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President of the United States

Updated on January 6, 2017

The President is the chief executive of the U.S. government and its highest ranking official. He is elected for a term of four years and is limited to no more than two terms in office by the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution. Any natural-born citizen of the United States 35 years of age or older is eligible to run for President. Throughout U.S. history the Presidency has increased in power and dignity. It is now regarded as the most important institution in American government.

The President derives most of his powers from Article II of the Constitution and from custom. However, the foundation of his power is his independence from the other branches of government. The delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 established a government based on the principle of separation of powers. Although this limits the scope of the President's powers, his authority comes from the people who elect him and not from Congress, the courts, or the various state governments.

Many delegates to the Constitutional Convention believed that the President should be a figurehead ruler, with the real power of government vested in Congress. Through practice, however, the President has come to be the dominant figure in government, whose powers infringe on the prerogatives of the other branches. There is good reason for this. Congress is a deliberative body with a membership of more than 500, and Congressmen represent different areas with different interests. As such, Congress cannot possibly provide the decisive day-to-day leadership necessary to keep the government functioning. Only the President, acting alone but with the advice of many, can make rapid decisions and enforce them.

Commander in Chief

The President is aided in his conduct of foreign policy by his power as Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. Constitutionally, this power is checked by the fact that Congress alone has the power to declare war and appropriate money for the military. In practice, however, a President has been able to send U.S. troops into battle on his own authority, without a declaration of war from Congress. Once the troops have thus been committed, Congress, by tradition, has rallied behind the President and voted the necessary appropriations.

The prerogative of the President to deploy the armed forces to achieve political objectives has long been accepted. In 1846, President Polk sent U.S. soldiers into a disputed area between Texas and Mexico and thus provoked the Mexicans into an attack. This led Congress to declare war on Mexico, which was what Polk wanted. In 1900, President McKinley sent U.S. troops into China to aid in the suppression of the Boxer Rebellion. A number of Presidents in the 20th century have sent marines into Latin American countries to "maintain law and order" and "protect American lives and property." In 1950, President Truman sent U.S. troops into Korea to stop the North Korean invasion of South Korea. After 1954, U.S. Presidents committed an increasing number of troops to South Vietnam with no formal declaration or authorization from Congress.

That a civilian, the President, was made the head of the military was one of the most important innovations of the Constitution. It limited the armed forces to one specific function: carrying out the orders of the elected representative of the people. Although the United States has had its share of ambitious military leaders, none has attempted to usurp the power of the government and set himself up as a military dictator. Yet the military, with its great armed might, is always a theoretical threat to constitutional government, and Presidents need to guard their prerogatives as Commander in Chief. During the Korean War, when General Douglas MacArthur publicly criticized the strategic objectives of President Harry S. Truman, the President relieved him of his command as head of the United Nations forces in Korea for publicly criticizing his commanding officer. Thus the doctrine of civilian supremacy of the military was reasserted by the President.

The Truman-MacArthur dispute was over political objectives of war. Most Presidents have left military strategy arid tactics to the generals and admirals, who are experts in that field. However, Presidents play an important role in defining the objectives for the military and in mobilizing the nation's resources to support the armed forces. In doing this, Presidents exercise great power. Such wartime Presidents as Lincoln, Wilson, and Franklin D. Roosevelt were virtually constitutional dictators in matters connected with war. The Constitution neither checks nor defines the powers that a President can assume in wartime. Perhaps the best check against a President's grasping more power than necessary is the tradition of constitutional government and the democratic process that any President must respect in order to retain the people's allegiance.


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