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NCSS: Individuals, Groups, and Institutions • Power, Authority, and Governance • Civic Ideals and Practices

Illustration by Alex Fine

Clockwise from top left: Presidents Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and Franklin D. Roosevelt

JS EXPLAINS

What Does the President Really Do?

The U.S. presidency is one of the most powerful positions in the world, and the president’s to-do list is never-ending. Here’s what it takes to get this seriously demanding—and important—job done. 

The job interview is a grueling, years-long whirlwind of speeches, debates, and campaign stops. There are few vacation days. And as for your boss? You report to every single American—and many of them are likely to disagree with your decisions.

What is this unforgiving position? The presidency of the United States, of course!

Only a few dozen people—all of them men so far—have served in the nation’s highest office. Former Vice President Joe Biden of Delaware will join that exclusive club on January 20, when he is inaugurated in Washington, D.C., as the country’s 46th president.

When Biden takes his seat in the Oval Office of the White House, he’ll have his work cut out for him. That’s because the presidency is actually multiple roles in one—a position that many experts have called “an impossible job.” 

The job interview is extremely tough and lasts for years. It is a whirlwind of speeches, debates, and campaign stops. There are few vacation days. And as for your boss? You report to every single American. Many of them are likely to disagree with your decisions.

What is this unforgiving position? The presidency of the United States, of course!

Only a few dozen people have served in the nation’s highest office. So far, all of them have been men. Former Vice President Joe Biden of Delaware will join that exclusive club on January 20. That is when he will be inaugurated in Washington, D.C. Biden will serve as the country’s 46th president.

Biden will have his work cut out for him when he takes his seat in the Oval Office of the White House. That is because the presidency is actually multiple roles in one. It is a position that many experts have called “an impossible job.”

Indeed, nearly all U.S. presidents have found that the duties of the office were much harder to fulfill than they had expected. Even the nation’s first president, George Washington (in office 1789-1797), struggled with the limits of his power. That’s how the Framers of the U.S. Constitution planned it. They organized the federal government so that none of its three branches—the executive branch (headed by the president), the legislative branch (Congress), and the judicial branch (the courts)—would be more powerful than the other two.

Most of the president’s basic duties are outlined in Article II of the U.S. Constitution. Others were created by acts of Congress or through tradition. Together, they form a position of great authority—and enormous responsibility. Here’s a look at the seven main roles that make up the incredibly busy and tough job of our nation’s highest elected official.

Nearly all U.S. presidents have found the duties of the office much harder to fulfill than they had expected. George Washington (in office 1789-1797) was the nation’s first president. Even he struggled with the limits of his power. That is how the Framers of the U.S. Constitution planned it. They organized the federal government so that none of its three branches would be more powerful than the other two. The three branches of government include the executive branch, the legislative branch, and the judicial branch. The executive branch is headed by the president. The legislative branch is Congress. The judicial branch is the courts.

Most of the president’s basic duties are outlined in Article II of the U.S. Constitution. Others were created by acts of Congress or through tradition. Together, they form a position of great authority and enormous responsibility. Here is a look at the seven main roles that make up the job of our nation’s highest elected official.

Chief of the Executive Branch

The president’s main job is to oversee the federal government. Think of the president as the boss of one of the world’s biggest companies. (The U.S. government has nearly 3 million employees!)

To help keep this organization running smoothly, each president chooses a group of advisers called a Cabinet. Its members supervise government departments such as Defense (which oversees the armed forces). George Washington’s first Cabinet included just four people. Modern Cabinets are larger, consisting of the vice president and the heads of 15 executive departments, including the secretary of state.

As the head of the executive branch, the president is responsible for enforcing the nation’s laws. Although federal laws are passed by Congress, the president decides which ones are most important to enforce. The president also appoints federal judges and nominates people to fill open seats on the U.S. Supreme Court. The president’s choices for judges and Cabinet members must be approved by the U.S. Senate.

The president’s main job is to oversee the federal government. Think of the president as the boss of one of the world’s biggest companies. (The U.S. government has nearly 3 million employees!)

Each president chooses a group of advisers called a Cabinet. They help him keep the organization running smoothly. Cabinet members supervise government departments such as Defense, which oversees the armed forces. George Washington’s first Cabinet included just four people. Modern Cabinets are larger. They consist of the vice president and the heads of 15 executive departments, including the secretary of state.

As head of the executive branch, the president is responsible for enforcing the nation’s laws. Federal laws are passed by Congress, but the president decides which are most important to enforce. The president also appoints federal judges and names people to fill open seats on the U.S. Supreme Court. The president’s choices for judges and Cabinet members must be approved by the U.S. Senate.

Guardian of the Economy

The president shares responsibility for the economy with Congress, but he is expected to help it run smoothly—and as fairly as possible for all Americans. Overseeing the economy includes trying to keep the unemployment rate down and supporting businesses. Every year, the president proposes a national budget. This suggests how much money each part of the government should get to operate. Congress adds its own priorities—and sometimes changes the president’s proposed budget completely. The budget is not final until it is passed by Congress and signed by the president.

The president shares responsibility for the economy with Congress. But he is expected to help it run smoothly and as fairly as possible for all Americans. Overseeing the economy includes trying to keep the unemployment rate down and supporting businesses. Every year, the president proposes a national budget. This suggests how much money each part of the government should get to operate. Congress adds its own priorities. Sometimes it changes the president’s proposed budget completely. The budget is not final until it is passed by Congress and signed by the president.

