by Geri Zabela Eddins

Not everyone dreams of becoming president, but Bill Clinton did. Before his senior year of high school Clinton was selected to attend Boys Nation, an intensive citizenship and government program organized by the American Legion and held in Washington, D.C. Clinton was enthralled with the experience and particularly relished debating civil rights with other students who had come from around the country. The highlight, however, was meeting President John F. Kennedy. In a ceremony hosted in the White House Rose Garden, Clinton and his peers were able to shake Kennedy’s hand. The once-in-a-lifetime experience sparked a fire in Clinton, and he set out to pursue a political life. Clinton’s path to the presidency led him through law school to the governor’s mansion in Arkansas, where he served two terms as governor before running for president. Though Clinton aspired to the presidency from his teenage years, many of our presidents did not set their sights on the executive office until later in life. President George W. Bush has acknowledged that as a boy his future dreams were focused on baseball, and remarkably, when he was forty-two years old, Bush realized those dreams when he became partial owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team. It was not until Bush was almost fifty years old that he entered politics and became governor of Texas. His success as governor, as well as encouragement from Republican Party leaders, led him to seek the presidency.

Just as our presidents have followed varying dreams and paths to the presidency, they have also come from many different walks of life. Some, like Andrew Jackson, were born in remote log cabins and raised in humble conditions, while others, like Bush, were born into wealthy families with strong political roots and grew up leading lives of privilege. Most presidents have attended college, served in the military, and also served as a congressman or governor, but such backgrounds are not required. Though almost all our presidents thus far have been white men, the U.S. Constitution guarantees that all American men and women—no matter what their race, religion, or background—have the right to run for president.

Job Description
Qualifications and Job Duration
Getting the Job
Compensation, Benefits, and Risks
What Makes a Good President
Read More
Discussion Questions for Young People at Home and in the Classroom
Activity Suggestions for Young People at Home and in the Classroom
Reference Sources

Job Description

The president serves as the highest government leader in the United States. Article II of the Constitution specifies that the president has two primary job functions: to serve as chief executive of the federal government and to serve as commander in chief of the armed forces. As chief executive, the president works with other leaders of the executive branch, including the vice president, cabinet members, and leaders of other federal agencies, to ensure that federal laws are carried out. The president does not make laws—that responsibility is delegated to Congress. However, the president does develop federal policies regarding issues such as education, foreign relations, and energy, and subsequently works with Congress to create legislation that administers those policies. In addition, the president has the power to approve or veto legislation. Additional job responsibilities include negotiating treaties with other nations, establishing a federal budget, appointing diplomats and Supreme Court judges, and granting pardons. Finally, as commander in chief of the country’s military, the president has the authority to send troops into combat, as well as the power to decide whether to use nuclear weapons.

Qualifications and Job Duration

Almost any adult American citizen is qualified to become president. Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution establishes that anyone who is a natural-born U.S. citizen, at least thirty-five years old, and has lived in the United States for at least fourteen years can become president. The qualifications seem straight forward, but many people disagree about the meaning of “natural-born.” In 1968 presidential contender George Romney’s eligibility was questioned because he had been born in Mexico. In 2008 some wondered if John McCain qualified as a natural-born citizen because he was born in the Panama Canal Zone while his parents were stationed at a military base. And in 2016 opponents of senator and presidential contender Ted Cruz question his eligibility because he was born in Canada.

The Fourteenth Amendment states that “all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States.” Law professor Gabriel J. Chin declared that McCain did not meet the constitutional requirements. However, the Senate disagreed, noting that the Founding Fathers did not intend to deny citizenship to the children of military personnel born while stationed outside the United States. The Senate officially declared McCain eligible to become president by passing a nonbinding resolution in April of 2007. And although most legal scholars maintain that Cruz is eligible to be elected as president, the meaning of “natural-born U.S. citizen” continues to be uncertain because the Supreme Court has never ruled on the matter. This uncertainly provides fodder for Cruz’s opponents, particularly Donald J. Trump, who question Cruz’s eligibility on the campaign trail.

