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?

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    That excellent documentary "The West Wing" provides many examples of what the President does. :-) Commented Jul 26, 2016 at 8:21
  • 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. Commented Jul 26, 2016 at 17:04
  • 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.
    – coteyr
    Commented Jul 26, 2016 at 21:03
  • 2
    "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."
    – Kaithar
    Commented Jul 26, 2016 at 22:23
  • 1
    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. Commented Jan 5, 2018 at 14:45

8 Answers 8


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.

  • 1
    "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?
    – Superbest
    Commented Jul 25, 2016 at 19:33
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    @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. Commented Jul 25, 2016 at 19:47
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    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.
    – Nobody
    Commented Jul 26, 2016 at 15:56
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    @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). Commented Jul 26, 2016 at 16:45
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    @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. Commented Jul 28, 2016 at 1:16

Direct things POTUS can do

Among things you didn't mention:

  • Legislate from executive seat.

    Signing statements, and especially executive orders. So far, SCOTUS didn't slap that down as violation of separation of powers.

  • Determine how laws get interpreted and enforced. In many cases, that has very legislative-like effects, especially when Congress leaves large pieces of the law to open to interpretation.

    In case of Obama, the two generally cited examples are Obamacare rollout and immigration policies, but I'm sure it's easy to find examples for other presidents to satisfy anyone's political leanings.

  • Direct law enforcement / intelligence.

    No commentary needed here. From J.E. Hoover and on.

  • Foreign policy

    Trade policy included.

  • Non-SCOTUS judicial picks

Indirect things POTUS can do

  • Influence members of legislative branch to either submit specific bills, or vote one way or another.

    A lot of the mechanisms for such influence are via bullet points below.

  • Use the "bully pulpit" to influence public opinion.

    The later gets translated into political pressure on legislature

  • Set the tone for national conversation.

    Media and pundits will talk about what the President wants to bring up. Well, sometimes. School lunches weren't even a thing until Michelle Obama started highlighting them - and she's not even a POTUS but FLOTUS.

  • Trade horses (favors etc...) to influence members of legislature to support what POTUS wants

    This can be direct favors (pork etc...), political favors (I'll appear with you on fundraisers; I'll put in good word for you with Party bigwigs, I'll support some legislation you care about), or less direct political favors (I'll let you network with my bundlers, I'll take personal interest in a career of someone you care about), etc...

  • 4
    Pardon my naivety, but aren't executive orders, etc, about executing from the executive seat? i.e. they're instructions to the executive branch on how to perform their duty of executing the laws.
    – user8229
    Commented Jul 25, 2016 at 21:50
  • 3
    @Hurkyl - theoretically, yes. As you can see with what Obama managed to do on Immigration, they clearly aren't just that, in practice.
    – user4012
    Commented Jul 26, 2016 at 2:10
  • They can also fire nukes.
    – Anko
    Commented Jul 26, 2016 at 2:25
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    @Anko: one almost wonders why Congress has never sought its own independent nuclear deterrent to balance things up ;-) Commented Jul 26, 2016 at 9:19
  • @SteveJessop Considering the restraint Congress has shown in employing the figurative nuclear options, I'm glad they don't presently have a literal one!
    – reirab
    Commented Nov 21, 2017 at 20:09

I know this is going to come off more like a high school civics lesson, but here are the main "Jobs" of the president:

Commander in Chief

  • as the Commander in chief he has direct and unrestricted control over all branches of the armed forces. In theory, he could walk on to the battle and order all soldiers to do the chicken dance, and they would have to. In practice, this "power" is delegated to Generals and staff with much more experience. So the President sets some general goals like "win war" and the generals make it happen.
  • These powers are not limited by much. The "power of the purse" meaning the legislative branch can just decide not to pay for the war, and the fact that the legislative branch has to be the one to declare war are the main checks.
  • For example, the president could want to go to war with Canada all he wants, but unless the legislative branch actually declares war, he can't. At the same time, if the legislative branch declares war on Canada, then the President can command the armed forces in any way he wishes to make that war. Of course congress could always just decide that he needs to wage war with only $10 . There are other rules, treaties, and such, but then general idea is that the president gets to decide how to wage war, and the legislative branch gets to decide where to point that war.
  • A president could make promises to end a war, to win a war, or to avoid war all together. He can't "go to war" but he can promise to push for a war.

