What Is It?
They don’t call the American president the “leader of the free world” for nothing. The U.S. has the largest economy in the world and we live here with 330 million of our closest friends. The decisions our president makes are heard ‘round the globe.
What exactly is the job description? The president:
- is our head of state, meaning he’s our main public representative to the rest of the world.
- is Commander in Chief of the armed forces.
- implements and enforces laws created by Congress. That means appointing people to run federal departments and agencies, like the State Department, Department of Energy, CIA and Environmental Protection Agency — not to mention a bunch of commissions and boards.
- appoints federal judges and ambassadors, and nominates Supreme Court Justices.
- signs and vetoes bills.
- acts as our chief diplomat with the power to negotiate and sign treaties.
- issues executive orders (in fact, some experts say presidents — of both parties — rely a little too much on executive orders these days).
- has the power to grant pardons for federal crimes.
You may know that the federal government has three branches:
- Executive branch: the president, vice president, and the president’s cabinet (if you count the military, the executive branch has over 4 million employees)
- Legislative branch: Congress (a.k.a. the Senate and the House of Representatives)
- Judicial branch: the Supreme Court and other federal courts
We call these branches “co-equal,” which means that none of them has more power than the others. So while the president has a lot of power, there are two other branches of government whose job it is to balance out that power. For example, the president nominates Supreme Court Justices but it’s not a done deal until the Senate confirms them. The President can veto a bill, but Congress can override that veto if two-thirds of both the House and the Senate want to. And the Supreme Court has the authority to review all laws.
Why It Matters to You
The president’s actions in Washington, D.C. might feel far away, but they affect your life even when it’s not obvious how. Here’s just a handful of examples of why the president’s actions matter to you:
The president can send military troops around the world, or bring them home. President Obama sent troops into Syria, for example, to push back the terrorist group ISIS. President Trump committed to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by May of 2021, leaving President Biden to decide whether or not to actually do it.
Presidents can negotiate trade deals with other countries. Maybe you think these agreements will help the U.S. import cheaper materials for construction. Or maybe you think they hurt American workers.
Nearly 200 countries signed the Paris Agreement, which commits to slowing global warming. Recent American presidents have disagreed on whether the U.S. should sign the agreement (currently, our name is on it).
In March 2021, President Biden proposed spending $2 trillion on repairing and upgrading American infrastructure. That would include fixing 20,000 miles of roads and 10,000 bridges.
The president could decide whether to allow migrant children to enter the U.S. at the southern border, and what kinds of resources to manage the number of immigrants seeking asylum.
The President appoints federal judges across the country, and they can strike down laws they believe are unconstitutional. For example, in 2020, a federal court struck down a California law that outlawed high-capacity magazines.
How to Make an Impact
While it shouldn’t be difficult to get a face-to-face meeting with your city council member, you probably won’t have the opportunity to chat over coffee in the Oval Office. That doesn’t mean you can’t influence the president, but it does mean you need to understand where your voice can have power. Here are some ideas.
If You Don’t Ask, They Can’t Say Yes
Is the president going to shuffle around his priorities every time you make a request of the White House? Ok, probably not. Still, you should absolutely make your voice heard by calling, writing, and organizing. Someone is going to read your letter or take your phone call, and they may send it to an agency or someone else that can help.
Pass It On
Congress and the president are constantly negotiating, and they can’t get much done without each other. Tell your legislators in Washington how you want them to push and pull the president, whether it’s supporting a particular solution, spending more or less money on something, sending troops to a conflict or pulling them out of it.
Be Heard at the Hearings
The president appoints the heads of all kinds of the departments and agencies that keep the federal government humming. The Senate is responsible for approving many of them, and they hold hearings where they ask those nominees all kinds of questions about their experience and views. Maybe the president has nominated a new head of the Department of Health and Human Services who’s being vague about their stance on abortion. Or maybe you want to see a Secretary of Veterans Affairs with a clear plan to provide better health care to people who have served. You know what to do: tell your senators what questions you want them to ask at the confirmation hearings and ask them to approve or reject the president’s nominees.
Support the Pros
There’s an advocacy organization for pretty much everything, and many are run by full-time professionals who think all day about how to influence elected officials, including the president. You can support their — often complex — work by donating money, volunteering, making calls, and writing letters.
Boots on the Ground
Running a successful presidential campaign takes the work of thousands of people. Get directly involved by supporting or opposing a presidential campaign, in both the primary and general elections. There’s more to it than posting on social media — those doors aren’t going to knock on themselves!
Duh. You’d think so, anyway. Even though the 2020 presidential election had record voter turnout, one-third of eligible voters still didn’t cast ballots. Stop reading this right now and go make sure you’re registered to vote! When you get back from doing that, learn how to make the most of your ballot.
On the Ground
People like you are having an impact across the country every day. When change happens at the national level, a lot of people are involved — not just the president. But ordinary citizens can have a real voice on the national stage. Here’s how to use yours.
When firefighters, police officers, construction workers, and local residents and students began to get sick after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, their doctors knew it was no coincidence. Many people who were near the site during and after the attacks still have health problems today. For years, they went to Washington, D.C. pleading for funding, which they finally got 10 years later. Since then, they have continued to advocate for more.
In 2016, President Obama signed the 21st Century Cures Act, which sped up prescription drug approval, increased funding for the National Institutes of Health, and approved money to fight opioid addiction, among other things. Some powerful interests lobbied for the bill, but some of those powerful interests were bolstered by everyday Americans volunteering with organizations like the American Cancer Society and Shatterproof, a mental health advocacy group.
Evangelical Christians were a big part of winning the 2000 election for George W. Bush. One of the president’s first actions in office was creating the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, a nod to his supporters. Four years later, Evangelical voters went even harder for Bush — handing him 78% of their votes.
In 2020, some people thought Amy Coney Barrett was a terrible choice for the Supreme Court. Others thought she was great. Both groups took to the streets of Washington, D.C. to support and oppose her nomination, and stuck around for days while the Senate held hearings to decide whether or not to approve Barrett.