The Executive Branch

The Constitution established an executive branch headed by a president, which represented a significant departure from the Articles of Confederation. Many of the Founders wanted an even stronger executive, essentially an elected king. However, they realized that memories of the revolution against the British monarch were too fresh to permit such a proposal.

Instead, the Constitution granted the president the power to execute the law and titled the office "commander in chief," without specifying exactly what role that person would play in either domestic or foreign policy. People who preferred a weak president could see the position described in the Constitution as nothing more than a chief clerk, someone who would carry out the legislative branch's orders but play little political role. But nothing in the language of the Constitution prevented the presidency from developing into more of a leadership position, a rival political force to Congress.

Of course, numerous limits were placed on the presidency. Congress may override presidential vetoes. The Senate must approve presidential appointments. The president serves only a four-year term and has been limited to two terms since the Twenty-second Amendment won approval in 1951. As the nation witnessed with President Bill Clinton, a president also may be impeached — that is, brought up on formal charges — by the House of Representatives and removed from office if convicted in the Senate. None of these limits has been sufficient, however, to prevent the powers and role of the president from expanding dramatically over the last two centuries.