A Fashionista's Guide to Politics: The Executive Branch of the United States Federal Government - By Tamara Cincik and Rafaella de Freitas

A Fashionista's Guide to Politics: The Executive Branch of the United States Federal Government - By Tamara Cincik and Rafaella de Freitas

The US President is the news we wake up to most days and the Tweets we read on the way to work. Donald Trump’s use of social media and choice of team and family members to lead his Republican Presidency have been as unusual as the US choosing a multiple bankrupt TV star facing multiple sexual abuse allegations, with no political experience, to enter the White House.

What are the President’s powers and why does who control the vote in the Senate matter? Why does who he chooses for the Supreme Court and what does this mean to important legislature such as Roe Versus Wade, US Trade Deals or global relationships? 

The United States Government is a division of powers: the executive, legislative and judicial branches are independent. The Executive Branch is responsible for the enforcement and administration of laws and consists of the President, Vice-President, Cabinet and several other organizations grouped into the Executive Office of the President. Despite the independence of the government branched they work together to maintain the functioning of the nation, especially in law making.  An example is President Trump’s signing of a law to increase transparency in drug pricing, by freeing pharmacists to tell consumers when they could actually save money by paying the full cash price for prescription drugs rather than using health insurance with large co-payments, deductibles and other out-of-pocket costs.


The executive branch conducts diplomacy with other nations and is responsible for the signing of international treaties and agreements, although these must also be ratified by two-thirds of the Senate.

An example of a recently signed trade deal is the US-Canada deal, which eliminated a controversial pricing system and gives American dairy farmers more access to the Canadian market. The EU’s sanction, imposing a 25% tariffs on American denim, is also a matter that requires collaboration and dialogue between the branches.

The President

The President assumes the role of Head of State and Head of Government of the United States of America, Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, and is responsible for the execution and enforcement of the laws created by Congress – a responsibility granted by the Article II of the Constitution.

The Constitution lists only three qualifications for the Presidency — the President must be 35 years of age, be a natural born citizen, and must have lived in the United States for at least 14 years. The President is elected for a four-year terms, and in 1951 the Constitution was amended to limit an individual’s presidency to two four-year terms. When Trump used the “birther’ conspiracy theory against Barack Obama, he was saying this because legally only a US born national can run for President, despite Obama showing his birth certificate publicly in 2008 which is why Arnold Schwarzenegger could be a US Governor but could never run for President.  

The President is also in charge of appointing the heads of the Executive Departments, of independent federal commissions such as the Federal Reserve Board or the Securities and Exchange Commission, as well as federal judges, ambassadors, and other federal offices. The recent case of Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court is an example of the President’s appointment responsibilities. The incident also demonstrates the extent of the power of the President, whose nominee was approved despite massive public rejection.

In law making, the President has the power to veto or to sign bills enacted by Congress (which will be better explained on the next series), but a veto can be undermined with a two-thirds majority of the Senate.

The President can also issue executive orders, which direct executive officers or clarify and further existing laws. The President also has unlimited power to extend pardons and clemencies for federal crimes, except in cases of impeachment.

President and the Congress:  a constitutional requirement to “from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” Although the President may fulfil this requirement in any way he or she chooses, Presidents have traditionally given a State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress each January (except in inaugural years) outlining their agenda for the coming year.

The Vice-President

The primary role of the Vice-President is to assume control in case the President becomes unfit to perform his duties. Overall, the function of the Vice President is flexible and dependent upon the needs of the President. The current Vice President is Mike Pence, who followed Obama’s Joe Biden. Pence has a background in law and appeals to his religion in his political career. Contrary to Obama and Biden’s friendly relationship, Pence’s relationship with his President can be characterised as tense.

The Vice President also serves as the President of the United State’s Senate, with a decisive vote in case of a tie. However, the Vice President typically only presides above the Senate if there is a tie in votes, and their decisive vote is needed. Normally, the Senate selects one of their junior members of the majority party to preside. Furthermore, according to the Twelfth Amendment, the vice president presides over the joint session of Congress when it convenes to count the vote of the Electoral College.

The Vice President is elected together with the President for a four-year term.


