid the sometimes-harsh spotlight [source: Town & Country].


While some have remained content to quietly support the president, first ladies have sometimes played very public and vital roles during their husband's administration. Perhaps the most celebrated first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of President Franklin Roosevelt, helped guide the nation during the Depression and World War II. Reports of her rationing food in the White House showed the nation the administration felt their pain. She was also an outspoken advocate of civil rights and admitted she felt a duty to use her unique access to the president to help the nation.

First ladies also can play a role in policy. Nancy Reagan helped bolster her husband President Ronald Reagan's War on Drugs by launching her own "Just Say No" campaign. The overwhelmingly successful public relations blitz targeted American children and taught an entire generation about the pitfalls of drug use. President Bill Clinton's wife Hillary took the first lady's involvement to new heights with an ambitious federal health care program. Though the initiative was defeated by a Republican Congress, the first lady actively pushed the legislation on Capitol Hill, meeting with lawmakers to convince them to vote for the program.

The first family's official residence, the White House, is located at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington, D.C. It wasn't until the administration of John Adams that the residence served as the home to the president and his family. The building was painted white to cover the scorch marks left after British troops set fire to it in the War of 1812. It was first opened to the public by President Thomas Jefferson after his inauguration in 1805. This post-inauguration open-house tradition continued, but ran into snags after President Andrew Jackson's inauguration in 1829, when 20,000 citizens overran the home and had to be lured outside with washtubs filled with whiskey and juice set on the front lawn. The practice ended in 1885, when assassination attempts raised issues about security [source: History].

Over the years, some first ladies have renovated the White House during their husband's tenure. President Harry Truman's wife, Bess, completely gutted the residence, and the renovation lasted almost the entire administration, from 1945 to 1953. President John Kennedy's wife, Jacqueline, famously redecorated the White House and gave a televised tour to the nation in February 1962. Forty-five million Americans tuned in to watch [source: Rothman].

The White House has also served as the setting for several weddings. Twenty-three first children or grandchildren have been married in the White House, beginning with President James Monroe's daughter, Maria, in 1820. The most recent: the 1992 wedding of President George H. W. Bush's daughter, Dorothy.

Holding a wedding in the White House is only one perk the president is afforded.

Presidential Perks

Barack Obama, Angela Merkel
President Barack Obama talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel during the G8 Summit on May 19, 2012 at Camp David, Maryland. Camp David is the presidential mountain retreat. Pete Souza/The White House/Getty Images

Running the free world is a full-time job for any U.S. president, and it requires he or she is able to travel from one corner of the world to another in as fast as possible. Enter Air Force One. While President Harry Truman ordered the creation of a pilot pool for presidential air transport, it was during the Kennedy administration that the presidency entered the jet age. President John Kennedy ordered a Boeing 707 converted into a "flying White House" [source: CNN]. The call sign for the plane is the famous Air Force One, although this is the designation anytime the president is aboard a plane, not the designation of the specific plane.

Aboard Air Force One, which today is a pair of customized Boeing 747s, the president has at his or her disposal a fully equipped traveling office that can accommodate the president's staff and family, as well as the press corps that travels with the president to cover visits for news outlets. Two galleys aboard can serve meals for up to 100 people, there are staterooms for the president and first lady and the presidential seal can be found almost everywhere aboard the plane — including on boxes of specially made M&M candies.


In addition to the Air Force One, the president is escorted during plane travel by two C-5 Galaxy planes that transport his or her presidential limos, a special ambulance and Secret Service agents. He or she can also get around by air via Marine One, the presidential helicopter.

Every president since Franklin Roosevelt has had the keys to the presidential mountain retreat, Camp David. This 128-acre estate is tucked in the mountains of Maryland and has been the site of several historic presidential events, like the Camp David Peace Accord between Egypt and Israel, brokered by President Jimmy Carter.

