Limitations in Presidential Decision Making

Introduction and Objective

The President of The United States of America is the head of a democratic country and is elected by a people’s vote. A President can occupy office for only two terms and must demit power after a maximum period of eight years in the White House. After the completion of their terms most presidents keep themselves busy with their memoirs and social causes, emerging from the woodwork only during elections or to give vent to their own opinions at the happening of extremely momentous national and global events.

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There are a number of ex-Presidents alive today whose appearance in the newspapers or television does not give rise to emotions more engaging than stifled yawns.These factors however, do not take away from the fact that while in office the President of the United States enjoys immense powers and is very widely acknowledged as the most powerful man on earth.

Most of these powers arise from the economic and military strength of the country he leads. He is the symbol of the United States, the most powerful country on earth with influence that reaches every corner of the globe. This perception has been vastly increased after the break up of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war. Most leaders of the world prefer to stay on the right side of the United States and its President.

In the UK, Tony Blair has been referred to disparagingly as President Bush’s poodle and in South Asia both India and Pakistan feel it wise to maintain good, read fawning, relationships with President Bush while going for each others jugular.Another reason for this impression is the US’s inclination to take a proactive role on most global issues. Thus, the US is today present in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, in Central Europe and Latin America. It has taken the lead in the policing of the world and is busy containing Iran and North Korea, brokering peace between the Arabs and the Israelis and in hunting down the Al Qaeeda.

This omnipresence gives the President of the United States an almost supernatural authority as the sayer of the final word, the final master of every game. At home his office has been the subject of vast research and every move of his is covered by global media. He is said to control US foreign policy as well as national security, occupies the top slot in the command chain of the US government. “For most Americans, as William Mullen has observed, the President of the United States is the United States government.

The President of the United States has also strangely, never been a woman, a fact, which may however change in the near future.There is a good deal of truth in the above “power” statements but also some amount of conjecture and fantasy. While the huge range of presidential functions and responsibilities, working in tandem with global media exposure does create the impression of an all powerful global colossus, the President soon finds after taking over office that he must deal with the bureaucracy, the congress, the judiciary, the legal system, a vociferous media and recalcitrant heads of state.

It is the objective of this research assignment to study the powers of the President with special reference to the various constraints and limitations that restrain his actions. The researcher has referred to secondary literature in the form of texts, online data bases and information available on the internet, as well as primary sources like government publications and websites, all of which have been listed in the bibliography.

Evolution of Presidential Powers

American independence was achieved in the second half of the eighteenth century after a prolonged and bitter war with the British forces. The founders of the nation found the concept of a strong executive position at variance with their thoughts, primarily because of their ideals of republicanism and also because of their disenchantment with the acts of colonial governors of Great Britain.

The writers of the constitution thus decided to separate the powers of the executive, the judiciary and the legislature and implement a system of checks and balances that would protect the democracy of the country and its people from dictatorial rule. The President was granted powers of commission and veto, as well as the power to pardon, but legislature was given control the treasury and the authority to wage war.

In the more than two centuries that have passed since the declaration of American Independence and the framing of the constitution, enormous changes have occurred and a number of Presidents have attempted to redefine and extend their powers. In addition to being Chief Executive, Commander-in Chief, and Chief Diplomat, the authorities the President started out with at the time the constitution was framed, the president is now also Chief of State, Chief Party Leader, Chief Opinion Leader and the Chief Initiator of new laws.

In these two hundred years the emergence of capitalism and a free economy gave the President the power to manage the economy and the arrival of radio and television saw the President appropriate public space. The rise of American military power, its exercise in the Second World War, the use of nuclear weapons and the continuously active military posture of the US all over the world gave new meaning to the term Commander in Chief, while the gradual democratisation of the political system and the emergence of the concept of the welfare state resulted in making the President a strong economic decision maker.The President owes the image of being powerful in good measure to the part that the country has taken in global conflict. In all these conflicts the President has been perceived, in the role of Commander in Chief, to be responsible for the American military response.

The Second World War ended with the nuclear holocaust of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the acceptance of the United States as the world’s strongest military power. Truman, the President who gave the order to drop the bombs was followed by successive Presidents like Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon who engaged in coups, military adventures and wars in Iran, Guatemala, Cuba, Korea, Vietnam, Chile, Grenada, Nicaragua, Libya, and Iraq. In the very recent past the US has spearheaded military incursions and wars in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq and aggressive postures have been taken up in North Korea and Iran. Thousands of American soldiers are stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan, occupying foreign territory, buttressing pro American governments and facing revolt from the local militia.

The rise in presidential powers is also due to the acts of many Presidents who have, in their own terms of office, stretched the envelope and redefined the powers of office. While there have been a number of ‘mild” Presidents who have completed their terms, acquiescent to a strong legislature, others have added on to the authority and the reach of the Presidential office.In this context of rampant increase of presidential power, it thus becomes imperative to examine the formal constraints and limitations that restrain Presidents in different areas of work.

