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Presidential powers; what a president can and cannot do

Rohn Robbins
Vail, CO, Colorado

For those of you who haven’t been following the bouncing ball of history as of late, here’s a news flash. We have a new president.

And, while the hopes buoying Barack Obama are sky high, we would do well to temper our collective enthusiasm with a strong dose of reality. There is, after all, only so much a president can do.

Andrew Jackson is generally considered the father of the modern presidency. He insisted that the president, as the direct representative of the people, be the hub around which federal power should revolve. Still, the president is limited to certain powers vested under the constitution. Under that weight, what will President Obama be able to deliver?



In essence, the president has four main spheres in which to exercise his powers: executive, legislative, judicial, and foreign affairs. There are also certain defined constraints on presidential powers.

Let’s peek first at the constitution, specifically Article II. The first section, along with the 12th Amendment, deals with how a president is elected and the requirements to serve. Section three concerns the president’s mandate to keep Congress informed about the state of the union and charges the president with administrative tasks including receiving foreign ministers and ambassadors. Section three also holds that the President shall ensure that the laws are executed faithfully. The fourth section deals with impeachment and removal of the President and other civil officers for “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”



Article II, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution is where presidential powers are specifically enumerated. It provides that the president shall be commander in chief of the armed services, may call upon his cabinet and department chiefs for opinions and may, except in cases of impeachment, grant pardons.

The president, with the advice and consent of the Senate, is also given the power to make treaties and to nominate and appoint ambassadors, judges of the Supreme Court, and “all other officers of the United States whose appointments are not herein otherwise provided for…”

In the executive realm, the president has broad powers to manage national affairs and the internal workings of the government. He can issue executive orders which are binding upon federal agencies but do not require congressional approval. The president is responsible for preparing the federal budget but Congress must approve it. Similarly, the President nominates the heads of all executive departments and agencies subject to approval by the Senate. As commander in chief, he or she may call the National Guard into service and, in times of war or national emergency, with congressional approval, may exercise broad powers to manage the economy and protect the security of the United States.



The president also has a major legislative role. Unless overridden by a two-thirds majority, the president can veto any act of Congress. What’s more, much of the legislation entertained by Congress is drafted at the initiative of the executive. The president commonly proposes legislation which he or she believes is necessary for the welfare of the nation.

The president’s chief judicial power is that of appointment of judges. Many scholars believe this power potentially portends the greatest presidential legacy. Subject to ratification by the Senate, the president nominates all federal judges, who may, at their discretion, serve for life. A second judicial power conferred upon the President is the power to pardon anyone convicted of a federal crime.

In foreign affairs, the president is primarily responsible for relations with other nations. With the Secretary of State, the President manages all official contacts with foreign governments. Through the departments of state and defense, the president is responsible for the protection of Americans abroad.

It should be noted that many of the powers exercised by the president are evolutionary in that they are not expressly bestowed under the Constitution but, instead, have developed by custom and a changing world over time.

What will the new President be able to deliver? A direction, certainly. A vision, yes. But owing to our system of presidential power and congressional checks and balances, most importantly of all, perhaps, the president must simply lead.

Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the Bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley. He may be heard on Wednesday nights at 7 p.m. on KZYR radio (97.7 FM) as host of “Community Focus.” Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at his e-mail address: robbins@colorado.net.


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