Powers of the Presidency: Formal and Implied.

The president’s formal powers can be divided into the following:

When looking at the powers of a US President it is useful to distinguish between the formal powers outlined in the Constitution and the informal powers and sources of power that the president may be able to wield as well as those powers and leavers of government which are implied or have developed with the evolution of the presidency. 

Some of the informal powers are as important as, or even more important than, the powers described in the Constitution. The constitutional basis for the expansion of the president's role was partly his explicit power as commander-in-chief and partly the powers implied through the two key clauses in Article 2: 'executive power shall be vested in the president' and '... shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed'. These clauses in the constitution have proved to be sufficiently vague to act as the basis for presidential expansionism and, once the popular vote was established as the means of election, enabled the president to claim a national mandate as the only nationally elected politician.

 These sources have changed over time, which has resulted in a steady expansion of the scope of the presidents power, however although the general tend has been for presidents to become more powerful there is considerable variation in the abilities of individual presidents to exercise these powers. The context of the presidency and their own abilities have a considerable influence in how these powers can be  used.

One informal source of power is the  Electoral mandate

Unlike the other branches of government the president can claim a popular mandate from the whole American people. (at least at first)

While all president have a unique personal mandate the strength of the mandate will differ depending on whether they are elected on a strong wave of support in which they outline a clear policy vision or whether their election is seen as close or even contested as in 2000 and 2020. Although one of the advantages of the electoral college is that it tends to exaggerate the margin of victory- low turnouts, a bruising primary campaign or coming second in the popular vote may all undermine the mandate. Because the mandate is strongest at the beginning of their term most presidents achieve their most important goals in the first two years of office while their mandate is fresh. This period is referred to as the 'honeymoon'. Presidential success rates typically fall as the term progresses, partly as the president moves further from their original mandate. Obama achieved some of his most important policy goals in his first two years, including the budget stimulus, health care reform and beginning the process of moving troops from Iraq. Trump passed his tax cuts.

The factor that will have the most impact on the mandate is whether the president's party has control of Congress. With a majority in Congress (in recent years a 2/3 majority in the Senate to overcome the filibuster) a president has more chance of achieving his goals- however, it is still not certain. Obama struggled to pass his Health Reform Bill and he had a 2/3 majority in the Senate and a majority in the House. Similarly, presidents who face divided government can still be successful- although partisanship has made this less likely in the last 20 years.  

Head of state and party leader 

The combination of the roles of head of government, head of state and party leader is an asset for the president. His role as head of state means that Americans have a respect for the office of president which exceeds that given, for example, to a UK prime minister. Americans want their president to be a success, almost irrespective of partisan loyalty, and a presidential appeal to the public and even opposition politicians will — traditionally at any rate — be listened to with respect. As party leader, he has the support of his party during elections and then, to some extent, from his party's representatives and senators in Congress

The president leads their party, giving them the power to sway its members. This is especially advantageous when the president's party holds the majority in both houses of Congress, making it easier to push legislation through. If the president's party does not have control of Congress, their ability to influence their party is limited in getting legislation passed, as seen in Obama's declining presidential approval ratings in his last years in office. However, even when a president's party dominates both houses of Congress, there may not always be unwavering support. This was evident in 2017 when the Republicans had control of both houses, yet Trump failed to persuade Congress to completely repeal Obama's Affordable Care Act of 2010, despite it being a key promise during his presidential campaign.

Leader of the 'Free World'

The United States is widely considered the most powerful liberal democracy and military superpower in history, with its president often referred to as the 'leader of the free world.' The country holds significant influence over global politics and international organizations such as the United Nations, NATO, the G7, and the WTO. During the Cold War era (1945–1991), Reagan led Western democracies in opposition to the USSR. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, George W. Bush spearheaded an international coalition in the fight against terrorism. President Obama successfully rallied nations to join the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change and the Iran nuclear deal. Conversely, President Trump demonstrated less interest in global leadership, withdrawing the US from both the Paris Agreement and the Iran nuclear deal. His stance on NATO was ambiguous, and he prioritized forging bilateral relationships over engaging with international institutions. The 'America First' policy adopted by Trump resulted in strained relationships with traditional US allies and initiated a trade conflict with China. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Trump opted to end the US's ties with the World Health Organization.

The bully pulpit 

The State of the Union speech

In this speech at the beginning of each year, the president has a national audience to whom he can set out his priorities and legislative agenda for the next 12 months.

The president has the ability to command the attention of the American people in a manner no other politician enjoys. This is sometimes referred to as the 'bully pulpit 'Television and film have given rise to a cult of the presidency. Both fictional and actual presidents have been portrayed as ever-present, all-powerful figures; the weekly radio address, began by President Roosevelt, established a direct link between the president and the public; and the constant images of presidential power, such as the White House, the Oval Office, Air Force One and Marine Helicopter, all create a glamorous aura around the office.