Limitations on Presidential Power

The constitution of the USA mostly limits the formal powers of the President. The researcher has used information in this section from the essay on “Constitutional Powers of the President” (2003) taken from the book The Presidency A to Z, edited by M. Nelson. Article II of the constitution by being deliberately vague in its wording in Section 1 and Section 3, giving the President executive powers and responsibility for execution of laws has made it possible for the President to gradually expand the powers of the office.

As the Chief Executive of the Government, the Constitution, while not clearly specifying his exact authority, gives him the right to obtain reports from departmental heads and underlines his authorities in this area. The President has the powers to select officials, subject to approval of the senate. The Civil Service laws have however, made it mandatory for most jobs to be filled up on merit, thus taking away the powers Presidents enjoyed in the nineteenth century, to give large numbers of jobs to their friends and followers. However, even the power to fill 10 % of the jobs that Presidents currently possess gives them the authority to appoint important government officials.

The President’s power to remove people from jobs is also limited to only a few federal agencies.The President is empowered to recommend fiscal policy but the authority to control taxes and governmental spending lies with the Congress. The President is however able to wield considerable authority in this area because of constitutional ambiguity and by controlling the ill-defined area of the budgetary process is able to decide the direction of spending of money.The constitution calls upon the President to faithfully execute the laws as well as grant pardons and reprieves to people for offences against the United States.

This power does not however extend to impeached persons. The President’s powers in law enforcement have grown over the years but he obviously has to work through the law enforcement agencies and powers in this regard are rarely used. The President is also careful in using the powers to pardon, knowing that the glare of the media will be fully upon him.The powers of the President upon the law making process are limited.

Only Congress can write legislation and the President has the powers to approve it, whereupon a member of the congress can introduce the legislation to start the process for converting it into law. A bill also needs a presidential approval to become law. The President has the power to veto a bill, which congress can override, but only by a two third majority vote. However, the actual use of the provision to override a Presidential veto is rare and until now a majority vote has overridden only 4 % of presidential vetoes.

More often, the Congress and the President serve to check and balance each other knowing that a direct confrontation will lead to stopping the work of the government. Compromise is essential in the relationship between the President and Congress, as quite often the President’s party does not control it and the President needs to necessarily work with senators who do not agree with the President’s agenda.Even in foreign affairs, the President and the Congress share powers equally, leading to continuous tussle, give and take, and in some cases blockage of presidential initiatives by the Congress. Presidents can negotiate and sign treaties, subject to its’ approval by a two-thirds majority vote, and as such, the President cannot bring about a final decision without the support of the senators.

However, the President has the means to circumvent this constraint through entering into Executive Agreements with other countries. Executive agreements do not require Congress sanction but, again, unlike treaties are subject to the laws of the United States. This convenience makes it easier for the President to conclude a good deal of foreign policy work through executive agreements. In fact, executive agreements account for a good deal of foreign policy agreements reached in recent years.

As Commander in Chief of the military forces and in the absence of clear demarcation of powers, Presidents have been able to use great military powers in the past, even though the right to declare war and the ability to raise an army lies with the Congress. It was only in 1973 that the Congress took action to curtail the President’s war making authority.

In 1973, Congress responded to Richard Nixon’s continuing prosecution of the Vietnam War by passing the War Powers Act over Nixon’s veto. The most important and controversial provisions of the law outlined the situations under which presidents could commit troops, permitted Congress at any time to order the president to disengage troops involved in an undeclared war, and required the president to withdraw armed forces from a conflict within sixty to ninety days unless Congress specifically authorized its continuation.

Apart from constitutional tussles between the President and the Congress there are a number of other checks on the misuse of Presidential powers which arise from public opinion and the media, the opposition party as well as from dissidents in the Presidents party, the bureaucracy and the electorate.

Analysis and Conclusion

Despite all the constraints placed by Congress, the judiciary, public opinion, the mass media and various activist and civil rights groups, Presidents of the United States have been able to increase their powers substantially over the years. While periods of relative peace see the President working towards the improvement of the economy and in carrying through social reforms, periods of crisis inevitably see the President and the executive assuming substantial extra powers and in using them to secure their objectives.

The use of Presidential powers has thus veered from periods where milder Presidents have preferred to use their authority very carefully to that of strong and aggressive leaders who have used the machinery at their disposal to enforce their writ upon the running of the nation. The following bullet points provide examples of how individual Presidents, over the years have been able to enforce their will upon the American nation.

