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Washington, D.C.: Constitutional Duties of the President of the United States

The President of the United States has specific responsibilities laid out by the U.S. Constitution. In the age of television monitoring, however, the media tends to overemphasize the self-imposed presidential duties carried out in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.

Here are the constitutional duties of the presidency:

  • Serving as commander-in-chief: Under the Constitution, the president is the commander-in-chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, as well as of “the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual service of the United States” — in other words, the National Guard.

    The president does not have the power to declare war (that was left for Congress), but considering that the last formal declaration of war was in 1942, modern presidents certainly haven’t shied away from exercising their powers as commander-in-chief.

  • Carrying out legislation: As the head of the executive branch of the federal government, the President is responsible for ensuring that all the nation’s laws are “faithfully executed.” In other words, the President carries out the legislation enacted by Congress but cannot initiate legislation himself.

    While constitutionally speaking the president is empowered only to sign or veto legislation that Congress sends to his desk, presidents have in recent years become more assertive in interpreting legislation through the use of signing statements. These statements often object to the provisions of a particular law on constitutional grounds and instruct executive branch officials how to implement the legislation according to the President’s interpretation.

  • Setting foreign policy: The president sets the foreign policy of the United States and in that regard has the authority, “by and with the consent of the Senate” (as indicated by the concurrence of two-thirds of the senators present), to make treaties.

  • Appointing key personnel: Subject to Senate confirmation, the president appoints ambassadors, justices of the Supreme Court, and “all other Officers of the United States.”

  • Presenting the State of the Union: The Constitution instructs the president “from time to time to give to the Congress information on the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”

    The Constitution does not require the president to deliver these reports in person. In fact, the vast majority of State of the Union reports have been delivered in written form. More recently, of course, the State of the Union speech has become a primetime television event, complete with televised opposition party response and selected special guests in the gallery featured by the President.

  • Pardoning felons: Per the Constitution, the president also can choose to pardon felons, or even to preemptively pardon people who have not been convicted of any crime.

    President Gerald Ford took this latter step when pardoning President Richard Nixon for any crimes that he may have committed. Perhaps the most sweeping pardon of all was President Andrew Johnson’s pardon of soldiers who fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War.

The president also has many self-imposed duties — some of the most enjoyable being throwing out the first baseball on opening day of the major league season, hosting hundreds of kids at the White House Easter Egg Roll, and pardoning the White House Thanksgiving turkey. He’s also on hand for more solemn occasions, be it a funeral for a prominent American public figure or the aftermath of a natural disaster.

In fact, much of what the president does today is self-imposed. Nothing in the Constitution says he must light the White House Christmas tree or even get involved in the nitty-gritty details of legislating. But the reality of today’s presidency is that it’s an all-encompassing role, and the personalities driven to run for president do not shy away from imposing themselves in all arenas once in office.

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