Chief Executive

  • This is two fold. Effectively the president is the bosses boss of every government agency. They also "lead" the effort to enforce the laws created by the legislative branch. Again this is usually very broad strokes. Appointing officials that are "weak on x" or "strong on y".
  • Take a look at the history of the FBI for a good example of this.
  • The check against the president is that the highest officials need to be approved by the legislative branch, and that the enforcement is on a national level.
  • In effect the legislative branch can pass a law that says "no pie on Tuesday" but if the executive branch decides not to enforce it, then the law is generally in-effective.
  • The president can not promise any laws, he can promise not to enforce laws, or to start enforcing laws. He can also promise to not veto things. (more on this later). He can promise to work towards laws with other branches.

Chief Diplomat

  • The president is the lead diplomat. he has basically unrestricted control over all diplomatic actions. Again usually this is expressed in broad strokes, but he can attempt to make piece, attempt to anger and so on.
  • The checks here are that the results of his actions usually end up going through the legislative branch. He makes Canada really mad, and he can, but declaring war is up to the legislative branch. Want a cool new embassy in Mexico, that's fine he can do that, but if the legislative branch only gives him $5 to work with, it won't be that cool of an embassy. Or as another example, the President can sign a treaty, but that treaty has to be approved by the legislative branch.
  • The president can promise a lot about foreign policy. It's one of the areas with the least checks. He can promise to try to make peace, or to attempt to secure a resource. He can not promise a war, or promise more funds to a current war. Ha can promise to work with the legislative branch to better fund a war.

Legislative Leader

  • The President has a lot of power over the legislative branch. The two most common ones (today) are Veto powers and Influencing congress.
  • The President can veto a bill. Overriding that veto is possible, but unlikely. This can be used as a sort of trade. "I won't veto bill A if you write and pass bill B". This happens a lot.
  • The president can encourage the legislative branch to write the bills he wants. He can't make them, but he can urge them to, either by being nice and explaining his side, or by playing dirty and refusing to pass new laws until they cave.
  • The president can promise to help pass new laws or to veto laws. He can not promise to write laws. The combination of veto power and the "Chief Executive" not enforcing a law power can make some laws totally pointless.

Head of State

  • The president has powers as head of state to direct some internal p policies. Usually this is done with speeches and campaigns.
  • There are some direct powers under this umbrella, but mostly, this is the power that comes with being the one guy in charge. The effectiveness of this power is directly related to "the polls".
  • The president can rally people for or against a thing. In a state of emergency (checked by the legislative branch) the president can act unilaterally in the best interest of internal matters. For example disaster relief.
  • The president can promise support to a cause or topic. Not a lot of of promises fall squarely into this category. This category is more "how he does stuff" then what stuff he does.

Head of Party

  • This works differently in each party, and I don't know if anyone really knows what this means. But the president becomes the automatic head of his political party.
  • This means directing and hosting party events and politics. It also means a lot of different stuff to different parties.
  • The promises the president makes under this category are to party leaders and members, and not to the general public.

Head of Economics

  • This one is tricky, but it's generally the responsibility of the president to be aware of and protect the economy. He is very limited in what he can do. Most decisions require at least the approval if not full cooperation of the legislative branch.
  • This category is an expectation that while excersizes his other powers, he will keep economic needs in mind.
  • Promises in this category are generally, "more jobs" or "better pay", "welfare reform" or "economic reform" even "universal health care". The general idea is that when doing things in other categories he will attempt to further these goals as well.

The Big Powers

There are three big powers that the president wields in common practice these days. Almost all promises he can make are achieved by these powers to one degree or another.

