Chief Executive

As chief executive, the president has the authority to enforce the laws of the country. He derives these powers from the phrase “he shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed” in section 3 of Article II in the Constitution. The president has at his disposal the entire executive branch (almost 3 million workers) to help carry out the laws of the land.

The president's chief executive powers include administering the law, covered in Chapter 13; taking care of finances, covered in Chapter 15; and enforcing the law, covered in Chapter 13. Additionally, the president has the power of appointments and pardons.

Making Appointments

While the president exercises the power to make judicial and executive branch appointments, the Senate must approve his nominees. This process has grown increasingly contentious over the past few decades, particularly in the case of cabinet and Supreme Court appointments.

Out of the 3 million federal jobs, most are held by civil servants who are hired, but approximately 6,000 are appointed by the executive branch. These appointments include cabinet and subcabinet members, ambassadors, members of the Senior Executive Service, and special aides in “Schedule C” positions. Approximately one-fifth of the president's appointments are for State Department positions, even though that department is one of the smaller bureaucracies.

While a majority of the executive branch appointments are made on the basis of merit, some are given to reward party loyalists, and others are made for purely political reasons. Most presidents treat ambassadorships as nothing more than thank-you appointments to prominent campaign and party donors. In the Reagan White House, a $100,000 party contribution was usually good for an overseas post.

For cabinet and other high-profile appointments, the president usually takes into consideration those nominees who will shore up their support with certain interest groups. President Clinton won praise from supporters for appointing a record number of women and minorities to his cabinet, in keeping with a campaign promise to make his cabinet “look more like America.” President George W. Bush appointed Mel Martinez, a Cuban refugee and former chairman of Orange County, Florida, to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development. In part, he made this appointment to solidify his standing among Hispanics and Floridians — two key interest groups in his bid for re-election.

Appointments have been the source of much presidential angst. As Thomas Jefferson was fond of saying, “Every time I make an appointment, I create nine enemies and one ingrate,” a lament often repeated by many presidents. Dwight Eisenhower once remarked that his single worst decision as president was appointing William Brennan to the Supreme Court.

Granting Pardons

The Constitution gives the president the power to “grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.” The ability to grant pardons and reprieves is one of the few constitutional powers of the presidency that does not require any assent from the Congress. In 1925, the Congress tried to restrict the president's pardon authority, but the Supreme Court rejected it as unconstitutional.

A reprieve is an action whereby the president can reduce the severity or length of a felon's sentence, but it does not erase the conviction. A pardon, on the other hand, wipes out both the guilt and sentence, and completely restores all civil rights to the offender (such as the right to vote and hold a passport). Pardons are much broader than reprieves, and are more commonly used.

Pardons and reprieves are most commonly granted as a corrective action — to reverse a wrongful or politically motivated conviction. Sometimes, pardons and reprieves are used to grant political amnesty to particular groups of Americans. George Washington was the first to do this, pardoning the participants of the Whiskey Rebellion shortly after using military force to arrest them. Following the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson pardoned numerous Confederate soldiers and political leaders, and President Carter pardoned draftees who refused to join the military in protest of the Vietnam War.

Perhaps the most famous act of clemency was Gerald Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon following Nixon's resignation from office in 1974. Trying to put the Watergate scandal behind the nation, Ford granted his predecessor a full and unconditional pardon, which removed the possibility of Nixon being prosecuted in a criminal court for his involvement in any Watergate crimes. Ford was roundly criticized for the decision (many believed that Nixon should be held responsible for any crimes), and it most likely contributed to his loss to Jimmy Carter in 1976.

President Clinton created a firestorm of controversy that resulted in a Congressional investigation when he pardoned 140 individuals on his last day in office. Included in that group was billionaire financier Marc Rich, an American fugitive living in Europe, and several individuals who had close ties to “first brother” Roger Clinton and to Hugh Rodham, the president's brother-in-law.

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