Head of State

As the head of state, the president acts as the highest living symbol of our country. When he welcomes Super Bowl champions to the White House or hosts an official dinner there, he is representing the nation. The president also engages with foreign leaders. His actions are expected to represent the nation’s top ideals and commitment to democracy.

The president is the head of state. As such, he acts as the highest living symbol of our country. He represents the nation when he welcomes Super Bowl champions to the White House or hosts an official dinner there. The president also engages with foreign leaders. His actions are expected to represent the nation’s top ideals and commitment to democracy.

©Evan Vucci/CNP via ZUMA Wire

President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address in 2016.

Political Party Leader

The president serves as the leader of his political party and plays a key role in shaping its positions on important issues. He helps raise money for the party and campaigns for members who have supported his policies and are running for office. Experts say that Barack Obama (2009-2017) reshaped the Democratic Party during his presidency. Under Obama’s direction, the party became much bolder in its support of rights for Black Americans and undocumented immigrants.

The president serves as the leader of his political party. That gives him a key role in shaping its positions on important issues. He helps raise money for the party. He also campaigns for party members who have supported his policies and are running for office. Experts say that Barack Obama (2009-2017) reshaped the Democratic Party during his presidency. Under Obama’s direction, the party became much bolder in its support of rights for Black Americans and undocumented immigrants.

Yao Dawei/Xinhua/Alamy Live News

President Donald Trump meets with China’s President Xi Jinping.

Head of Foreign Policy

Another crucial presidential task is maintaining America’s role as a world leader. A president sets the tone for the nation’s relationships with other governments. His goals and actions—including meeting with foreign leaders, often in tough negotiations—make up his foreign policy. For Donald Trump (2017-2021), a key foreign policy aim was to force China to change what he said were unfair trading practices with the U.S.

Presidents also appoint ambassadors who represent the U.S. to foreign nations. What’s more, the president has the power to negotiate treaties—formal agreements with other countries. Treaties serve important functions, such as ending wars or promoting trade. Such agreements need Senate approval, however.

Another important presidential task is maintaining America’s role as a world leader. A president sets the tone for the nation’s relationships with other governments. His goals and actions include meeting with foreign leaders, often in tough negotiations. Such goals and actions make up his foreign policy. For Donald Trump (2017-2021), a key foreign policy aim was to force China to change what he said were unfair trading practices with the U.S.

Presidents also appoint ambassadors who represent the U.S. to foreign nations. The president also has the power to negotiate treaties. These are formal agreements with other countries. Treaties serve important functions, such as ending wars or promoting trade. But treaties need Senate approval.

Commander in Chief 

The Constitution names the president as commander in chief of the nation’s armed forces. That means the president makes major decisions about where and when troops will be deployed, who will lead them, and how the U.S. will use its weapons.

The president also has what political experts call the “awesome responsibility” of deciding when to use nuclear weapons. Harry S. Truman (1945-1953) had to make that choice during World War II (1939-1945). He ordered atomic bombs to be dropped on Japan, causing the country to surrender.

The Constitution names the president as commander in chief of the nation’s armed forces. That means the president makes major decisions about where and when troops will be deployed. He decides who will lead them and how the U.S. will use its weapons.

The president also has what political experts call the “awesome responsibility” of deciding when to use nuclear weapons. Harry S. Truman (1945-1953) had to make that choice during World War II (1939-1945). He ordered atomic bombs to be dropped on Japan, causing the country to surrender.

Legislative Leader

Only Congress has the power to make laws. But presidents can influence legislation. As a bill works its way through Congress, the president may call members of the House of Representatives and the Senate to urge them to vote for or against it. The president can also invite members of Congress to the White House to discuss proposed legislation.

Furthermore, presidents can veto (reject) new laws passed by Congress that they don’t like. However, Congress has the power to override a president’s veto if two-thirds of both the House and the Senate vote to do so.

Only Congress has the power to make laws. But presidents can influence legislation. A bill must work its way through Congress. As it does, the president may call members of the House of Representatives and the Senate to urge them to vote for or against it. The president can also invite members of Congress to the White House to discuss proposed legislation.

In addition, presidents can veto (reject) new laws passed by Congress that they do not like. However, Congress has the power to override a president’s veto if two-thirds of both the House and the Senate vote to do so.

FUN FACTS

Long before he became president, Gerald Ford was a skilled football player. After college, he received offers to play in the National Football League, but he chose to go to law school instead.

Long before he became president, Gerald Ford was a skilled football player. After college, he received offers to play in the National Football League, but he chose to go to law school instead.

Illustration by Alex Fine

Thanks to his family’s wealth, President John F. Kennedy did not need his presidential paycheck. He donated his salary to a number of organizations such as the Girl Scouts of America.

Thanks to his family’s wealth, President John F. Kennedy did not need his presidential paycheck. He donated his salary to a number of organizations such as the Girl Scouts of America.

Illustration by Alex Fine

Thomas Jefferson, the third U.S. president, had the bones of a mastodon sent to the White House. He tried to assemble the skeleton in what is now known as the East Room.

Thomas Jefferson, the third U.S. president, had the bones of a mastodon sent to the White House. He tried to assemble the skeleton in what is now known as the East Room.

Illustration by Alex Fine

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