What is the job of the U.S. president?

Find out how the Founding Fathers came up with the position and how the president works with other areas of the U.S. government.

The authors of the U.S. Constitution only sketched a loose outline of the presidency when they defined the federal government in 1787. They expected the first presidents to work out the details of the job with Congress and the Supreme Court. As a result, the first officeholders helped shape the way presidents make decisions, fight wars, work with Congress, add territory to the country, and even entertain.

The presidency became a position that could be revised and improved as needed by future presidents. Since he had no rules to follow, the first president, George Washington, realized that all of his decisions would define what it means to be the president. Ever since, different presidents have shaped the presidency in their own way—some say the job description is still changing even today.

Getting elected

Anybody who’s a natural-born citizen, over 35 years old, and a U.S. resident for at least 14 years can become president. When people go to the polls, they aren’t actually voting for president—they’re voting for people who are pledged to vote for a specific candidate. Here’s how the process works on Election Day.

In many countries, national elections are somewhat simple: The candidate with the most votes wins. But citizens of the United States participate in a more complex, two-step process. After individual citizens across the country have participated in the popular vote, it's up to a group called the electoral college to consider those votes and choose the president. Based on population, each state has a certain number of delegates, or voters, in the electoral college who vote for the president according to how people in their state voted. The candidate who wins the popular vote in the state gets all the state’s delegates, and the candidate who reaches 270 electoral votes wins the White House.

Sometimes, more people across the United States vote for one candidate. But the other candidate wins the popular vote in states with a lot of delegates, winning the 270 electoral votes. That’s why it’s possible for a candidate to not win as many votes across the country but still win the presidency. This has happened five times!

From the Nat Geo Kids books Our Country's Presidents by Ann Bausum and Weird But True Know-It-All: U.S. Presidents by Brianna Dumont, revised for digital by Laura Goertzel