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Civics for Citizens – The Executive Branch

Most days you can’t look at social media, the news, or your favorite current events blog without hearing about what’s going on in the White House, home of the President of the United States. In the second installment of Civics for Citizens, we’re breaking down the Executive Branch and the role of the President within the United States government.

The Executive Branch is expansive in its operations. The President of the United States, or POTUS, commands power by leading the departments within the Executive Branch at large. Among POTUS’s responsibilities as the executive are Commander-in-Chief and Head of State. The President is chosen by members the Electoral College, whose individual votes are informed by the popular vote in their state.

Once elected, POTUS nominates individuals to serve in the Presidential Cabinet. The Cabinet is made up of the Vice President and 14 heads of the departments within the Executive Branch. This includes the Secretaries of State, Defense, Education, and more. Cabinet members are often well-respected experts in their field and guide their respective department to best serve the needs of the United States and the President. While the President nominates members of the Cabinet, each nominee must then attend a confirmation hearing, or formal interview, in front of the Senate where they are questioned about their qualifications for the position. Senators then vote on whether or not to confirm a Cabinet nominee. Similarly, the President nominates federal judges and Supreme Court Justices who must also undergo the formal confirmation process.

An often discussed, and sometimes controversial component of the President’s role is the executive order. An executive order is not a law but rather a directive to the Executive Branch on how members carry out their responsibilities. For example, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 in 1941 during World War II, which integrated the armed forces. While Congress passed no law on integration, President Roosevelt told the United States military that integration was now mandatory. Executive orders can be overturned by a succeeding president and Congress can pass a law explicitly governing on matters covered in an executive order; however, the President has the power to veto legislation passed by Congress with only a simple majority. POTUS also has the power to grant pardons for federal crimes, meaning the President can commute a sentence and forgive an offense against the United States.

Additionally, as the Head of State and Commander-in-Chief, the President of the United States is the primary actor in foreign relations and leader of the United States Armed Forces, respectively. The President meets with other foreign leaders to discuss a variety of topics including military, economic, social, and governmental concerns. While only Congress can declare war, the President can broadly respond to military needs, given Congress is informed, and have input on long-standing military operations.

As you can see, the President and Congress interact in several ways, which will be just one of the topics discussed in the next Civics for Citizens installment on the Legislative Branch. Stay tuned to hear more about the Senate, the House of Representatives, and what elected federal officials do for the people of the United States of America. You can also look back at the previous installment of Civics for Citizens to learn more about Elections.

About the Author

Nicole Costa is one of Andrew Goodman Foundation’s Vote Everywhere Program Managers. She graduated from the College of the Holy Cross where she earned a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science with a Peace and Conflict Studies interdisciplinary concentration. Nicole previously worked in Student Services at Seton Hall University where she advised student leaders on campus community development.