One of the primary challenges of studying abroad is understanding the cultural norms of your host country. These may involve culture, history, food, or even common sayings and phrases. There are things that natives take for granted, but may be confusing and bizarre from the outside. This knowledge is rarely taught past a certain point, leaving international students behind in some ways. This series aims to help students understand things that many Americans take for granted.

The President of the United States, whether he is Barack Obama, George W. Bush, or one of our other leaders from the past, is one of the most well known people in the world. Thanks to a combination of media saturation and America’s outsized role in the world, the President is a figure who is recognized immediately, and his picture is captioned in newspapers only as a matter of formality.

President Barack Obama

This caption, identifying President Barack Obama, isn’t really necessary.
Image from

But because of that, the idea of the Presidency many times overshadows the rest of the U.S. government, both in coverage abroad and within the United States. Even people whose job it is to know better sometimes assume that if the President wants something enough, he or she can get it.  But that certainly isn’t the case. While most people are aware that there are two major political parties in America, and they often are at odds, it is less well known how the governmental system actually works. The United States government has three main sections,  “branches”, all rigged with a system of checks and balances and allocated certain powers. To understand how the U.S. government works- or why it sometimes doesn’t- it is important to understand how the system is set up.

The Executive Branch

After the Revolutionary War, the Founding Fathers (men who wrote the Constitution and created the government) were torn as to what the role of the leader of the new country should be. Some wanted a strong leader with unchecked powers, but most believed that such a leader would be akin to a king, and that all the years of bloodshed would be rendered pointless. So they decided that the President would not be the single head of the entire country, but merely of the Executive Branch of the government, with co-equal branches acting as a check on his power.  This has changed over the years, something we’ll touch on at the end of the article. .  

The Executive Branch (the President) is tasked with signing laws into effect and then carrying out the law. It has control over the ports, roads, airspace, commerce, and, for the most part, trade- and, of course, national defense. The President stands at the head of it, and oversees a vast national bureaucracy. To simplify things to their essence, the job of the President is to decide the national priorities and see that they are executed within the law. But the President can’t simply snap his fingers and make something happen. He has to deal with Congress and the Courts.

Congress- The Legislative Branch

The role that Congress plays is not always understood, even among many Americans. Again, because of the larger-than-life role that the President often plays in daily life, many people wonder why he can’t just override Congress and do whatever he pleases. That’s due to the Constitutional system of “checks and balances”, wherein Congress in theory has equal, if different powers, than the President, and can use them as they see fit.

Congress is made up of two houses- the House of Representatives and the Senate. The Senate is made up of 100 members, two from each state, directly elected by the state’s citizens. This is supposed to be the more deliberative body, more above daily politics, with members holding a longer term (6 years) than the House. The Senate was part of the Founders’ vision- a huge check on whatever emotional current was carrying the day.

In the House of Representatives, there are 435 elected representatives, and they all are elected by a much smaller group of voters within small districts from each state, and are more directly responsive to the voters. This is both good and bad: bad because it can allow for more extreme voices to flourish, but good because it is much closer to the foundation (the people), and more able to channel the direct ideas of citizens.

Congress debates and writes the laws. The President can suggest them, and these days it is easier for a President to influence Congress, but ultimately the power to make a law belongs to Congress. They also control the budget, which can be used to help or to oppose the Executive Branch if there are differences between the two. If the President wants a specific budget for certain programs, and Congress doesn’t give it to him, he can’t do anything about it other than to try to persuade them to do what he’d prefer. That is probably the biggest check on the President. So what can the President do? Well, that’s where the courts come in.

The Judicial Branch

The President can appoint federal judges as well as justices to the ultimate authority, the Supreme Court. They decide whether or not laws abide by the Constitution. So the President can propose a law, Congress can debate and pass it, but if the Courts say it is illegal, it cannot become law. While it is impossible to predict how any judge will rule on any law, appointing judges, with their lifetime terms, is probably one of the most important powers a President has. A later article will get more in-depth on the role of courts in American life.

The Expanded President

The description above- that of a manager- doesn’t really mesh with most people’s ideas of the U.S. President. In the last 100 years, the role of the Presidency has grown, to the point where most people automatically associate the U.S. government strictly with the President. And while that is true in many ways- he does dominate every political conversation- he can’t break free from the checks and balances of the Constitution and the other two branches of the federal government, keeping him from building unchallenged powers. So, although the role has changed and grown, all branches work to keep the fear of the Founders- that of a rampaging king- from becoming reality.



The international student experience is both challenging and exciting. Whether you are a student considering studying in America, their parent, the host family, the Head of School, an international coordinator, or even a potential classmate, there are as many opportunities for confusion as there are to learn. The ISPA is here to help bridge that gap, to ensure that this opportunity and adventure is met with the highest level of success.