The Functions of the President

The president is expected to perform a number of duties as part of the office. While the Constitution mentions several of these duties, others have evolved over time. How a president carries out these functions depends on his personality, as well as on his view of the presidency and the role of government. For example, the State of the Union was not delivered as a speech until the presidency of Woodrow Wilson.

Modern presidents usually take a leadership approach to their job. They consider themselves representatives of all the people, put in place to pursue a political agenda by using their inherent powers. Scholars usually praise presidents who follow this model, because it results in ambitious policy programs that (for good or ill) leave a strong mark on American government. Of course, when presidents view themselves as policymakers, they sometimes are impatient with constitutional limitations on executive activity. For example, Abraham Lincoln suspended the right of habeas corpus during the Civil War. Both Andrew Jackson and Franklin Roosevelt tried to intimidate the Supreme Court, some say successfully, after a majority of justices ruled against them.

"Chief clerk" presidents, on the other hand, take a more passive approach to the job. They are much more careful about exceeding their constitutional authority and often believe in a limited government. However, many scholars feel that clerkship presidents such as James Buchanan and Herbert Hoover did not move aggressively enough to deal with crises during their administrations.

Presidents also differ on their conception of the role of the federal government. Lyndon Johnson believed the government had a responsibility to help the disadvantaged. His Great Society, the domestic program that included the War on Poverty and Medicare, reflected this concern. Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, saw government as the problem, not the solution to the nation's problems.

Commander in chief

The president is the highest-ranking officer in the armed services. As noted previously, presidents have shown no hesitation in filling this role by sending American forces to trouble spots around the world as an instrument of foreign policy. Over the last 25 years, American troops have fought in Grenada, Panama, the Persian Gulf, Haiti, Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

Chief of state

Acting as chief of state is a president's most visible function, whether meeting the heads of other countries, welcoming astronauts or college football champions to the White House, or opening the Olympic Games. Although largely ceremonial, the role of chief of state makes an important statement to the world and the nation about the president as a leader.

Diplomat

The president not only decides the direction of American foreign policy but also plays an important role in carrying it out. During the Cold War era, for example, face-to-face meetings between leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union contributed to an easing of tensions and important arms-control breakthroughs; indeed, the relationship between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev was key to ending the Cold War. President Jimmy Carter worked out the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt. Bill Clinton was actively involved in Middle East peace negotiations during his administration. This type of activity is sometimes called summit diplomacy.

Chief executive

The president is the chief administrator, or chief bureaucrat, of the nation and is ultimately responsible for all the programs in the executive branch. Responsible for seeing that "all laws are faithfully executed," a president sets the broad policy for the executive departments and agencies rather than managing their day-to-day operations.

Legislator

A president does not simply propose legislation but is actively involved in seeing that it becomes law. The White House staff maintains close contacts with Congress, while the president meets with Congressional leaders to press for passage of bills and calls individual members of Congress to ask for their vote. In instances of a divided government, in which the White House and Congress are controlled by different political parties, the president can appeal directly to the people for support.

Moral leader

The president is expected to set the moral tone for the nation, including exemplary honesty, religious faith, and integrity. The question of a president's moral leadership has assumed new importance in recent years as the media and public have given the private lives of the elected officials closer scrutiny. The "character issue" is frequently included in public opinion polls on a president's performance.

Party leader

In addition to performing clearly governmental functions, the president serves as the "titular head" of a political party. A president is expected to support the party's platform, help raise money for the party, and campaign for the party's candidates. The president expects the support of party members in Congress on key votes; however, recent experience has shown that party loyalty is declining.

A potential conflict exists between the president as national leader and as party leader. Astute presidents address their party's positions realistically while trying to build consensus on nonpartisan issues. The rise of interest groups that take stands on controversial or emotional issues such as abortion, school prayer, and welfare spending can make this balance difficult to achieve.