The presidential role: an overview of responsibilities and duties

Presidents have more power and responsibility in foreign and defense policy than in domestic affairs.

They are the commanders in chief of the armed forces; they decide how and when to wage war. As America’ chief diplomat, the president has the power to make treaties to be approved by the Senate. And as head of state, the president speaks for the nation to other world leaders and receives ambassadors.

Presidents almost always point to foreign policy as evidence of their term’s success. Domestic policy wonk Bill Clinton metamorphosed into a foreign policy enthusiast from 1993 to 2001. Even prior to 9/11, the notoriously untraveled George W. Bush underwent the same transformation. President Obama has been just as involved, if not more, in foreign policy than his predecessors. Congress—as long as it is consulted—is less inclined to challenge presidential initiatives in foreign policy than in domestic policy. The idea that the president has greater autonomy in foreign than domestic policy is known as the “Two Presidencies Thesis.”

The President and Waging War

The President is the Commander-in-Chief of the United States Armed Forces and as such has broad authority over the armed forces. However, only Congress has authority to declare war and decide the civilian and military budget.

War powers provide a key avenue for presidents to act in foreign policy. After the 9/11 attacks, President Bush’s Office of Legal Counsel argued that as commander in chief President Bush could do what was necessary to protect the American people. Since World War II, presidents have never asked Congress for (or received) a declaration of war. Instead, they relied on open-ended congressional authorizations to use force, United Nations resolutions, North American Treaty Organization (NATO) actions, and orchestrated requests from tiny international organizations like the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States.

Congress can react against undeclared wars by cutting funds for military interventions. Such efforts are time consuming and not in place until long after the initial incursion. Congress’s most concerted effort to restrict presidential war powers, the War Powers Act, passed despite President Nixon’s veto in 1973. It was established to limit presidential war powers, but it gave presidents the right to commit troops for sixty days with only the conditions being to consult with and report to Congress—conditions presidents often feel free to ignore. Since Vietnam, the act has done little to prevent presidents from unilaterally launching invasions.

President Obama did not seek congressional authorization before ordering the US military to join attacks on the Libyan air defenses and government forces in March 2011. After the bombing campaign started, Obama sent Congress a letter contending that as Commander-in-Chief he had constitutional authority for the attacks. White House lawyers used the distinction between “limited military operation” and “war” to justify this.

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