Veto Power This can be used as a sword or a knife. Essentially, think of a three year old screaming "I won't eat my veggies" and a parent coming back with "then you don't get any ice cream". The president can veto any bill or all bills till the one he wants passes the legislative branch. These vetos can be overruled, but only by a 2/3 vote. Something that is very hard to do. The president will generally not go this route unless it is a "strong/core" issue, but it has been known to happen.

Power to appoint The president gets to appoint who ever he wants to a large number of very powerful roles. Normally this comes down to Justices (judges in the supreme court). If a president is pro abortion he can appoint a pro-abortion judge to the supreme court, there by effecting their decisions for a long time. The legislative branch has to approve these appointments. This is arguably the largest power the president has. When you hear "the president's administration" this is what is meant. Not only are judges appointed but diplomats, military commanders, advisers, and leaders. Some for the term of the presidency, others for life.

Executive Orders The president has the ability to pretty much write what ever he wants into an executive order. This may or may not be legal, but is more and more common these days. This executive order has some limitations, but is generally not subject to the legislative checks and balances, and to the judicial system only after the order has taken effect. The general idea is that the Executive order is needed to cut though the BS sometimes. For example getting FEMA to a disaster, instead of having a committee decide if it's a disaster or not. A lot of people feel this power has been abused recently, but it remains a "go to " power for recent presidents.

  • 2
    "unless the legislative branch actually declares war, he can't.": that's not true at all. The US last declared war in 1942, but has been involved in a number of conflicts since then. There are, however, other legislative checks (e.g. the War Powers Resolution). Commented Jul 27, 2016 at 9:29
  • 1
    Re diplomacy: might be worth adding that the president can sign treaties, but that the Senate has to ratify them. Commented Jul 27, 2016 at 9:32
  • @SteveMelnikoff, first this is meant as a high level look. Second in recent "wars" they have been UN wars which were not declared by the president either or things like en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iraq_Resolution which were led by congress. I don't know of any examples (but I am interested) if the president just going off and "going" to war.
    – coteyr
    Commented Jul 28, 2016 at 14:31
  • Added the bit to diplomacy to clear it up.
    – coteyr
    Commented Jul 28, 2016 at 14:33
  • 1
    I appreciate what you're saying, and the statement about war is accurate for one particular definition of war (specifically, an armed conflict that begins with a formal declaration). However, times have changed since then, and the US has deployed its troops in a number of armed conflicts since 1945 that don't match that definition. In that respect, the president's power to do so is less limited by Congress than a formal war is. Commented Jul 29, 2016 at 10:21

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.

Presidents propose budgets, which include taxes. Then Congress modifies the proposal and sends it back. A president can veto the budget bill.

Presidents appoint attorneys who prosecute corporate scandals. Also, under current law, the executive branch implements laws with regulations. People are prosecuted for breaking the regulation, not the law.

Presidents appoint judges who rule on abortions (and corporate scandals). For example, we know that the next president will replace Scalia. The next president may also replace Ginsburg (the oldest justice), Kennedy (the longest serving justice), Breyer, and even Thomas (despite his comparative youth, he's talking retirement). Since decisions are often 5-4, moving the vote by two in either direction would turn compromise decisions into a clear victory for one side or the other.

While it is true that presidential candidates often promise things that they can't deliver (e.g. jobs), I think that you are being overly critical of what is essentially a shorthand. Who wants to hear, "I will propose a budget to Congress and I think I can get them to go along with me on ..."? It's much easier, more understandable, and most importantly in politics, more quotable to say, "I'll raise this tax" or "I'll cut that tax".

Who would understand a list of potential attorney appointments? But knowing that Hillary Clinton would concentrate on enforcing regulations on business while Donald Trump would concentrate on criminal prosecutions is helpful.

Donald Trump actually did provide a list of judges he'd appoint to the Supreme Court. Did you read it? Did you even notice? But you probably know that he says that he is pro-life.

