The President of the United States is the head of state of the United States. Under the U.S. Constitution, the President is also the chief executive of the federal government and commander in chief of the armed forces.
Because of the superpower status of the United States, the American President is often dubbed "the most powerful person on Earth" and the occupant is often one of the world's best-known figures. During the Cold War, the President was sometimes referred to as "the leader of the free world," a phrase that is still invoked today.
The United States was the first nation to create the office of President the head of government in a republic. Today the office is widely emulated all over the world in nations with a Presidential system of government.
The current President of the United States is George W. Bush.
Requirements to hold office
Section One of Article II of the U.S. Constitution establishes the requirements one must meet in order to become President. The president must be a natural-born citizen of the United States (or a citizen of the United States at the time the U.S. Constitution was adopted), be at least 35 years of age, and have been a resident of the United States for 14 years.
The natural-born citizenship requirement has been the subject of some controversy in recent years. Some commentators argue that the clause should be repealed because it excludes qualified people based on technicalities, and fails to appreciate the contributions made by immigrants to American society. Prominent public officials that are barred from the presidency because they were not born U.S. citizens include California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Florida Gov. Mel Martinez, Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez, Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm. Occasionally, constitutional amendments are proposed to remove or amend this requirement, but have not been successful.
Under the Constitution, the President serves a four-year term. Amendment XXII (which took effect in 1951 and was first applied to Dwight D. Eisenhower starting in 1953) limits the president to either two four-year terms or a maximum of ten years in office should he have succeeded to the Presidency previously and served less than two years completing his predecessor's term. Since then, four presidents have served two full terms: Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush (assuming President Bush serves all four years of his second term). The only president that was eligible to have served more than 8 years was Lyndon Johnson.
U.S. presidential elections are held every four years. Presidents are elected indirectly, through the Electoral College. The President and the Vice President are the only two nationally elected officials in the United States. (Legislators are elected on a state-by-state basis; other executive officers and judges are appointed.) Originally, each elector voted for two people for President. The votes were tallied and the person receiving the greatest number of votes (provided that such a number was a majority of electors) became President, while the individual who was in second place became Vice President.
The ratification of Amendment XII in 1804 changed the electoral process by directing the electors to use separate ballots to vote for the President and Vice President. To be elected, a candidate must receive a majority of electoral votes, or if no candidate receives a majority, the President and Vice President are chosen by the House of Representatives and Senate, respectively, as necessary. Since 1937, with the ratification of Amendment XX, a newly-elected President, or a re-elected incumbent, is sworn in (usually by the Chief Justice) on January 20 of the year following the election, an event called Inauguration Day. Following the oath of office, the President delivers an inaugural address, setting the tone for the administration.
The modern Presidential election process begins with the primary elections, during which the major parties (currently the Democrats and the Republicans) each select a nominee to unite behind; the nominee in turn selects a running mate to join him on the ticket as the Vice Presidential candidate. The two major candidates then face off in the general election, usually participating in nationally televised debates before Election Day and campaigning across the country to explain their views and plans to the voters. Much of the modern electoral process is concerned with winning swing states, through frequent visits and mass media advertising drives.
In accordance with Article II, Section 1, Paragraph 8 of the Constitution, upon entering office, the President must take the following oath or affirmation: "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States." Only presidents Franklin Pierce and Herbert Hoover have chosen to affirm rather than swear. The oath is traditionally ended with, "So help me God," although for religious reasons some Presidents have said, "So help me."
The office of president of the United States is one of the most powerful offices of its kind in the world. The president, the Constitution says, must "take care that the laws be faithfully executed." To carry out this responsibility, the president presides over the executive branch of the federal government — a vast organization numbering about 4 million people, including 1 million active-duty military personnel. In addition, the president has important legislative and judicial powers.
Within the executive branch itself, the president has broad powers to manage national affairs and the workings of the federal government. The president can issue rules, regulations, and instructions called executive orders, which have the binding force of law upon federal agencies but do not require congressional approval. As commander-in-chief of the armed forces of the United States, the president may also call into federal service the state units of the National Guard. In times of war or national emergency, the U.S. Congress may grant the president even broader powers to manage the national economy and protect the security of the United States.
