previous | page 3 of 8 | next

Presidential Powers

rise to national prominence

How did Ronald Reagan rise to national prominence as a politician? What issues were important to him during his early career and as president?

The Framers of the Constitution were somewhat uncertain about creating the office of the presidency. They had fought the  Revolutionary War against the excesses of executive tyranny and knew from history the dangers of concentrating power in the hands of one person. But they had also experienced problems due to the lack of a strong executive under the Articles of Confederation. In creating the presidency, they were inventing an executive unlike any that had ever existed in a democratic republic—one strong enough to be effective, but not so strong as to become oppressive. The result of their deliberations and attempts to strike this balance is found in Article II of the U.S. Constitution, which provides the basic structure of this office and a fairly brief list of its designated powers.

The Framers of the Constitution were aware that the office and function of the executive would need to adapt to the times and situations that the country would face and would be shaped in part by those who occupied the office. Although each president puts a unique stamp on the presidency, he or she must act according to the constitutional definition and limits of the executive and the precedents of those who had previously served.

Upon reading Article II of the Constitution, one is struck by how brief the article is, considering how important the office it creates has become. The Constitution provides only minimal guidance as to what the president is expected to do or exactly how the president may exercise his or her powers. For example, the president is directed to “from time to time give to the Congress Information on the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration [certain] Measures.” It is unclear exactly what the president’s involvement with the legislative process should be, and this involvement has changed over time.

Each president must abide by the Constitution as both the source of presidential authority and a limitation of that authority. In Article II, the president is given some specific powers. Some of these powers are fairly clear and easy to apply. The president, for example, is given the power to veto legislation passed by Congress. But some of the president’s powers are less clear and more subject to diverse interpretations. The president is “vested” with the executive power and is charged with the responsibility to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” In the context of the pressing issues of the day, presidents have sometimes differed in their interpretation and application of these phrases.

The Constitution states that “the President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy.” Throughout history, this power of the president has been especially subject to interpretation. The extent of the president’s authority over the military is unclear. Article I of the Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war, to raise and support military forces, and to raise and appropriate funds for those forces. As James Wilson stated at the Pennsylvania Ratifying Convention, the Constitution was designed to “prevent one man from hurrying us into war.” In Federalist 69, Alexander Hamilton drew a distinction between the powers of the president under the Constitution and the powers of the King of England:

The President is to be commander-in-chief of the army and navy of the United States. In this respect his authority would be nominally the same with that of the king of Great Britain, but in substance much inferior to it. It would amount to nothing more than the supreme command and direction of the military and naval forces, as first General and admiral of the Confederacy; while that of the British king extends to the declaring of war and to the raising and regulating of fleets and armies—all which, by the Constitution under consideration, would appertain to the legislature.

president reagan's inaugural address

What constitutional principles were embodied in President Reagan’s first inaugural address?


Of course, presidents and congresses have debated the distribution of powers when applied to actual situations. The relative powers and responsibilities of the two branches are particularly difficult to judge when Congress has not declared war. Most of the military engagements of the United States have never been formally declared by Congress. Presidents have on many occasions committed troops to battle without a Declaration of War from Congress.

After the Vietnam War, many members of Congress felt that it was time to clear up some of the ambiguities in the Constitution about the commitment of U.S. troops. In the War Powers Resolution of 1973, Congress sought a balance of congressional and presidential powers in making decisions about sending troops to war. The War Powers Resolution stated that without authorization or a declaration of war by Congress, “the President in every possible instance shall consult with Congress before introducing United States Armed Forces into hostilities.” But the resolution recognizes that serious and immediate threats may require swift action, and consultations may cause too much delay. In such cases, after dispatching troops, the president is required to report to Congress, and Congress determines whether the troops should remain or be removed from the situation.

Presidents since Richard Nixon have maintained that the War Powers Resolution is unconstitutional because they claim it conflicts with the president’s authority as commander in chief. On the other hand, some scholars have claimed that the War Powers Resolution is an unconstitutional delegation of congressional power to the president.

previous | page 3 of 8 | next