Mark L. Hopkins: Presidential power in our democracy

Mark L. Hopkins More Content Now

Every four years time seems to stop while we sift through a legion of candidates who might fit our vision for what a president of the United States of America should be. Considering the expectations we have for the holder of the highest office in the land, it would be swell if he/she could walk on water and leap tall buildings with a single bound.

We have to remember that a U.S. president is not a king or a dictator. He/she may favor restricting certain religions from entering the country, repealing the Affordable Care Act, building an impassable fence on our southern border or even giving free tuition to college students. What a presidential candidate says he/she will do when elected will have little meaning unless Congress can be persuaded to support that new policy. Presidents simply don’t have the power to do whatever they want.

Our forefathers did not envision an all powerful presidency. When they were framing our constitution they looked closely at the monarchies of Europe and decided they did not want a king like George of England or Louis XVI of France. Instead, the powers of the government were centered in Congress and they designed a relatively weak presidency, an administrative post to carry out the will of Congress.

The duties of the president are presented in Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution.

The president shall/may:

1. Serve as commander in chief of all U.S. armed forces.

2. Grant reprieves and pardons for offences against the United States.

3. Make treaties, with advice and consent of the Senate.

4. Appoint ambassadors and other public ministers and consuls, and judges of the Supreme Court, with advice and consent of the Senate.

5. Fill vacancies that may happen during the recess of the Senate.

6. Require the opinion, in writing, of principal officers of each administrative department upon any subject relating to the duties of their respective offices.

7. Convene special sessions of Congress

8. Take care that federal laws are faithfully executed.

9. Approve or veto legislation. (Vetoes may be overturned by 2/3 vote of Congress.)

Because we have a weak presidency, control of the House and Senate by a political party is all important in setting national policy. The Republicans currently have majorities in both houses of Congress. But, a swing of just four votes would give control of the Senate to the democrats. That is why the leadership of our two political parties are more focused on the key congressional elections this year while the presidential candidates fight it out state-by-state across the country.

Many say that this presidential election is about jobs and the economy. Sorry, but nowhere in the list of presidential duties is there anything that gives the president control of the nation’s economy. The president can’t force business and industry to build more products or hire more of the unemployed. Our Constitution gives the responsibility for money matters and “regulating” commerce to Congress. Former President Jimmy Carter was once asked how much the president could affect the economy. He said, “The president ranks a distant third behind Congress and the Federal Reserve in the ability to affect the economy.”

Presidents are elected administrators who are subject to Congress in almost every duty they perform. When President Harry Truman said, “The buck stops here,” he did not mean he was in charge of everything but, instead, that he expected to get credit or blame for everything that occurred during his tenure.

Why are our expectations so high for a president? It is because above all else we desire leadership. The president is our face to the world. He is Ronald Reagan’s folksy humor, Franklin Roosevelt’s rousing speeches and John Kennedy’s commitment to something bigger than ourselves. Alas, our president may not be able to walk on water, but our expectations, unrealistic as they are, seem to say we expect him to.

— Dr. Mark L. Hopkins writes for More Content Now and Scripps Newspapers. He is past president of colleges and universities in four states and currently serves as executive director of a higher-education consulting service. You will find Hopkins’ latest book, “Journey to Gettysburg,” on Contact him at