  • This. Most answers completely neglect this power, which is perhaps the most significant one not requiring cooperation from the legislature.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Jul 27, 2016 at 15:08

Beyond all the other excellent answers here, the office of the Presidency carries with it a certain amount of soft power. As the fictional President Bartlett once put it:

I'm doing basically what the President does. Ask people for things, then thank them for things.

(In the modern era, asking people for campaign contributions and then thanking them for the same is a crucial part of the operation.)

The prestige of the office and the power advantages that come with it (Oval Office, Air Force One, etc...) give the President some flexibility. Most are not inclined to refuse an invitation from the Commander in Chief, and once they're there, it may be hard to say no:

“The Oval Office is the ultimate home-field advantage,” said David Hobbs, who served as President George W. Bush’s legislative director.

A President can use this to great effect. He (or she) can bring together parties to try to negotiate a deal and try to facilitate that deal with some of the tactics user4012 notes. He can call up virtually any world leader, and the pageantry of a State Dinner or a Presidential visit is an important diplomatic tool.

The office also comes with significant attention and media coverage, and simply calling attention to a particular issue, organization, or successful initiative can be a powerful endorsement.

Presidential soft power can apply inside the government too. The federal government is a vast bureaucracy, but a little attention from the White House can expedite many things. One example involved the team that came in to save the healthcare.gov website and the launch of the Affordable Care Act at a time when it was essentially a national emergency. That effort was run through the White House and was able to use Presidential authority to throw its weight around to get the job done.


While not a constitutional power, the President is typically considered the leader of their party. As such they can influence the party's platform and priorities. While the platform is not strictly binding on other politicians from the same party, it's often indicative of the policies that legislators from that party would support.

Though the Congress officially decides the budget, the President typically proposes one (and can veto a budget bill). If the Congress views the President favorably, his or her proposal may become the model for the actual budget.

The President can issue pardons.

The President can direct the justice department priorities. For example, prosecuting and deporting undocumented immigrants or whistle blowers or drug networks.

As Commander in Chief, the President can direct the National Guard, which is often used for domestic issues, like natural disasters or riots. It's not just about foreign policy.


The President of the United States heads the executive branch, which means he is tasked with the duty of managing the day to day affairs of government. When the Constitution was written, the founding fathers generally thought that it would be Congress, rather than the Executive, who would determine the "agenda" of the government (after all, the legislative branch is responsible for making the laws, declaring war, raising taxes, etc.). They believed that the presidency would more or less be a managerial position. That isn't to say that the office was only given ceremonial powers; in fact the powers of the president really haven't changed since George Washington's day (However, they have been interpreted much more broadly since then!). But, for reasons I won't get into because I don't want to write a book on this subject today, the President overtook Congress in its role as "head honcho" of the federal government. In other words, the modern Commander in Chief is the one who really gets to create the agenda for the government. That's why Congressional debate is usually dominated by the White House's proposals, even though the President is not the one who makes the laws. However, the President's ability to influence the agenda of Congress is obviously not written into the Constitution, so a weak President may find himself unable to influence the legislative process at all (this is where the term "lame duck presidency comes from). Finally, another reason why the President is a very powerful office right now is because he is given the power to enforce the laws, which is often done by the creation of a government agency (ex. EPA, IRS) and through the use of executive orders and the issuance of regulations. Nowadays, the executive branch's bureaucracy is so large that its mandates automatically wield massive power, even though they may not be actual laws.


One thing I haven't seen mentioned yet: POTUS is Commander-in-Chief of all U.S armed forces. So everything happening overseas of a military nature (e.g Iraq) is ultimately directed by his (/ her ?) decisions. Historically, we have also found that POTUS is often quite influential in getting Congress to declare wars in the first place.

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    Welcome to Politics.SE. This looks like a comment, not an answer. Once you have enough reputation points, you will be able to post comments. Before that, please focus on providing with full-featured answers. Commented Jul 26, 2016 at 22:05

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