President of the United States

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President of the United States

The head of the Executive Branch, one of the three branches of the federal government.

The U.S. Constitution sets relatively strict requirements about who may serve as president and for how long. Under Article II, only a natural-born citizen of the United States is eligible to serve as president; a person born outside the United States, even if he later becomes a citizen, may not serve. In addition, a person must be at least 35 years old to become president and must have resided in the United States for at least 14 years. Under the Twenty-Second Amendment, which was added to the Constitution in 1951, no person may serve as president for more than two four-year terms. The amendment further provides that a person who succeeds to the office for more than two years of an unexpired term (for example, because a sitting president dies or resigns) may serve for only one additional four-year term.

Article II also sets limits on the president's authority. The article provides that the president is the commander in chief of the Armed Services. As commander in chief, the president has the power to preserve the peace by governing a captured territory until Congress establishes civil authority over it; the president also may declare Martial Law, which provides for the imposition of military authority over civilians in the event of an invasion, insurrection, disaster, or similar occurrence. In addition, the president can end a war through a treaty or a presidential proclamation. The power to declare war, however, is vested exclusively in Congress and not the president. In a situation of an undeclared war, under the War Powers Resolution of 1973 (50 U.S.C.A. §§ 1541 et seq.) the president must consult with Congress before introducing armed forces into hostilities. Nevertheless, the practical effect of the statute is somewhat limited because it recognizes the power of the president to unilaterally deploy military forces when necessary.

As the head of the executive branch, the president executes the law but does not legislate, although he submits budgets and may propose bills to Congress. The president's legislative power is limited to approving or disapproving bills passed by Congress. If the president approves a measure, it becomes law. If he vetoes the bill, or refuses to approve it, it goes back to either the House of Representatives or to the Senate (wherever the bill first originated). If both bodies then pass the bill again by a two-thirds margin, the president's Veto has been overridden and he must sign it into law.

In 1996 Congress sought to give the president more control over the budget by passing a line-item veto law (2 U.S.C.A. § 691 [1996]). Under the law the president could veto portions of an appropriation bill while leaving the remainder of the legislation intact. Members of Congress challenged the law as an unconstitutional surrender of Article I congressional power that jeopardized the Separation of Powers, but the Supreme Court refused to hear the case until the veto was actually used. After President Clinton used the line-time veto several entities that lost federal funds because of the veto filed a federal lawsuit. The Supreme Court, in Clinton v. City of New York, 524 U.S.417, 118 S.Ct. 2091, 141 L.Ed.2d 393 (1998), struck down the law. The law allowed the president to effectively amend or repeal acts of Congress, but this action was not authorized by the Constitution. The only way for the president to obtain this power would be through the passage of a constitutional amendment.

The president's executive powers also include the authority to issue proclamations and executive orders. A proclamation is a general announcement of policy, whereas an Executive Order has the force and effect of law by carrying out a provision of the Constitution, a federal statute, or a treaty. For example, during World War II President franklin d. roosevelt issued an executive order confining Japanese American citizens to camps following the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

The president has the exclusive authority to represent the United States in its relationships with governments of other countries. Through the Secretary of State and other officials, the president communicates with other nations, recognizes foreign governments, and makes agreements, including the negotiation of treaties. Treaties, however, must be approved by two-thirds of the Senate before taking effect. Executive agreements with other nations do not require Senate approval but still carry the force of law. For instance, the United States, through the president, has frequently entered into executive agreements to supply economic aid to other nations.

In domestic matters the president is advised by the cabinet, which consists of more than a dozen executive departments covering a wide range of areas, including commerce, housing, labor, and the treasury. Each department is headed by a secretary, who is responsible for its overall administration and for reporting to the president.

Should the president be unable to serve a full term, Article II and the Twenty-Fifth Amendment to the Constitution provide for a line of succession. If the president dies, resigns, or is removed from office through the Impeachment process, the vice president becomes the acting president. This transfer of power also occurs if the president informs both houses of Congress that he is temporarily unable to discharge the duties of president. The House of Representatives can impeach a president or indict him for Treason, Bribery, or other High Crimes and Misdemeanors. If the House votes to impeach, the president is not automatically removed from office; impeachment is instead a formal charge accusing the president of a crime. The articles, or charges, of impeachment are submitted to the Senate, where the president is tried, with the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court presiding over the proceeding. A two-thirds vote in the Senate is needed for a conviction and the removal of the president from office. Andrew Johnson was impeached in 1868 and then was acquitted by only one vote. In 1974 the House Judiciary Committee voted to impeach richard m. nixon, but he resigned from office before the entire House could vote on the matter. The House of Representatives passed a bill of impeachment against President bill clinton, but the Senate acquitted him of the charges in 1999.

The Supreme Court has ruled that the president has absolute Immunity from civil lawsuits seeking damages for presidential actions. However, the Court ruled in Clinton v. Jones, 520 U.S. 681, 117 S.Ct. 1636, 137 L.Ed.2d 945 (1997), that a sitting president does not have presidential immunity from suit over conduct unrelated to his official duties. The holding came in a civil suit brought by Paula Corbin Jones against President Clinton. Jones's suit was based on conduct alleged to have occurred while Clinton was governor of Arkansas. Clinton had sought to postpone the lawsuit until after he left office.

The Court stated that it had never suggested that the president or any other public official has an immunity that "extends beyond the scope of any action taken in an official capacity." The Court has based its immunity doctrine on a functional approach, extending immunity only to "acts in performance of particular functions of his office." It also rejected Clinton's claim that the courts would violate the separation of powers between the executive and judicial branches if a court heard the suit. Finally, the Court rejected the president's contention that defending the lawsuit would impose unacceptable burdens on the president's time and energy. It seemed unlikely to the Court that President Clinton would have to be occupied with the Jones lawsuit for any substantial amount of time. The Court also expressed skepticism that denying immunity to the president would generate a "deluge of such litigation." In the history of the presidency, only three other presidents had been subject to civil damage suits for actions taken prior to holding office.

Further readings

Brinkley, Alan, and Davis Dyer, eds. 2004. The American Presidency. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Milkis, Sidney M. 2003. The American Presidency: Origins and Development, 1776–2002. 4th ed. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press.

Nelson, Michael, ed. 2003. The Presidency A to Z. 3d ed. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press.

Will, George F., and George R. Stephanopoulos. 2001. "The Power of the Presidency." Northern Kentucky Law Review 28 (summer).


Constitution of the United States; Electoral College; Executive Privilege; Impeachment; Presidential Powers; Separation of Powers; Watergate. See also "Presidential Speeches" section of Appendix.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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