What does the POTUS do, exactly?

  • It seems that the main avenues available to the President of the United States (POTUS) to exercise his will are:

    • Vetoing bills
    • Hiring and firing top employees in federal government
    • Appointing supreme justices
    • Interacting with other heads of state (I guess "commander in chief" could fall under this as well)

    However, there appears to be an odd tradition of US presidential campaigns making promises regarding things that would fall outside this sphere, and making very few promises that actually pertain to these powers.

    The most obvious one is the last item - especially lately, foreign policy has been a major talking point in several campaigns. However, I couldn't say when was the last time a presidential candidate tried running on things like:

    • "Agency X sucks, I'll fire the director and hire Y instead, he will fix it!"
    • "What a bunch of fools SCOTUS are! I'll appoint much better justices!"
    • "Look at all the awful bills congress has been passing lately... I'll put a stop that!"

    However, they often make claims about matters such as taxes, abortion, vaccines, high profile corporate scandals and the economy which seem like just those things that happen to fall outside of POTUS's reach. Taxes, for instance, are defined by the tax code, and are a legislative matter. Various corporate scandals are judicial matter. Abortions can be either, depending on whether you're trying to add some new laws or get rid of existing ones, but they certainly seem to have little to do with the executive.

    Why is this? The cynical retort is that the American electorate is simply too uneducated to appreciate the separation of powers principle, and hence candidates disregard it when campaigning. However, this doesn't satisfy me as an explanation, because many presidential terms have ultimately precipitated events that can be seen as along the lines of what the president promised. So it appears that the "soft" power of the president is real, and it matters more than the actual legal powers of the executive branch.

    So what is going on? Is it that:

    1. I'm confused about the US government and the executive is in fact capable of implementing many of the campaign promises that candidates typically make
    2. Candidates promise things that they would obviously not be able to do, the public believes them since they don't understand separation of powers
    3. Candidates are announcing their intention to a very liberal interpretation of existing law
    4. POTUS is widely understood to have no legal power to fulfill most of the campaign promises, but due to the prestige and status of the president, his stances strongly influence the behavior of congress

    Or is it a fifth option I have not considered?

    That excellent documentary "The West Wing" provides many examples of what the President does. :-)

    Bear in mind that much POTUS power comes from laws passed by past Congresses. The full body of Federal (plus numerous SCOTUS decisions) needs to be considered. The Executive "executes" the law of the land.

    Keep in mind that our system of "checks and balances" keeps any one branch of government from going too crazy. In the executive branch the checks rest with 1 person. But he in turn has checks placed on him.

    "The President in particular is very much a figurehead—he wields no real power whatsoever. […] His job is not to wield power but to draw attention away from it."

    @coteyr Well, the executive branch is not just the president, it also includes a lot of other officials (though many unelected). Isn't that so?

    @Superbest, yes the executive branch probably contains the most people. But they all answer to the president (some directly some indirectly). The president sits at the top of that branch's food chain. That's why it looks so bad when "blah blah blah head of foo caught doing bar bar bar". The POTUS is the boss, and it reflects on him.

    For example every single FBI agent is "under" the President. Even though most of them will never see the president personally, the President is their bosses, bosses, boss.

    "Figurehead" would cover a lot of it - being the visible face and letting the staff/analysts get on with the real work.

    For your 3 counter examples; didn't Trump work each of those into his campaign? Filling the open SCOTUS seat with a "conservative" was very much a campaign promise.

    @MichaelRichardson Interestingly enough, Trump seems to have produced a pretty revealing demonstration of what I was asking here. He has indeed influenced SCOTUS through appointments, he has and continues to influence policy by acting on agencies, he has effectively blocked many democrat bills and opened the door for republican ones. However, during his campaign (when I asked this question) it was less obvious how he would accomplish these things, at least to me.

  • Hiring and firing top employees in federal government

    Right, subject to the approval of the Senate, the President appoints the cabinet.

    So, yes, the President has limited direct contact with employees of federal agencies. But they can legitimately campaign based on whatever powers are legislated to federal agencies, and whatever discretion those agencies have in spending their budgets.

    "Agency X sucks, I'll fire the director and hire Y instead, he will fix it!"

    Well, they don't say this explicitly, but when they say "I'll do Y", Y being within the powers of a federal agency, I think it's understood to mean, "I'll appoint someone who is strongly inclined to do Y, and they'll know darn well that if they don't do Y I'll sack them". If even that doesn't work, the President can issue executive orders, and employees of federal agencies are bound to follow these orders provided that they're legitimate (within the legal discretion of the agency in question and whatever other terms and conditions apply).

    "What a bunch of fools SCOTUS are! I'll appoint much better justices!"

    They can't promise this because they don't know when SCOTUS justices will die (or voluntarily retire). I doubt it will be a major issue in the upcoming campaign, but for example Trump has published a list, so in effect he is campaigning a little on his SCOTUS nominees. I believe there's some realpolitik here too, and that Presidents typically don't like to talk about specific names too early because they don't want Congress to set itself to reject them. You'll note that Trumps list is quite long, really it's more like an idea of the kind of person he might nominate.

