The federal government of the United States of America is divided into three branches as part of the checks and balances system. Checks and balances means that power is split among the rulers, so that no one individual or group could get too powerful. The branches are executive, legislative, and judicial. The executive branch includes the President of the United States, the Vice President, and the Cabinet, as well as about five million people in various agencies.
The President is the head of state in the nation. According to the Constitution, the President's main duty is to 'take care that the laws be faithfully executed' and 'preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution.' The President has several powers unique to his office.
First, he can either sign or veto laws passed by Congress. To uphold checks and balances, however, a Presidential veto may be overturned with a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate. The President can nominate Supreme Court judges for approval by the Senate. The President is also the Commander-in-Chief of the military, but what this means varies with each president.
George Washington, the first President of the U.S., for example, was the only incumbent American president to lead troops in battle, as he raised 12,000 militia in 1794 to put down the Whiskey Rebellion. In 1947, the Department of Defense was established, as well as the office of Secretary of Defense, who is second only to the President in military affairs.
The Vice-President has more limited powers, despite being the second highest-ranking official in the federal government. He can vote in the Senate, but only to break ties. He also presides over the counting of certain votes. His chief role is to assume the Presidency in case something happens to the President, such as in the case of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, or the resignation of Richard Nixon.
The Cabinet, including the Secretary of Defense, is selected by the President, with the consent of the Senate. These Cabinet members are among the highest-ranking officials in the government, and change with each president. Their powers are focused on specific areas... the Secretary of Defense is in charge of military matters, and the Secretary of Education presides over federal teaching standards and mechanisms.
Several controversial issues surround the executive branch. Contrary to popular belief, the President cannot declare a war. Only Congress has that power. However, a president can deploy troops to battle without a formal declaration of war, such as was the case in the Vietnam War, which was technically not a war as Congress never declared.
A presidential power which has always been controversial is the executive order. This allows the president to make an order to a federal agency which affects policy. Nearly every president has issued his share of these, with the highest number (3,522) issued by Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR).
Some can be very positive, such as Dwight D. Eisenhower's desegregation of public schools, but some can be very negative, such as the placement of Japanese Americans in internment camps by FDR in World War II. However, even these executive orders are under the oversight of Congress. The checks-and balances system makes sure the executive branch doesn't overstep its bounds.