Despite the insistence of some Constitutional scholars and primary school social studies teachers, all branches of the United States Federal Government are not equal. The Executive Branch is generally considered to be the strongest branch1. This is due in large part to the fact that the Executive is led by one person, known as the President, while nine old folks bicker in the Judicial branch and 535 people (with 535 agendas) make up the Legislative branch. The President of the United States is often called the most powerful person in the world, or even more dramatically, 'the leader of the free world'.
The Constitution of the United States spells out most of the powers of the President in Article II. The Constitution specifically grants the President command of the armed forces and the ability to grant pardons. With the approval of the US Senate, he2 holds the power to create treaties, and appoint government officials and members of the Federal Judiciary. Article I of the Constitution creates the most important presidential power - the decision of whether to veto a bill of Congress or to sign it into law. While this may seem to be a fairly limited and strictly defined set of duties and powers at first glance, it's really more than enough for one person.
The Evolution of the Presidency
The Presidency of the United States was first formed under the Articles of Confederation. These early Presidents were without almost any power. However, when the US Constitution was adopted, the Presidency was much more powerful. The Founding Fathers of America, and specifically the delegates to the Constitutional Convention who wrote the document, argued incessantly over how the Executive Branch of government should be led. Some delegates (famously Alexander Hamilton) advocated an almost monarchical figure and some (prominently Benjamin Franklin) supported the notion of a weak committee to lead the Executive Branch3. Some wanted the President to be popularly elected, while others, distrustful of the people, wanted Congress to pick the President. Eventually a fairly sensible balance was struck. One man would be President and the leader of the Executive Branch, serving for four years at a time. He would be chosen by an Electoral College, which would be elected by the people (or state legislatures, depending on the state).
The first President under the new system was, of course, George Washington. Many of the things he did became traditions, or even eventually a precedent, upon which law was made. During his Inauguration, he added: 'So help me God!' to the end of the oath of office, and kissed the Bible - which almost every President following him has done. He created the Departments of Treasury, State and War to make up America's first Cabinet. But most importantly, at the end of his second term and eight years in office, he voluntarily gave up power - a tradition that would last until Franklin Roosevelt (the Constitution was thereafter amended to create a two-term limit for presidents).
After Washington, the presidency coasted on fairly smoothly until Andrew Jackson was elected to the job in 1828. Jackson did much to transform the role of the President. Until his time, presidents only vetoed bills which they considered to be unconstitutional. Jackson, however, began vetoing bills which he simply didn't like - a practice that continues to this day. He also created a patronage system, whereby he rewarded political supporters with government jobs. After Jackson left the office, the presidency slowly declined in stature and power until the US Civil War, when Abraham Lincoln was (out of necessity) a very strong wartime President.
However, following Lincoln's assassination, Andrew Johnson became President. He was so unpopular that the House of Representatives impeached him, and the Senate was one vote away from removing him from office. Following the Civil War and the period known as 'Reconstruction', the Congress became the most pre-eminent branch, and the presidency was populated by fairly weak Executives. This is the golden era of the so-called 'no-name Presidents' - including such forgettable historical figures as presidents Rutherford B Hayes, Chester A Arthur, Benjamin Harrison, Grover Cleveland and William McKinley.
This changed when President McKinley was shot and killed in 1901; a larger-than-life man known as Theodore Roosevelt became President. By temperament, he was not suited to be a 'no-name President', and used what he called his 'bully pulpit' to enact many important laws. Roosevelt was followed by the forgettable William Howard Taft, and then Woodrow Wilson, who was a fairly active and important President (as all wartime presidents seem to be). A succession of three Republican presidents followed (Harding, Coolidge then Hoover) who were ideologically opposed to a vigorous presidency (or a vigorous government for that matter).
However, after the Great Depression began in 1929, the era of the modern presidency was launched with the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR used his office to do arguably more than anyone else before him, and was elected to an unparalleled four terms. Ever since Roosevelt, the modern presidency has been robust - the strongest of the three branches. President Lyndon Johnson used the strength of the presidency to push his 'Great Society' reforms. President Richard Nixon used the strength of the presidency to do all sorts of illegal things, before he resigned in 1974. All of the presidents in the modern era have been powerful ones, and the stakes just seem to keep getting higher for the voters.
It is a common witticism that anyone crazy enough to want to be President of the United States should not be allowed anywhere near the job. If that's the case, the people of the United States have much to fear from their Senators and Governors.
Can those ambitious politicians be blamed though? The US President is the most visible politician in the country, leads a huge military, sits with kings, other heads of state and Prime Ministers, and has several large and well-equipped aeroplanes (all called Air Force One) at his personal disposal. It's enough to make an intern's knees quake. Yet the Presidency is not a fun job, nor is it an easy one. Despite the fact that so many people seem to want to be President, it is a job that few of its occupants have genuinely enjoyed. John Adams, the second US President, once observed: No man who ever held the office of would congratulate a friend on obtaining it. Nevertheless, the basic question of 'Who would want to be President?' is easily solved. Just about every person of elective office (from dogcatcher to Governor) in America has at least entertained the notion.