The president nominates — and the Senate confirms — the heads of all executive departments and agencies, together with hundreds of other high-ranking federal officials. (See United States Cabinet, Executive Office of the President.) In 2003, more than 3000 executive agency positions were subject to presidential appointment, with more than 1200 requiring Senate approval. The large majority of federal workers, however, are selected through the Civil Service system, in which appointment and promotion are based on ability and experience.
The President is also responsible for preparing the budget of the United States, although the Congress must approve it. (See Office of Management and Budget)
Despite the constitutional provision that "all legislative powers" granted to the federal government are vested in the U.S. Congress, the president, as the chief formulator of public policy, has a major legislative role. The president can veto any Act of Congress, and, unless two-thirds of the members of each house vote to override the veto, the bill does not become law.
Much of the legislation dealt with by Congress is drafted at the initiative of the executive branch. In annual and special messages to Congress, the president may propose legislation he believes is necessary. The most important of these is the annual State of the Union Address traditionally given in January. Before a joint session of Congress, the President outlines the status of the country and his legislative proposals for the upcoming year. If Congress should adjourn without acting on those proposals, the president has the power to call it into special session. But beyond this official role, the president, as head of a political party and as principal executive officer of the U.S. government, is primarily in a position to influence public opinion and thereby to influence the course of legislation in Congress.
To improve their working relationships with Congress, presidents in recent years have set up a Congressional Liaison Office in the White House. Presidential aides keep abreast of all important legislative activities and try to persuade senators and representatives of both parties to support administration policies.
Among the president's constitutional powers is that of appointing important public officials. Presidential nomination of federal judges, including members of the Supreme Court, is subject to confirmation by the Senate. Another significant power is that of granting a full or conditional pardon to anyone convicted of breaking a federal law — except in a case of impeachment. The pardoning power has come to embrace the power to shorten prison terms and reduce sentences.
Under the Constitution, the president is the federal official primarily responsible for the relations of the United States with foreign nations. The president appoints ambassadors, ministers, and consuls — subject to confirmation by the Senate — and receives foreign ambassadors and other public officials. With the secretary of state, the president manages all official contacts with foreign governments. On occasion, the president may personally participate in summit conferences where chiefs of state meet for direct consultation. Thus, President Woodrow Wilson headed the American delegation to the Paris conference at the end of World War I; President Franklin D. Roosevelt met with Allied leaders during World War II; and every president since then has sat down with world leaders to discuss economic and political issues and to reach bilateral and multilateral agreements.
Through the Department of State and the Department of Defense, the president is responsible for the protection of Americans abroad and of foreign nationals in the United States. The president decides whether to recognize new nations and new governments, and negotiate treaties with other nations, which become binding on the United States when approved by two-thirds of the Senate. The president may also negotiate "executive agreements" with foreign powers that are not subject to Senate confirmation.
Constraints on Presidential power
Because of the vast array of presidential roles and responsibilities, coupled with a conspicuous presence on the national and international scene, political analysts have tended to place great emphasis on the president's powers. Some have even spoken of "the imperial presidency," referring to the expanded role of the office that Franklin D. Roosevelt maintained during his term.
One of the first sobering realities a new president discovers is an inherited bureaucratic structure that can be difficult to manage and slow to change direction. The president's power to appoint extends only to some 3,000 people out of a civilian government work force of about 3 million.
The president finds that the machinery of government (the civil service) often operates independently of presidential interventions, has done so through earlier administrations, and will continue to do so in the future. New presidents are immediately confronted with a backlog of decisions from the outgoing administration. They inherit a budget formulated and enacted into law long before they came to office, as well as major spending programs (such as veterans' benefits, Social Security payments, and Medicare health insurance for the elderly), which are mandated by law. In foreign affairs, presidents must conform with treaties and informal agreements negotiated by their predecessors in office.
As the happy euphoria of the post-election "honeymoon" dissipates (today often referred to as "the first 100 days"), the new president discovers that Congress has become less cooperative and the media more critical. The president is forced to build at least temporary alliances among diverse, often antagonistic interests — economic, geographic, ethnic, and ideological. Compromises with Congress must be struck if any legislation is to be adopted. "It is very easy to defeat a bill in Congress," lamented President John F. Kennedy. "It is much more difficult to pass one."
