What are the Legal Powers of the President of the United States?

Written by Christi Hayes and Fact Checked by The Law Dictionary Staff  

The President of the United States of America is often referred to as "the most powerful man in the world," but this isn't a divine mandate that creates an individual position wherein the person holding it has unlimited powers. Under the United States Constitution, the President of the United States has legal controls on his/her power.

The first three articles of the US Constitution outline the branches of government within the US federal government system. Included in those articles are the legal powers granted to each of the branches of government, and the limitations to which those branches must adhere. Within Article II of the US Constitution you'll find the framework for the legal powers and limitations of the Executive branch, of which the President of the United States is the official head.

Overview of Legal Powers

As President of the United States, legal power is granted under the Constitution to perform a number of tasks and fill numerous roles within the greater federal government. The primary role of the President is to be the Commander in Chief of the United States Armed Forces. He or she has the power to call into service the state units of the National Guard, and in times of emergency can be given the power (by Congress) to manage national security.

The legal power of the President also includes the ability to devise and implement treaties between the United States of America and other nations, though Senate approval is required for any treaty to be fully implemented. The President can, without Senate oversight or approval, receive ambassadors of other nations and work with the elected officials of other countries toward a greater foreign policy goal.

As head of the Executive branch of the United States government, the President has the legal power to nominate heads of various governmental departments that fall within the scope of the Executive branch's control. These individuals must be approved by the Senate, in addition to the nominations of the president for judges in the federal court system and the United States Supreme Court.

Other legal powers of the President of the United States include, but are not limited to:

  • Issuance of executive orders (explained in depth later)
  • Issuance of pardons for federal offenses
  • Power to call Congress to a special session

Of important note here are the issuance of pardons and the legal power to veto legislation. When it comes to issuing pardons, the President of the United States can only issue pardons to those individuals with federal offenses on their record, and cannot pardon an individual facing state and local charges.

Regarding the ability to veto legislation, the President can issue a veto overriding a legislative bill passed by both houses of Congress and send it back to both houses with a message on what can be fixed for passage. However, a President cannot issue line-item vetoes. This means the President must sign a bill agreeing with the legislation in whole, or veto it entirely. The President cannot line-item veto a bill for particular points while allowing others to pass into law.

It is also worth noting that a President's veto is not a legal be-all, end-all. Congress may override the veto of a bill by the President of the United State with a two-third majority vote in both houses of Congress. For a President to veto a bill, action must be taken to approve or veto that bill within 10 days of receipt from Congress.

War Powers

Digging into the legal powers of the President in specific areas, military actions have taken on a new focus in the 21st century. Congress holds the sole power to declare war against an enemy combatant of the United States of America. The President cannot declare war without the approval of Congress.

As Commander in Chief of the United States Armed Forces however, the president can send troops to battle without an official declaration of war. The most prominent use of this power came with the Vietnam War. The 1973 War Powers Act sought to further define the legal powers of the President regarding war by stipulating how and when the president could send troops to battle and added strict time frames for reporting to Congress after doing so.

Executive Orders

An increasing point of interest for many Americans is the legal power of the President to override or circumvent Congress, and in some cases the will of the people, with executive orders. In times of emergency, the President has the power to override Congress with the issuance of an executive order. Although President George W. Bush, and particularly his predecessor President Barack H. Obama, have both extensively used executive orders, they were not the first to use this form of near-limitless power.

Abraham Lincoln was among the first, using executive orders to fight the Civil War. Woodrow Wilson used executive orders to arm American military units in the lead up to the US entrance into World War I, and Franklin Roosevelt took action with executive orders during World War II to order Japanese-Americans into internment camps.

The major fall back of this seemingly limitless legal power is the ability for one president to override the actions of another. When faced with road blocks that could not be removed without battles in Congress, a new administration could undo the work of a previous administration not by enacting new laws or removing previously issued executive orders, but instead issue a new set of executive orders that effectively nullifies the impact of previous administrations.

The legal powers of the President of the United States are vast, but the three-branch system of the US federal government is such that power in the federal government is equally distributed among the three branches for each to check the power of the others. Congress can push through legislation, but the President can veto it. The Supreme Court can check both by declaring approved bills as unconstitutional, and so on.

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