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Executive Branch & Presidents Introduction

In a Nutshell

  • President is most powerful individual in US government
  • Constitution charges president with ensuring that laws are faithfully executed, commanding the military, and filling executive and judicial offices
  • Beyond that, Constitution leaves definition of presidency fairly vague

Article II of the Constitution lays out the president's role very briefly. It states that the "executive power" of the government shall be vested in the president and that he shall be responsible for a handful of tasks:
  • He is to make sure that the laws are faithfully executed
  • He is to periodically inform Congress of the "state of the union" and recommend to Congress issues that need attention
  • He is responsible for directing American foreign policy, and he is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces
  • He has the power to fill, by appointment, offices in the executive branch and to name judges to the Supreme Court

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Why Should I Care?

The President of the United States is almost certainly the most powerful person in the world.

Yet the president's powers are defined in only a few vague paragraphs of the US Constitution. The president can drop the bomb, overrule the wishes of a majority in Congress with the stroke of a pen, or jet to Cancun for the weekend on Air Force One, but his official job description can fit on the back of a three by five card.

Of course, we live in an age of paper overload—an age of written disclaimers, authorization forms, and endless fine print. The McDonald's employee handbook is 37 pages long; the iPhone user's guide is 130 pages. But even if we account for 200 years' worth of ever-increasing documentation of all matters great and small, the Constitution's minimalist approach to the president's job description—the whole thing fits in just over half a page of the handwritten original copy—remains almost shocking. After all, eighteenth-century Americans were quite wary of executive power. Remember: they had just fought and won a Revolutionary War against a "tyrannical king"—an executive with too much power. And in their first stab at government-building, newly independent Americans had deliberately created state governments and a national government under the Articles of Confederation that featured very weak executives, with precisely limited powers.

But by the time the Constitution was drafted in 1787, though, most Americans were somewhat less freaked out about executive power. This was partially because many of their experiments with weak executives had failed miserably during the first decade of American independence. The desire for a stronger and more effective executive was one of the driving forces that caused the Constitution to be drafted in the first place.

But the minimalism of the Constitution's framers when it came to defining the presidency was ultimately inspired less by any newfound comfort with executive power than by their inability to agree on the details of the new office, combined with their confidence in George Washington (hippo ivory teeth and all). As the framers of the Constitution debated what powers the president should possess, as they struggled to define an office that would be strong enough to serve the nation's needs but not strong enough to threaten their liberties, they did so knowing that George Washington, a man almost universally trusted, would be the first to fill the position.

Had George Washington not been around, we may have ended up with a very different Constitution and a very different executive branch. But since Washington was around, and just about everyone realized he was a shoo-in to become the first president, the framers created an executive office defined broadly enough (or, you might say, vaguely enough) to allow its occupants—and history—to flesh out its character more fully.

In stark contrast to the Constitution's vague delineation of executive powers, the members of the Constitutional Convention outlined with great precision (and almost bizarre complexity) the method for selecting the president. The two most logical options—that the president either be elected directly by the people or, alternatively, selected by the Congress—were far too simple for these political geniuses. So they came up with a much more complex hybrid institution of their own creation. A "college" comprised of "electors," selected by the states using processes left to their own discretion, would assemble once every four years to do only one thing—elect the president and vice president. States would be represented in this college proportional to their population, but also on the principle of equality. Electors would represent the will of the people but be free to vote for whomever they wanted. (Makes perfect sense, no? No?)

In other words, the Constitution's framers did a peculiar thing when they created the job that has since grown to become the most powerful position in the world. They left one aspect of the presidency—almost certainly the most important aspect of the presidency, which is what exactly the president's job is—largely to chance. Meanwhile, another aspect of the office—how the president is chosen—was elaborately (or, you might say, imaginatively) constructed.

So, now that we have more than 200 years' worth of presidents to judge the office by… how did the Constitution's framers' do?

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