Despite these constraints, every president achieves at least some of his legislative goals and prevents by veto the enactment of other laws he believes not to be in the nation's best interests. The president's authority in the conduct of war and peace, including the negotiation of treaties, is substantial. Moreover, the president can use his unique position to articulate ideas and advocate policies, which then have a better chance of entering the public consciousness than those held by other politicians or thinkers.
President Theodore Roosevelt famously called the presidency a "bully pulpit" from which to raise issues nationally, for when a president raises an issue, it inevitably becomes subject to public debate. (Although in the argot of his day "bully" was simply a slang adjective meaning "nifty" or "effective", today this phrase is frequently taken at face value with the more common sense of the word "bully".) A president's power and influence may be limited, but politically the president is certainly the most important power in Washington and, furthermore, is often one of the most famous and influential Americans even outside that city.
Though constrained by various other laws passed by Congress, the President's executive branch conducts most foreign policy, and his power to order and direct troops as commander-in-chief is quite significant. (The exact limits of what a President can do with the military without Congressional authorization are open to debate.)
The United States presidential line of succession is a well-detailed list of government officials to serve or act as President upon a vacancy in the office due to death, resignation, or removal from office (by impeachment and conviction). The line of 17 begins with the Vice President and ends with the Secretary of Veterans Affairs.
The 25th amendment establishes the Vice President as first in the order as well as spells out a process for him to serve as Acting President should the President become disabled. A provision of the United States Code (3 USC 19) establishes the rest of the succession line. To date no officer ranked lower than the Vice President on the list has been called upon to act as President.
Constitutionally, the Vice President is the only officer eligible to succeed to the presidency. Should it be necessary for someone lower on the line of succession to discharge the powers and duties of the office, they would do so as Acting President.
List of Presidents of the United States
 Died while Vice President.
 Resigned as Vice President.
 Died of natural causes.
 Democrat on Whig ticket.
 Died while Vice President, not replaced.
 Democrat who ran on Union ticket with Republican Lincoln.
 Was not sworn into office on the day he was expected to. (See the last fact in the Presidential Facts: Transition Events section below for more information.)
- Martin Van Buren, born December 5, 1782, was the first president born after the Declaration of Independence and was thus arguably the first president who was not born as a subject of Britain. Interestingly, he is also the first president not of British descent.
- John Tyler, born March 29, 1790, was the first president born after the adoption of the U.S. Constitution, meaning that all those born after him had/have to be a natural-born citizen of the United States in order to become president (Zachary Taylor was born on November 24, 1784, before the Constitution was adopted).
- Franklin Pierce, born November 23, 1804, was the first president born in the 19th century. Millard Filmore was born January 7, 1800, but remember, 1801 was the first year of the 19th century, not 1800
- Warren Harding, born November 2, 1865, was the first president born after the American Civil War. Lee surrendered 9 April 1865
- John F. Kennedy, born May 29, 1917, was the first president born in the 20th century.
- Kennedy's successor, Lyndon Johnson, was born on August 27, 1908. Three other Presidents who followed Johnson in office were also born before Kennedy (in order of birth, Reagan, Nixon, and Ford).
- Jimmy Carter, born October 1, 1924, was the first president born after World War I.
- George H. W. Bush, who served after Carter, was born on June 12, 1924.
- Bill Clinton, born August 19, 1946, was the first president born after World War II.
- Clinton's successor, George W. Bush, was born July 6, 1946.
After a president of the U.S. leaves office, the title "President" continues to be applied to that person the rest of his or her life. Former presidents continue to be important national figures, and in some cases go on to successful post-presidential careers. Notable examples have included William Howard Taft's tenure as Chief Justice of the United States and Jimmy Carter's current career as a global human rights campaigner and best-selling writer.
Presidents Bill Clinton, George Bush, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, and their wives at the funeral of President Richard Nixon on April 27, 1994.
As of July 2004, there are four living former presidents: Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. The most recently deceased President is Ronald Reagan.
There have never been more than five former presidents alive at any given time in American history. There have been three periods during which five former presidents were alive:
- From March 4, 1861, to January 18, 1862, Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan were living (during the Lincoln Administration, until the death of Tyler).
- From January 20, 1993, to April 22, 1994, Richard Nixon, Gerald