The Constitution also includes a few restrictions. Article I allows the Senate to forbid anyone who has been impeached from holding any federal office, including the presidency. In addition, the president is elected to serve for a term of four years, and the Twenty-Second Amendment limits the number of terms one person can serve to two. Furthermore, if a vice president assumes the office of president following a death or resignation and serves more than two years of his or her predecessor’s term, he or she can only be elected to serve one more term. If, however, the vice president assumes the presidency and serves less than two years of his or her predecessor’s term, then he or she can be elected to serve two additional terms.

When George Washington became president, the Constitution did not limit the number of terms. However, Washington personally believed that a president should serve only two terms and refused to run for reelection following his second term. Washington’s two-term precedent was respected until the turbulent years of World War II. Because many Americans believed it best to retain their president during wartime, Franklin Roosevelt was elected to serve four consecutive terms. Many believed that Roosevelt’s new precedent should not be repeated, so in 1951 Congress ratified the Twenty-Second Amendment to limit a president to two terms.

Getting the Job

The president is elected by the American people. Getting elected is no easy task. Getting elected means finding the right message that will appeal to voters and launching a nation-wide presidential campaign that will win the most number of voters. Such a campaign can be completely exhausting and demoralizing, requiring an endless torrent of fundraising events, strategy meetings, speeches, handshaking, and debates. Presidential candidates rarely have time for casual nights at the movies and sleeping in on Saturday mornings. A presidential campaign is a 24-hour, 7-days-a-week commitment that may last well over a year. For those who seek to serve the country at the highest possible level, such sacrifices may be well worth the costs.

Compensation, Benefits, and Risks

Like any fair-minded employer, the U.S. government provides a comprehensive compensation and benefits package to presidents. Basic compensation is awarded in a base salary of $400,000 per year, as well as $50,000 per year for expenses related to job functions and $100,000 for travel. The government also provides the president a pension for retirement. Additional compensation is awarded in the form of free room and board at the White House, which David McCullough describes in Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out, as “the most important, the most famous, the most historic, the most beloved house in all the land.” Amenities in this storied mansion not only include spacious residential, office, and formal entertainment areas, but also recreational facilities that include a bowling alley, swimming pool, movie theater, and golf green. The president need not worry about mowing the grass or scrounging through the fridge for dinner because the White House also boasts an extensive staff to carry out these necessities of daily life. And when the president and his or her family feel the need to breathe some fresh, mountain air, they are provided free access to the private presidential retreat, Camp David. Other noteworthy benefits include travel aboard the luxurious presidential jet, Air Force One, as well as 24-hour security provided by the Secret Service.

If these benefits seem appealing, remember the risks. Look at a picture of any president before he was elected, and compare it to a picture taken at the end of his term—the stress of presidential responsibilities has grayed his hair and graced his face with many more worry lines. Imagine the turmoil experienced by Abraham Lincoln as he entered the White House with the nation ripped apart into North vs. South, Union vs. Confederacy. Think of the anguish Harry Truman must have suffered when the fate of tens of thousands was placed in his hands as he was forced to decide whether or not to drop atomic bombs on Japan. Imagine how Herbert Hoover was compelled to confront economic disaster when the stock market was seized by the most devastating crash in American history, plunging the U.S. into the Great Depression. Consider the pain suffered by President George W. Bush as terrorists transformed commercial jets into suicide bombs to execute an unprecedented assault against America on September 11, 2001. Nothing can prepare a president for such crises.

Even in times of peace and prosperity the day-to-day duties of the White House can be completely overwhelming. Some presidents, such as James Polk, are said to have worked themselves to death. Compounding the workload and the burden of making unimaginable decisions is the stress of being constantly scrutinized by the public. The president is able to maintain precious little privacy as his or her lives—past and present—become an open book for the entire world to read. John Quincy Adams detested the job so much that he commented, “Make no mistake about it, the four most miserable years of my life were my four years in the Presidency.”

The ultimate risk for a president, however, is assassination. Not being liked by everybody is just part of the job, but dealing with deadly dissenters is also a huge risk. Abraham Lincoln received over 10,000 death threats, but he never believed anyone would actually try to kill him. Lincoln noted, “I cannot bring myself to believe that any human being lives who would do me any harm.” Unfortunately, Lincoln did not understand the psyche of John Wilkes Booth. Although six presidents have survived assassination attempts, Lincoln and three others—James Garfield, William McKinley, and John F. Kennedy—did not.

