Not so fast, Mr. President

Presidential candidates make many promises. Once the winner is sworn into office, his ability to fulfill them is limited.

Under the U.S. Constitution, a president’s powers are significant. But the legislative and judicial branches — that’s Congress and the federal courts, headed by the Supreme Court — also have great authority. The Constitution apportions their powers as a series of checks and balances that prevent any one branch of government from becoming too powerful.

“What is said in the heat of a political campaign is often sidetracked when the priorities of governance kick in,” says Randy E. Barnett, a law professor and head of the Georgetown Center for the Constitution.

A number of factors control just how much of a new president’s agenda becomes reality.

One is whether the president and the two houses of Congress — the Senate and the House of Representatives — are controlled by the same party. President Obama’s Democratic Party controlled both houses of Congress only during the first two years of the Obama presidency. Republican President-elect Donald Trump will begin his administration with the same advantage. Even then, Senate rules effectively require a supermajority in some instances.

Presidents work in a system “deliberately designed to make it hard to do things,” says Matthew Dickinson, a political science professor at Middlebury College in Vermont and author of the Presidential Power blog.

“What is said in the heat of a political campaign is often sidetracked when the priorities of governance kick in.”

– Randy E. Barnett, Georgetown Center for the Constitution

Checks & balances

The president lacks constitutional authority to do many things on his own. Some examples:

  • Spending money. The president proposes a budget, but Congress must approve it. And only Congress can impose taxes. If a president’s proposals require money, he’ll need to get Congress to pay for them.
  • Repealing laws. A president can’t unilaterally cancel a law he doesn’t like. Since Congress passed that law, only another law passed by Congress can repeal it.
  • Appointments: The president nominates the heads of executive agencies and other high-ranking officials. He also nominates federal judges, including Supreme Court justices. But his nominations must be confirmed by the Senate. While fewer than 2 percent of department heads have been rejected since 1789, nearly a quarter of Supreme Court nominees have failed to be confirmed — their nominations rejected, withdrawn or declined.

If a president, or Congress for that matter, attempts to exert authority he doesn’t have, the judicial branch can rule his actions unconstitutional. For example, in 1952, the Supreme Court overturned President Harry S. Truman’s attempt to seize privately owned steel mills, a measure he intended to support the nation’s Korean War effort.

Presidential power

Within these constitutional limits, presidents still have many tools to get their agenda adopted. They make many personnel appointments that do not require Senate confirmation. With confirmation, the president nominates new judges to fill vacancies on the federal bench. Over time, this can make the judicial branch more sympathetic to the president’s general outlook. Again with confirmation, the president appoints the leaders of executive branch agencies. Many of these agencies issue rules that have great impact on the nation’s economy and life.

The president can issue “executive orders,” which have the binding force of law upon federal agencies but do not require congressional approval. But one president’s executive order does not bind his successors, and new presidents have been known to rescind those of their predecessor.

And presidents have access to what President Theodore Roosevelt called the “bully pulpit” — the ability to appeal directly to public opinion, to shape it and to use the wishes of the American people to influence members of Congress.

Barnett says one of the biggest checks on a president’s power is the difficulty of maintaining his priorities. “There’s a limit to how much a president can get done. All presidents eventually run out of gas,” he said.