    "Look at all the awful bills congress has been passing lately... I'll put a stop that!"

    They don't phrase it this way because threatening legislative deadlock from the outset is a good way not to get your budget passed. But brinkmanship between the President and Congress is basically the entire Obama Presidency. Even with a Democrat majority, Obamacare was a struggle because the President pressed for more than what a majority of the legislature (especially the Senate) was otherwise inclined to give him. So, a President can do that. The ultimate threat of veto is one of the ways in which the President is involved in the process of driving Congress towards finding a bill that will pass.

    Taxes, for instance, are defined by the tax code, and are a legislative matter.

    And the President is always involved in the discussions around each budget. The President can't demand particular taxes, but can and does ask for them, so can legitimately campaign on what they'll ask for, what they'll use influence to fight for, and what they would, ultimately, if it ever came to it, veto.

    Various corporate scandals are judicial matter.

    But the prosecutors, the US Attorneys, work for the DoJ whose head, the Attorney General, is nominated by and reports to the President. Candidates can't campaign guaranteeing a particular verdict, but can guarantee what kinds of thing they're most interested in investigating and finding ways to prosecute.

    Abortions can be either, depending on whether you're trying to add some new laws or get rid of existing ones, but they certainly seem to have little to do with the executive.

    Furthermore, abortion is quite heavily regulated by the states (Roe vs. Wade notwithstanding). So agreed, a President can't do a whole lot more here than to use whatever influence they have on public opinion in general and on other politicians in particular.

    Candidates are announcing their intention to a very liberal interpretation of existing law

    Assuming you accept executive control of federal law enforcement and prosecution (and let's face it, under Hoover the President didn't always control the FBI) then on criminal law this is within the President's power. On the whole they aren't required to investigate or prosecute something. So for example if the President says not to bother investigating Ponzi schemes ("this is not a priority, something else is a priority!"), and the head of the SEC doesn't resign on the spot in protest, then the existing law on Ponzi schemes may indeed fall by the wayside for the remainder of that President's term. Judges might still interpret the law strictly, but if prosecutors are interpreting it liberally and not bringing charges except in the most egregious cases...

    In short, the President doesn't sit in a sealed box where bills from Congress and diplomatic cables come in one slot, and signed/vetoed bills and foreign policy come out of another. They throw their weight around. As has been the case with Obama on gun control, this doesn't always amount to anything, but often it does.

    In addition to this, the President has more power through executive orders than your enumeration of powers suggests. Some people do feel that the separation of powers has been eroded or abused, since at least Lincoln if not before.

    "*I think it's understood to mean, "I'll appoint someone who is strongly inclined to do Y, and they'll know darn well that if they don't do Y I'll sack them".*" - Looks like several answers use this argument. Is this a ubiquitous sentiment? Or is it one of those dog whistle things where informed voters think it means one thing and uninformed ones another?

    Also Re: SCOTUS - actually since we are one justice short, they *can* promise it (and do, as you say). =) But I get your meaning.

    @Superbest: I think it's understood even by the most naive slackjawed voter, that the President doesn't do everything *personally*. When they promise they're going to invade France or something, they don't mean they'll be first off the landing boat, they'll send a lot of other fellows to do the actual work. And that's something that actually is in the President's power ;-) Cabinet members of course can defy the President to an extent, and have some rights and some leverage to do so. But basically the President is their boss, and candidates can make policy on that assumption.

    Presidents can do more than just appoint agency heads that are inclined to implement their policy; they can also issue executive orders. An executive order is binding on executive agencies, provided that the order is consistent with existing legislation. In other words, if an agency has statutory authority to do something, the President can order them to actually do it, and where the statutes give discretion in how an agency carries out its mission, the President can direct how that discretion can be used.

    @Superbest `...since we are one justice short...` We are as many short as the then current Senate will approve. There is no limit on the number of SCOTUS Justices (other than somewhat recent tradition).

    "and let's face it, under Hoover the President didn't always control the FBI" is that herbert or j. edgar. it doesn't help that their tenure's overlap

    @SteveCox: I meant J. Edgar, but I don't promise it's not true of Herbert's presidency anyway.

    @user2338816 Oh, it's not a rule that there have to be 9?

    @Superbest No; FDR famously threatened the court with appointing extra justices sufficient to get the verdict he wanted if the existing justices didn't uphold Washington state’s minimum wage—one of them (conventional wisdom claims) switched his position so that wouldn’t happen, the so-called switch in time to save nine (and as you’ll see in that article, this description of events is questioned by historians). For probably any other president, this would have been suicidal, but FDR was absurdly popular and powerful.

    @Superbest It is and isn't a "rule", depending on what the then current Congress says. The number is not Constitutionally set; it's set by a law that could easily be superseded by new law. It's the kind of thing that concerns me about so many extreme Congresspersons together with an extreme President. Together they can effectively do anything.

    One comment is that while trying to pass the affordable care act democrats did not control the Senate. Joe Lieberman was an independent who singlehandedly killed the Bill and forced the messy compromise that got passed into law. Note that true control of the senate for this legislation required 60 seats.

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Content dated before 7/24/2021 11:53 AM