  • Thomas Jefferson added the power of secret negotiations over the Louisiana Purchase, and he impounded funds.
  • Andrew Jackson moved Indians out of the Southeast and told the Supreme Court that he was not going to enforce one of their decisions.
  • Abraham Lincoln successfully kept the Union together during the Civil War. He had to suspend the writ of habeas corpus, become a wartime commander-in-chief, and violate a few civil liberties. He issued executive orders eliminating slavery,·
  • Grover Cleveland used the power of the presidency to repress labor movements,
  • Theodore Roosevelt tried to stretch American power around the world.
  • Woodrow Wilson suspended certain liberties like free speech and press when he sought the Espionage Act and the Sedition Acts of 1917.
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt took unusual steps to provide executive leadership during the depression of the 1930s. During World War II he became close to the American dictator with his broad use of domestic and foreign commander-in-chief powers. He interned Japanese-Americans in relocation centers and he set the country on the road to being a nuclear power.
  • Harry Truman presided over the victorious conclusion to World War II, ordered the nuclear bombing of Japan and raised the CIA.·         Dwight Eisenhower used American presidential power to integrate the Little Rock, Arkansas, public schools by force, and he engaged in U–2 spy flights over the Soviet Union, overthrew Mossadegh in Iran and staged a coup in Guatemala.
  • John Kennedy used the CIA as his own personal tool. He tried to overthrow Fidel Castro, and his administration even engaged in assassination plots against foreign heads of state. Kennedy used nuclear blackmail to achieve his goal of getting the Soviet Union to withdraw missiles from Cuba.
  • Lyndon Johnson used the powers of the presidency to promote an undeclared war in Vietnam and engaged in CIA paramilitary war in Laos.
  • Richard Nixon continued the presidential war in Vietnam, secretly ordered the bombing of Cambodia, encouraged the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile  and overstepped his bounds in the domestic arena from 1969 to 1974 with his efforts to punish his political enemies.
  • In 1975-76, the Frank Church Committee in the Senate and the Otis Pike Committee in the House revealed a long train of presidential abuses of the intelligence communities.
  • Presidents since F.D.R. had used the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and then the CIA for their own partisan political purposes against American dissidents.
  • Ronald Reagan used presidential power to invade Grenada, bomb Libya, and try to overthrow Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. (Orman, 1990, 4)

The numerous incidents quoted above show the proclivity of Presidents to take power into their own hands. The attacks of September 11 have again introduced a sense of emergency in the United States and the war against terrorism has taken the Bush administration to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq. There have been a number of disturbing incidents like the violation of human rights and the torture of Iraqi prisoners of war and raised serious apprehensions of the misuse of executive powers vested in the President of the United States.

Political commentators have voiced numerous worries about the direction the nation is taking with regard to guarding civil liberties and freedom.In the US, the scope of the democratic retreat has been breathtaking. Under the guise of an undeclared state of emergency, the Bush administration has been methodically tearing down the constitutional order. As frequent revelations on torture, secret prisons and large-scaledomestic spying show, government by secret decree and presidential whim has become normal practice.

In well-screened secrecy, the administration has granted itself vast extra-legal powers: the power to break international treaties, violate conventions and engage in preventive wars; the power to kidnap, torture and indefinitely detain without trial anyone identified by executive fiat as an illegal combatant; the power to create a parallel secret judiciary system under direct Pentagon and White House control; the power to override the existing domestic and international legal order.( Golub, 2006)

The worry of most advocates of democracy is the need for Presidential accountability in the exercise of power. As can be seen in the course of this essay the period from the end of the second world war until the invasion of Iraq has seen the President of the United States as the controller of the military and political system, seemingly able to enforce his decisions on the American political and military machinery and able to influence global events. Even today, he appears to be the only protector of the free and democratic world against the scourge of Islamic terrorism and the only person who is not pulling any punches in the frontal onslaught on terrorism.

It also remains an indisputable fact that despite these developments the United States has never been anywhere near a dictatorship. Even the all-powerful benevolence of President Roosevelt was hardly dictatorial when compared to what happens in totalitarian autocracies all over the world. The fact however remains that despite the presence of a strong press, informed public opinion and a tradition of democracy, the emergence of all-powerful leaders is always a worrying development and can lead to the establishment of authoritarian political structures. While the US has never come close to a dictatorship, there have been numerous incidents of concealment of information, manipulation of events and a brazen desire to wield increasing levels of power.

The tenures of Nixon, Reagan and George Bush Sr. were periods when the Presidents office became progressively less accountable to the American people.  The office of George Bush Jr. has seen preventive wars, abrogation of human rights and institutionalization of torture, all under the pretext of protecting the American people.

THE will to power was there before the events of 11 September 2001. “Clearly even without these attacks,” noted a scholar of the presidency, “the Bush administration would have acted unilaterally whenever it could, consistently pushing the boundaries of presidential power” (. After the attacks, the president was transfigured into an American Caesar; dissent was silenced by fear and the mobilization of nationalist sentiment). (Golub, 2006)Without casting aspersions on the incumbent President, it is necessary, not just for the US but for the free world that American Caesars do not develop.

It becomes the job of every citizen, the media and every stakeholder in the American political system to remain ever vigilant and continuously fiercely protective of civil liberties, freedom of expression and democracy. If this needs, now or in future, substantially more accountability from the President, the American electorate needs to put its normal predilections aside and work towards this objective.


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Limitations in Presidential Decision Making. (2017, Mar 23). Retrieved from