The Executive Branch of US Government

The President Heads Up the Executive Branch

President Obama meeting with his Cabinet Secretaries in the White House
President Obama Holds A Cabinet Meeting At White House. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Imges

The President of the United States is in charge of the executive branch of the United States federal government. The executive branch is empowered by the U.S. Constitution to oversee the implementation and enforcement of all laws passed by the legislative branch in the form of Congress.

Fast Facts: The Executive Branch

  • The executive branch of the United States federal government is established in Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution.
  • The President of the United States is the head of the executive branch.
  • The executive branch oversees the implementation and enforcement of all laws passed by the U.S. Congress—the legislative branch.
  • The President of the United States approves and carries the laws passed by the Congress, negotiates treaties, acts as the head of state and commander in chief of the armed forces, and appoints or removes other top government officials.
  • The executive branch also includes the Vice President of the United States and the members of the president’s cabinet.
  • The president’s cabinet is made up of the heads of the 15 major government departments who advise the president on important matters and assist in the preparation of the annual federal budget. 

As one of the foundational elements of a strong central government as envisioned by America’s Founding Fathers, the executive branch dates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Hoping to protect the liberties of individual citizens by preventing the government from abusing its power, the Framers crafted the first three articles of the Constitution to establish three separate branches of government: the legislative, the executive and the judicial.

The Role of the President

Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution states: “The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America.” 

As the head of the executive branch, the President of the United States functions as the head of state representing U.S. foreign policy and as the Commander-in-Chief of all branches of the U.S. armed forces. The president appoints the heads of the federal agencies, including the Secretaries of the Cabinet agencies, as well as the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. As part of the system of checks and balances, the president’s nominees for these positions require the approval of the Senate. The president also appoints, without the approval of the Senate, more than 300 people to high-level positions within the federal government.

The president has the power to either sign (approve) or veto (reject) bills enacted by Congress, although Congress may override the president’s veto with a two-thirds vote of both houses. The executive branch conducts diplomacy with other nations, with which the president has the power to negotiate and sign treaties. The president also has the sometimes-controversial power to issue executive orders, which direct the executive branch agencies in interpreting and enforcing existing laws. The president also has nearly unlimited power to extend pardons and clemencies for federal crimes, except in cases of impeachment.

The president is elected every four years and chooses his vice president as a running mate. The president is the commander-in-chief of the U.S. Armed Forces and is essentially the leader of the country. As such, he must deliver a State of the Union address to Congress once each year; may recommend legislation to Congress; may convene Congress; has the power to appoint ambassadors to other nations; can appoint Supreme Court justices and other federal judges; and is expected, with his Cabinet and its agencies, to carry out and enforce the laws of the United States. The president may serve no more than two four year terms. The Twenty-second Amendment prohibits any person from being elected president more than twice.

The Role of the Vice President

The vice president, who also is a member of the Cabinet, serves as president in the event that the president is unable to do so for any reason or if the president steps down. The vice president also presides over the U.S. Senate and can cast a deciding vote in the event of a tie. Unlike the president, the vice president can serve an unlimited number of four-year terms, even under different presidents.

The Roles of the Cabinet Agencies

The members of the President’s Cabinet serve as advisors to the president. The cabinet members include the Vice President and the heads of 15 executive branch departments. With the exception of the vice president, cabinet members are nominated by the President and must be approved by the Senate. The President’s Cabinet departments are: 

  • The Department of Agriculture, among other functions, ensures that the food Americans consume is safe and regulates the nation's vast farming infrastructure.
  • The Department of Commerce helps regulate trade, banking and the economy; among its agencies are the Census Bureau and the Patent and Trademark Office.
  • The Department of Defense, which includes the U.S. Armed Forces, protects the nation's security and is headquartered at the Pentagon.
  • The Department of Education is responsible for ensuring equal access to a quality education for all.
  • The Department of Energy keeps the U.S. plugged in, regulating utilities, ensuring the security of power supplies and promoting new technology to conserve energy resources.
  • Health and Human Services help keep Americans healthy; its agencies include the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control, National Institutes of Health and the Administration on Aging.
  • The Department of Homeland Security, established in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, is charged with preventing terrorist attacks in the U.S. and helping to fight the war on terror and includes the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
  • Housing and Urban Development promotes affordable home-ownership and ensures that no one is discriminated against in the pursuit of that goal.
  • Interior is dedicated to protecting and nurturing natural resources, national parks, and wildlife. Among its agencies are the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
  • Justice, led by the Attorney General, enforces the nation's laws and includes, among other agencies, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
  • The Department of Labor enforces labor laws and keeps workers' safety and rights protected.
  • State is charged with diplomacy; its representatives reflect the United States as part of the world community.
  • The Department of Transportation established the Interstate Highway System and keeps the U.S. transportation infrastructure safe and functioning.
  • Treasury ensures the country's financial and economic stability, manages federal finances and collects taxes.
  • Veterans Affairs provides medical care for wounded or ill veterans and administers veterans' benefits.
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Trethan, Phaedra. "The Executive Branch of US Government." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Trethan, Phaedra. (2023, April 5). The Executive Branch of US Government. Retrieved from Trethan, Phaedra. "The Executive Branch of US Government." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).