The Election process occurs via the system of the Electoral College, in which the President and Vice President are indirectly elected by the people in a two-step election. The Electoral College is made of 538 electors – two senators and a number of representatives that are proportional to the population of each state. Each party (and candidate) has one slate of electors in each state. The aim of the system is to prevent a tyranny of the majority and to encourage campaigning in each state, so that a president does not only focus on strategic locations, making sure all citizens are truly considered equal in their vote. 

Although presidential elections occur every four years, the US holds elections every two years. These are know as the Midterms, and are important to maintaining party influence: all 435 members of the US House of Representatives are elected every two years, and 1/3 of the 100-member US-Senate is also up for election, as Senators serve six-year terms. Most US states also elect governors during these elections.  Usually the party in office looses seats in Congress, and it is possible for there to be a change in the party that controls the legislature. This is important, as it determines the President’s abilities to pursue and agenda during the second half of their term. 

In February of an election year, each party nominates their Presidential Candidate during the Party’s National Conventions: the delegates for each state cast a vote on their representative in the General Elections, and the decision is made with a simple majority.  The selection of a member reveals the intra-party factions, and the elected candidate usually selects a Vice President to address divisions within parties.  

Once each Party has nominated a representative, the Presidential Election occurs in two steps: the popular elections and the Electoral College vote

Phase 1: Popular Elections

This is know as ‘election day’ – a day in which 51 popular elections are held, one in each state, and one in Washington D.C. Citizens vote for a slate of presidential electors correspondent to each candidate. Elections happen on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November.

Phase 2: Presidential Election

The Presidential Election, held every election year in December, is what officially determines the identity of the next president. All 538 electors gather in Washington D.C. and vote on one of the both candidates. A candidate needs at least 270 votes to win.

The Cabinet

The Cabinet is an advisory body made up of the heads of the 15 executive departments, which are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. The members of the Cabinet act as the President’s closest advisors, and also pay an important role in the succession of the President.  Cabinet member are also able to approve or ban regulations – for example, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke approved a 20-year ban on new mining claims in an area of the Yellowstone Park in the beginning of the week.

After the Vice President, Speaker of the House, and Senate President pro tempore, the line of succession continues with the Cabinet offices in the order in which the departments were created. The first men in Trump’s line of succession in the Cabinet is Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Denfence Secretary Gen. James Mattis and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Executive Departments

Each led by an appointed member of the President’s Cabinet; the Executive Departments ensure the day-to-day administration of the federal government. There are 15 Executive Departments:  

  • Agriculture

  • Commerce,

  • Defence, Education,

  • Energy,

  • Health and Human Services,

  • Homeland Security,

  • Housing and Urban Development,

  • Interior,

  • Labour,

  • State, 

  • Transportation,

  • Treasury, and

  • Veterans Affairs, and

  • Attorney General.

Each is tasked with enforcing laws specific to their sector, an overseeing that all actors that are involved in each sector is abiding by laws. 

Executive Office of the President

The Executive Office of the President was created in 1939 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to support the President in efficiently governing the country, and assuming specialized functions. The EOP consists of the staffs that immediately serve the President, along with entities such as the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of the United States Trade Representative. Different to the Executive Departments, the EOP focuses on activities that happen within the White House and Administration, rather than with running the country

While Senate confirmation is required for some advisers, such as the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, most are appointed with full Presidential discretion. 

The Executive Office is overseen by the White House Chief of Staff, and consists of the:

  • Office of the Chief of Staff

  • Office of the National Security Advisor

  • Domestic Policy Council

  • National Economic Council

  • Office of American Innovation

  • Office of Cabinet Affairs

  • Office of Communications

  • Office of Information Technology

  • Office of Digital Strategy

  • Office of the First Lady

  • Office of Intergovernmental Affairs

  • Office of Legislative Affairs

  • Office of Management and Administration

  • Office of Political Affairs

  • Office of Presidential Personnel

  • Office of Public Liaison

  • Office of Scheduling and Advance

  • Office of the Staff Secretary

  • Oval Office Operations

  • White House Counsel

  • White House Presidential Personnel Office

As suggested by their names, each Office has a highly specialized role in governmental operations, and guarantees that the President can give their attention to the most important issues that are going on with the country, without having to worry about day-to-day operations.

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