Pardons and Reprieves

As part of the power to enforce the law, the Constitution grants the president the power to pardon, or release from punishment, people convicted of crimes. In theory, this power allows the president to prevent a miscarriage of justice. Presidential pardons are absolute, and they cannot be overturned. The president can also grant reprieves, which are formal postponements of the execution of a sentence.

Commander in Chief

The Constitution states that the president is commander in chief of the armed forces. This means that the president—a civilian—controls the entire American military. Civilian control of the military has been a cornerstone of the United States since its founding.

As commander in chief, the president can send troops into battle without a formal declaration of war from Congress and has final authority over military operations. During wartime, the president’s powers expand dramatically: Most Americans willingly grant the president a great deal of freedom in order to win the war. During World War I, for example, the Wilson Administration rationed food and important materials and, with the media’s cooperation, controlled the news.

Chief Diplomat

The president is the main face and voice of American foreign policy, negotiating treaties and other sorts of agreements with foreign leaders (although the Senate must approve all treaties). The president uses two key tools to conduct foreign policy:

  1. Executive agreement: An agreement made with foreign leaders that does not require Senate approval (although Congress may refuse to fund the agreement); executive agreements are not necessarily binding on future presidents
  2. Diplomatic recognition: Formal acknowledgment of a government as legitimate; this recognition allows the exchange of ambassadors

Chief Legislator

The president does not have any formal legislative power but has acquired a great deal of informal power as relations between the president and Congress have evolved. People expect the president to have a legislative agenda, a series of laws he or she wishes to pass, which is presented each year during the

State of the Union address to Congress and the American people. The president can also play a key role in getting legislation passed by persuading members of Congress to vote for certain bills. The president’s popularity and the partisan makeup of Congress influence how effective a president can be in getting legislation passed.

For a bill to become law, the president must sign it. Often, the signing of a bill is turned into a ceremony, with the president using many pens to sign the bill into law and then distributing those pens to everyone who helped pass the law. If the bill is an unpopular one, the signing is usually done in private. The president sometimes includes a signing message that explains his support and understanding of the new law.

The Veto

The president’s most powerful tool in dealing with Congress is the veto, through which the president can reject a bill passed by Congress. Congress can override a veto with a two-thirds vote in both houses, but overrides are extremely rare. The president attaches a veto message to a bill that is sent back to Congress, explaining the reasoning for the veto.

The president can also make use of the pocket veto. If the president neither signs nor vetoes a bill while Congress is not in session, the bill dies at the end of ten days. If Congress is in session and the president does not sign the bill within ten days, then the bill becomes law anyway. The president might make use of the pocket veto for political reasons: He or she may not want the bill to become law but fears political damage if he or she actually vetoes it.

The presidential veto is all or nothing: The bill dies, or it does not. The line-item veto is a special type of veto that the president can use to strike the specific parts of the bill he or she dislikes without rejecting the entire bill. Many state governors have line-item veto power, but the president does not. Congress has passed laws giving the president this power, but the Supreme Court has rejected these laws as unconstitutional.

The Budget

The major part of the president’s legislative agenda is the federal budget, which explains how federal money will be spent during the next year. The federal government operates on fiscal years, a twelve-month period (that does not coincide with the calendar year) used for accounting purposes. Every year, the president proposes a budget. Congress can reject or approve the budget, but the president’s budget usually lays out the contours of debate on fiscal matters.


In addition to formal roles, the president also serves as the leader of his or her party. The president, for example, chooses the chairperson of the national party organization and campaigns on behalf of fellow party members. As the most visible party member, the president can play a huge role in raising money and generating support for candidates from this party, especially if the president is popular. Sometimes, however, party members seek to distance themselves from an unpopular president.

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