Having no shortage of seekers for the position, the next question becomes 'How does one become President?'. There are many ways to prepare to become President - for instance, it certainly seems to help if you are a lawyer or come from the state of Ohio. But the process is much more complicated than that. For the purposes of explanation, suppose an ambitious man named Adams4 wants to be President in the next election. Adams has dreamed of this since he was a child - perhaps because he wants to improve the living conditions of his neighbours, or maybe he wants to arouse the jealousy of a past schoolmate who beat him out for a position on the school basketball team. Motives are, sadly, irrelevant.
Adams would be well advised to serve in the military, and then go into a career of public service. Once he has done that, he then needs to be 'mentioned' as a possible presidential candidate. This is an elusive process. Political commentator David Broder once suggested that there is a Great Mentioner who determines who is 'mentioned' as President-material. After a sacrifice at the altar of the Great Mentioner or whatever, the next step for Adams is to secure the nomination of his political party. If he wants to have any chance at all of being elected, he should be either a Democrat or a Republican.
The process of securing the nomination involves winning party election contests around the country. Poor Adams will have to spend quite a bit of time in the states of Iowa and New Hampshire, which traditionally hold the first elections to determine the nominees of the two major parties. This is unfortunate for Adams because, aside from their quadrennial enthusiasm for presidential politics, Iowa and New Hampshire are really quite dull. However, winning early contests helps to ensure momentum, which translates into more poll victories across the country, until eventually Adams has enough delegates to his party's national convention to be the party's nominee. The party convention is then held, which is a carefully-orchestrated event occurring every four years. It is generally held in big cities like Chicago, New York City, Los Angeles, or (if the party chairman needs a tan) - Miami. Adams will name a running mate, who would serve as Vice President upon election. They will both give speeches accepting the party's nomination to much applause and waving of placards.
After the Convention Adams will fly around quite a bit, from state to state. He has to win over the voters in certain critical states who could give their Electoral Votes to the candidate of either party. These states are known as 'Swing States'. For each stop, Adams will deliver one 20-minute 'stump speech'. He will repeat it so often that he will eventually know the words to it better than the latest hit pop song those kids are listening to. He will pose for photos, shake hands and ask people for money. If Adams does this well enough (and if the weather is favorable) he will win the majority of the Electoral Votes on the first Tuesday following the first Monday in the 11th month of a year divisible by four and he will be elected President. It is in such ways that power is determined in the United States.
Once President, there are two things that must be immediately considered. First, a cabinet composed of leaders for the various governmental departments and agencies must be formed. Each President has a different process of deciding who should serve in his Cabinet. Some choose Cabinet members based on patronage, while others choose based on qualification. It is entirely up to the President in question.
The next thing to consider is that an Inaugural Address must be given. In this, as in all things, brevity is key. George Washington may have done it best when he limited his second Inaugural to 135 words. William Henry Harrison spoke for so long that he became ill and died before he got to do any of the things he was talking about. The Inaugural Address is expected to present the agenda of the President's administration and set the tone for the next four years.
However, the Inaugural Address is just one of several speeches a President must give. In fact, the President is constitutionally required to occasionally inform the Congress of the 'State of the Union'. In modern times, this has taken the form of an annual speech. As this is the only time that most Presidents deign to present themselves before the Legislative Branch, it is nationally televised and made into a rather big deal. The most important line of the speech is the one that begins: 'The State of our Union is...'. Popular endings to the sentence include 'strong', 'good', 'confident and strong' and 'strong and getting stronger'. Optimism is preferred. President Gerald Ford actually reported that the State of the Union was 'not good' in 1975, then 'not good enough' in 1976. He did not have a chance to report on the State of the Union in 1977, because he was promptly ousted from the office by the voters.
The day to day work of the President is challenging and arduous. Dozens of meetings are held each day in the President's Oval Office in the White House (the official residence of the President in Washington, DC). A single day may require decisions regarding national security, a tornado in Oklahoma, banana imports from Latin America and a highway bill. It's a big country. The President is forced to become familiar with every part of the Federal government and foreign affairs, which takes a fair bit of work. Between tending to emergencies and making frequent public appearances in the course of a day, there's a very good chance that on any given day nothing significant will be accomplished. This is a source of great frustration for presidents. If he wants to get anything accomplished, a President must spend an inordinate amount of time convincing members of Congress and the general public to do as he wishes, while at the same time keeping everyone in the Executive Branch from undercutting him.
Perhaps the worst part is that because of the sensationally long campaign season, the President really only has 18 to 36 months of his four-year term to actually govern. The rest of the time he has to be out on the campaign trail, either supporting members of his party for election to Congress, or attempting to win re-election himself. It never ends.