The term 'bully pulpit' was first coined by Teddy Roosevelt and is a recognition of the president's ability to use the status and power of his office to frame the debate and pressure members of Congress via their constituents. The president can exploit the fact that whatever he does is newsworthy and will generate media coverage. The bully pulpit can be used in a number of ways: for example, a straightforward televised national address, or the president can take his message 'on the road' through a series of highly publicised local town hall meetings.

President Joe Biden gave a vigorous State of the Union address on 2024 March 7th  working to counter a narrative haunting his re-election bid - that he's too old for the job.

US political pundits and analysts called his roughly 60-minute speech "fiery" and "forceful".


In the 19th Century Presidents freely exploited the 'Spoils System' which was the convention that presidents could reward their allies and supporters with appointments in government. It continues in a reduced form today as the president appoint former rivals to cabinet posts or rewards significant donors with jobs.

Although, unlike a UK prime minister, the president cannot offer jobs in the executive in return for the support of members of Congress, he does have a variety of other inducements. A presidential visit to help with fundraising is of significant value to a member of Congress. Senators and representatives are as much in thrall to the trappings of presidential power as anyone else, and an invitation to the White House to watch a football game in the film theatre, or a flight on Air Force One, are attractive propositions.

Example Vincent Viola and Scott Pruitt appointments 

Implied powers: 

Executive orders

Executive orders are an implied power of presidents based on their role as head of the executive branch. A president can create a legal order without a vote in Congress, then use it to direct the executive branch in carrying out policies. Many of these executive orders can be traced directly to an Act of Congress, with the president issuing instructions to ensure these laws are carried out. In theory this is a legitimate tool under the Constitution and many executive orders are uncontroversial.Trump signed 12 executive orders in his first week, including those to withdraw the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership ) but the executive order which prompted nationwide and worldwide protests — was the one issued at the end of his first week in office placing a four-month ban on refugees and a three-month ban on citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries including Iran, Iraq and Syria. 

While all presidents have used Executive orders  the scope of these orders has changed. If issuing an order is seen as identical to making a new policy or law, then constitutionally Congress could have the right to vote on the proposal.

The Veto

The use of the veto has changed in recent years. In the earlier part of the twentieth century, the veto was used extensively — President Roosevelt famously vetoed 635 bills in total — and it was a principal means of asserting executive power when the executive was relatively weak. It is now used more sparingly, and tends to be seen as a sign of weakness. Its use suggests that the president has lost control of the agenda, if Congress is willing to pass legislation in defiance of his stated preferences, especially if Congress is controlled by the president's party. However, in the later stages of a presidency, or when faced by a Congress controlled by the opposition party, the veto may be the only way a president has of exerting influence.

The cabinet

The Cabinet includes the vice president and the heads of 15 executive departments, as well as cabinet-level officials such as the Chief of Staff and the Head of the Office of Management and Budget. Cabinet members can play an important role in helping the president to make and execute policy. Individual members of Cabinet can act as key policy advisers with senior cabinet positions such as the Secretaries of State and Treasury often having a major impact on policy. They can form part of a president's inner circle alongside other key advisers.

As a collective group the Cabinet has very limited power, however, with a limited number of meetings taking place each year. Its main influence lies with key individuals in the Cabinet. Under the Obama presidency, John Kerry as Secretary of State took a central role in developing foreign policy alongside the president. He worked on the Israeli-Palestine peace accords, having visited 11 times in just over a year in 2013/14 as well as taking a key role on approaches to Syria. The Cabinet has no constitutional status that would allow it to control policy and it cannot claim any kind of national mandate with a right to govern. As such the president has the final say on executive policy, with Cabinet members serving at the president's pleasure. Presidents may sideline individual members and seek advice and support from elsewhere. Much depends on the individual president, however. While Cabinet members have a great deal of authority, it is the president who can determine who to work with most closely.  

Executive Office of the President (EXOP) including the role of the National Security Council (NSC), Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the White House Office (WHO)

The president relies on those around him or her in order to have control. They rely on support (but in some cases get opposition) from the Cabinet, the EXOP and the vice president.

The Executive Office of the President

The Executive Office of the President 

The Executive Office of the President (EXOP) was created in 1939 after the report of the Brownlow Committee and has grown rapidly since.  The president's closest advisers are usually found in the EXOP — the general term for the presidential agencies and staff that provide advice and administrative support. The EXOP began in 1939, when the Brownlow Committee reported that the president was seriously understaffed and needed substantial administrative support. Since then EXOP has grown enormously, paralleling a huge increase in the size of the federal government, and now comprises more than 1,800 people

The EXOP is commonly referred to as the 'West Wing' of the White House, which is home to the president's Oval office and the offices of the closest advisers. However, the EXOP is actually housed in more than a dozen offices, in the West and East Wings and the Eisenhower building. Few Americans have heard of the members of EXOP, but they include some of the most powerful people in the United States.

