The position of President of the United States is often referred to colloquially as the “most powerful man in the world”, or the “leader of the free world.” More than just a figurehead in American democracy, the role of president does come with legal responsibilities under the framework of the United States set forth in the United States Constitution and expanded upon over time. The President’s Legal Responsibilities can be seen across the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the government.
Article 2 of the US Constitution
According to WhiteHouse.gov, Article II of the United States Constitution sets forth the broad powers and responsibilities of the role of President of the United States. Under this article, the president is:
“responsible for the execution and enforcement of the laws created by Congress. (The President) is to take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”
The president is, under Article II, required to enforce all constitutionally valid Acts of Congress regardless of the view of that individual or administration’s view of the wisdom behind or validity of the policy. Presidents cannot possibly be directly involved in the administration and enforcement of the nation’s laws, which is why there are a total of 15 executive departments overseen by 15 different individuals and supported by millions of employees.
It is the role of the President to appoint members to the cabinet positions overseeing these various departments of the executive branch, as well as many other executive agencies that are not part of the cabinet directly such as the CIA and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The president sets national policy goals for the United States and appoints individuals to these cabinet and other executive department positions with the greater aim of achieve those goals while also implementing and enforcing laws written by Congress.
The Cabinet and the many independent federal agencies are directly responsible for the day-to-day enforcement and administration of federal laws. In total, the president is legally responsible for the oversight of an executive branch that includes:
- 50 Independent Federal Commissions (Federal Reserve Board, Securities and Exchanges Commission, federal judges, ambassadors, etc.)
- Office of Management and Budget
- Office of the United States Trade Representative
- Commander-in-Chief of the United States Armed Forces, boosting executive branch to 4 million people in total.
The formulation of the United States sought to avoid the potential for an all-powerful dictator in charge of the nation, and as such power was distributed across the Executive Branch (President), Legislative Branch (Congress), and the Judicial Branch (Supreme Court). Even though the Constitution has provisions that vest “all legislative powers” in the body of Congress, the president does have a role as the chief formulator of public policy for the country, and as such has a major legislative role.
Any President of the United States has the power to veto a bill passed by Congress, which blocks that act from becoming a law. While the President is legally bound to execute any laws successfully passed by Congress, which does hold the power to override a veto with a two-thirds vote in both houses (Senate and House of Representatives), the president can help establish the laws he or she believes is necessary for the country.
In a special message to Congress delivered annually, the president has the power to propose major legislation, but has no power to enact those laws independently. Should Congress adjourn without hearing those proposed bills and voting, the president has the power to call a special session. However, the president’s legal abilities end here as the office does not have the power to set law, only enforce it.
Again, the President of the United States holds no official power or legal ability to adjudicate the legality of laws in the US. However, the president does hold the constitutional power to appoint numerous public officials as mentioned above. This includes nomination of federal judges, particularly members of the Supreme Court of the United States. The president also has the ability to grant full or conditional pardons to those convicted of breaking federal laws, with the exception of the impeachment of themselves. Most frequently this is used to shorten prison terms or reduce fines.
Supreme Court Limits on Presidential Power
In times when the President of the United States has tried, or threatened to, refuse to enforce the constitutional laws of the US, the Supreme Court has stepped in to prevent such an occurrence. For example:
- 1803 Supreme Court decision Marbury v. Madison stipulated that Congress’s authority to impose specific duties upon the president by law was recognized, as was the corresponding obligation of the president to execute congressional directives.
- 1838 Supreme Court decision Kendall v. United States ex rel. Stokes involved a president’s refusal to comply with acts of Congress, noting “to contend that the obligations imposed upon the president to see the laws faithfully executed implies a power to forbid their execution is inadmissible.”
In short, the Supreme Court notes that the president’s primary legal responsibility is to uphold and execute the laws of the United States as set forth by Congress, and that it is in fact illegal for the executive head of the nation to fail to uphold this legal obligation due to their own personal views or beliefs.
Presidential Wiggle Room
While the President of the United States is legally obligated to uphold and defend the laws of the land as the direct head of the nation’s enforcement agencies, the role of president does offer some degree of wiggle room that many recent presidents have used to their advantage. The president is only empowered to sign legislation into law or veto it, not initiate legislation.
However, in recent years presidents have become assertive in interpreting legislation in unique ways to circumvent laws with which the individual president does not agree with but is nonetheless bound to uphold in general. For example, the use of signing statements by the president enables them to direct executive branch officials to implement legislation according to a particular interpretation, even when the president objects to certain provisions of a particular law on constitutional grounds.
The role of President of the United States is a powerful position that the Founding Fathers sought to limit, to the best of their ability, in an effort to avoid total control resting in the hands of one person. The legal responsibilities of the president have been laid out by the Constitution of the United States and changed little over the course of more than 240 years.