The White House itself is equipped for presidential downtime as well. President Harry Truman had a bowling alley installed, which was later updated and frequently used by President Richard Nixon. He and first lady Pat Nixon were avid bowlers. There's also a tennis court, a swimming pool, a jogging track and a movie theater on the grounds. The president also has 24-hour chef service available; the White House employs five full-time chefs. Presidents also add their own personal touches at times. President Lyndon Johnson, for example, had a soda fountain installed in the presidential residence that delivered Fresca. The White House also boasts its own floral department, which handles the extensive flower arrangements throughout the building.

Incumbent presidents seeking re-election have an inherent perk that comes with the job: an army of appointed officials who can campaign throughout the country using taxpayer money. This is an unspoken presidential perk, although candidates from the opposition party tend to cry foul when presidents use their power during campaigns. While it may be unfair, the presidential power to campaign while in office isn't illegal, so long as official state business is being carried out. For example, in 2004, incumbent President George W. Bush sent Cabinet members and senior staff to swing states around the country. These surrogates carried with them checks (Labor Secretary Elaine Chao presented a $10 million check to a faith-based program in Florida, for example) and praise for the campaigning president's work — and future agendas. In 2020, many objected when President Donald Trump broke longstanding tradition and accepted the GOP nomination at the White House instead of a neutral convention site, due to the coronavirus pandemic [source: Cathey, et al].

So what happens after the president's job is finished?

Life After the Presidency

President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn, Habitat for Humanity
Former President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn join volunteers for Habitat for Humanity's Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 4, 2010. Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images

There are three ways a president can leave office mid-term: death, resignation or impeachment. Eight presidents have died in office. Four of these presidents, Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley and John Kennedy, were assassinated (five other sitting presidents have survived assassination attempts). Of all presidents, William Henry Harrison had the shortest administration; he died of pneumonia one month after his inauguration.

Only one president, Richard Nixon, has resigned. Three presidents have been impeached: Andrew Johnson, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump. None of the three was convicted. Johnson escaped Senate conviction by one vote, but Clinton and Trump were found not guilty in the Senate by wider margins.


Most presidents fulfill one or two terms and are either defeated in re-election or retire. So what's life like for a person who's been the leader of the free world? Generally, it's good. Some presidents retire to a life outside of the public eye. Many have published their memoirs. Others use the prominence afforded by the presidency to continue or even improve their work. Jimmy Carter, after leading an unpopular single-term administration, went on to create what many agree is the most successful post-presidency. The former president established the Carter Center, a human rights organization, and became heavily involved with Habitat for Humanity, which builds homes for the poor.

For most of U.S history, presidents have been given a pat on the back on their way out and that's about it. That changed in 1958, when Congress passed the Former Presidents Act. This law gave a departing president an annual pension of $25,000 a year under the original bill. Since then, the amount has been increased to the same as a Cabinet member, about $161,000 per year. The government also provides a former president funding to support an office and staff for four-and-a-half years.

During his second term, President Franklin Roosevelt had an archive for the personal papers and mementoes he'd accumulated during his time in office. Since a president can't accept personal gifts during office, any tokens presented by foreign heads of state and other dignitaries and citizens belong to the American people. To continue this chain of custody, Roosevelt established his presidential library in 1941. This tradition was carried on by Harry Truman, under whose administration Congress passed the Presidential Libraries Act. This law created the Presidential Library System, a part of the National Archives, which oversees the 14 presidential libraries currently in existence. It became customary for a presidential library to be built to house the effects of the outgoing administration and all modern presidents have a presidential library. Just before his death in 1962, Roosevelt's predecessor, President Herbert Hoover, saw a presidential library built for his administration.

Not all presidents leave public life after the White House. President William Taft went on to become the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, appointed by President Warren Harding eight years after Taft left office. Taft preferred the judicial over the executive branch: "I don't remember that I ever was President," he once wrote [source: White House]. Other presidents have been appointed or elected to various positions. After being impeached, Andrew Johnson was elected as a senator for Tennessee, while John Tyler served in the Confederate House of Representatives more than a decade after leaving the White House [sources: United States Senate, White House].

"There is nothing more pathetic in life than a former president," President John Quincy Adams once said. That, like all other aspects of the American presidency, has evolved and changed, all due to the decisions made by the people who've held the office.

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