The National Security Council (NSC)

The NSC, established in 1947 at the beginning of the Cold War, is the principal body advising the president on national security and foreign-policy issues. The workings of the NSC are somewhat secretive; however, the close proximity of the NSA office to the Oval office suggests strong levels of influence.

The president gets a daily briefing from the NSC and consults the National Security Adviser (NSA) over major security issues. The NSA's role potentially puts them into conflict or rivalry with the Secretary of State, who will not normally have such regular contact with the president.

Given the global importance of the US, the NSC and the NSA are incredibly important roles, as they help shape the president's thinking on major issues. Even so, the president can bypass or ignore them. President Trump has been heavily criticised for the politicisation of this office by including Steve Bannon as Senior Counselor in the NSC. As a national security body, the Council is supposed to provide advice to the president based on its intelligence and the inclusion of Bannon may distort this advice. Susan Rice, the former national security adviser tweeted, 'This is stone cold crazy. After a week of crazy.'

Factors which will enhance of detract from presidential power

Powers of persuasion including the nature/characteristics of each president-

Presidential personality and leadership skills are incredibly important for presidential success. Presidents have to draw on their political skills, and particularly their powers of persuasion, to achieve their policy goals. Presidents can use their position to attract media and congressional attention. The president's position as the head of state and head of executive branch gives them high degrees of authority, allowing them to be persuasive.

The personal ability of each president affects the extent to which they are successful persuaders of both Congress and the public. Different presidents have different natures or characteristics that influence their approach. President Trump's aggressive approach can be contrasted with the more conciliatory style of Obama. Trump has been quick to denounce most people who oppose him, often in personal terms. After the failure to pass The American Health care Act in 2017, Trump threatened both Democrats and conservative Republicans in the Freedom Caucus saying that they should be removed in the 2018 mid-term elections. There is a debate about the effectiveness of these approaches in terms of gaining influence, which is further addressed in the case study below.

The White House staff, members of the cabinet and the vice-president all become involved in pushing the president's legislative agenda through Congress. In the negotiations to secure the renewal of the Bush-era tax cuts in December 2010, the vice-president was both shoring up the support of congressional Democrats and negotiating directly with Republican leaders, while White House staff with a stake in the proposals, such as economic adviser Gene Sperling, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) director Jack Lew, and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, all lobbied. Even Bill Clinton was brought into the White House briefing room to praise the president's proposals to the assembled ranks of the press.

The president will seek to use his personal powers of charm and persuasion on individual members of Congress. Former senators, who are at home in the culture of Washington, have usually proved more adept at this than ex-governors; President Johnson carried over much of his operational manner as Senate majority leader into the White House, to which President Carter never adapted.

Richard Neustadt and the power to persuade

In 1960, in his book on presidential power, Richard Neustadt suggested that 'presidential power is the power to persuade'. This suggests that the president has extremely limited constitutional power to enforce political change, unlike prime ministers in European democracies or dictatorships. The president can ask Congress to accept his views, but has little power to back this up. Due to the separation of powers and checks and balances, Congress has the ability — and often the will — to say no.

JBJ was famous for his personal powers of persuasion- the Johnson Technique- a mixture of charm, threats and his physical presence. 

Case study: Obama's personal powers

While  Obama had strong oratorical skills, he was not decisive or forceful enough in pushing his own agenda. Obama's governing style has been criticised for being too aloof, perfectionist and passive toward key issues, rather than pragmatic and commanding. Over the budget negotiations after budget shutdown in 2013, some (including Senator Bernie Sanders) complained that he was not taking charge. In this sense Obama could be accused of not being 'presidential' enough and forcing the two sides to form a compromise.

Others suggest that Obama's willingness to devolve responsibility to Congress for developing legislation was a better way to gain congressional support. Obama was merely reacting toa hostile Congress with polarised parties. If Obama had been too aggressive, he might have achieved nothing other than irritating Congress. His willingness to compromise, even when he held a Democrat majority, helped him achieve some of his policy goals, such as health care, where a more stubborn Bill Clinton failed.

National events

National events, especially natural disasters, economic crises and terrorist attacks, can play a significant role on presidential power, directly or indirectly. They can reduce the time the president has to devote to other policies, and have an impact on public opinion. If a president or their policies are popular then Congress is likely to show more deference to the president.

Obama was almost blown off course in his bid to pass his flagship health care policy. The 2008 banking crisis and economic collapse meant that Obama had to prioritise an economic stimulus package, steering this through Congress before he could push his initial agenda. Opposition to his health care policy increased, forcing Obama to water it down — something he might not have done if he could have introduced legislation earlier.The 9/11 attacks had a profound effect on US politics, including on George W. Bush. His power surged dramatically after this event, as the unity of public support for the president increased. At the same time, given the extreme nature of these attacks and a rise in patriotism, a spirit of unity dampened any Democrat opposition to the president. In the following years, Bush was able to exert huge control over both domestic and foreign policy. This had a knock-on effect of allowing the Republican Party to take control of both chambers of Congress in the 2002 mid-term elections.