What Makes a Good President

In 1869 Ulysses S. Grant rode triumphantly to the White House on the coattails of his victory as Union general, but later in life, perhaps recognizing that his military experience had not adequately prepared him for politics, he wrote, “I did not want the Presidency, and I have never quite forgiven myself for resigning the command of the army to accept it. . . . War and politics are so different.” Grant’s words speak a profound truth—his significant and successful military career differed greatly from what is required of a president. Indeed, no education, no job experience can prepare one to make the gut-wrenching decisions and carry out the often inconceivable responsibilities required of the president. So, rather than focusing solely on a presidential candidate’s resume or opinions on particular issues, voters might find it equally helpful to examine his or her leadership qualities.

Pulitzer-prize winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has studied the histories of two of our most successful presidents—Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt—to determine what qualities distinguish them and led to their stature as exceptional leaders. In her Parade magazine essay “The Secrets of America’s Great Presidents,” Goodwin encourages citizens to consider ten qualities when choosing a president. According to Goodwin a great president has the courage to stay strong in the face of adversity; is confident enough to seek different viewpoints; can learn from his or her mistakes; is willing to embrace change; is emotionally intelligent (willing to share credit with others, accept blame, and convey strength); can maintain self-control in the midst of trouble; is aware and in touch with popular sentiment; possesses a strong moral compass; is able to relax; and finally, communicates well and inspires others.

Journalist and professor David Gergen agrees with many of Goodwin’s conclusions. In his book Eyewitness to Power, Gergen writes about his experiences working intimately with and observing four American presidents—Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Clinton—and concludes with seven lessons of leadership he has gleaned from them. One compelling similarity between Goodwin’s and Gergen’s conclusions is the need for a leader who actively seeks advice from knowledgeable advisors and is willing to listen to many different points of view. Gergen also agrees that the gift of inspiring others is vital, but adds the need to be able to explain policy and persuade others effectively, particularly the public at large. Additional qualities that Gergen deems critical are the ability to master one’s inner self and execute self control at all times; the possession of a clear, compelling purpose or mission; a willingness and ability to work with others throughout government; and, the motivation to get down to the business of the country as soon as he or she steps foot in the Oval Office.

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Discussion Questions for Young People at Home and in the Classroom

  • Have you ever dreamed of becoming president? What does or does not appeal to you about the job?
  • Do you think the compensation and benefits offered to the president make the risks worth it?
  • What qualities do you think are most important in a president? Do you recognize those qualities in any of today’s presidential candidates?
  • Do you think the qualities recommended by Goodwin and Gergen might benefit other types of leaders other than presidents? Which of the qualities would benefit a school principal, team coach, or a business owner?

Activity Suggestions for Young People at Home and in the Classroom

Choose a leader you admire. You might think about someone you know personally, like a Scout leader, or someone you do not know personally but know about, like a politician. Think about what makes this person a strong leader. Make a list of his or her strong qualities. Compare your list to Goodwin’s and Gergen’s list. Did you list anything different?

Reference Sources


Adams, Simon. The Presidents of the United States. Princeton, NJ: Two-Can Publishing, 2001.

Gergen, David. Eyewitness to Power. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000.

Hughes, Libby. George W. Bush, From Texas to the White House. New York: Franklin Watts, 2003.

The League of Women Voters. Choosing the President. New York: Lyons, 1999.

The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance. Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Candlewick, 2008.

Saffell, David C. The Encyclopedia of U.S. Presidential Elections. New York: Franklin Watts, 2004.

Wagner, Heather Lehr. How the President Is Elected. New York: Chelsea House, 2007.


Goodwin, Doris Kearns. “The Secrets of America’s Great Presidents.” Parade. 14 September 2008.

Online Resources

Editor’s Note: Website links listed in angle brackets are no longer available.

“A Hint of New Life to a McCain Birth Issue.” The New York Times. 1 October 2008.

“American President. An Online Reference Resource.” 1 August through 1 October 2008.

“Citizen McCain’s Panama Problem?” The Washington Post. 1 October 2008.

“Is Ted Cruz, born in Canada, eligible to run for president? (Updated)” 26 March 2015.

“Office and Compensation of the President.” 27 August 2008.

“Presidents of the United States.” 25 February through 10 September 2008.

“Remarks to the American Legion Boys Nation—Bill Clinton speech—Transcript.” 1 October 2008.

©2016 Geri Zabela Eddins; The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance