Acting President of the United States

Acting President of
the United States
Executive branch of the U.S. Government
Executive Office of the President
Status Acting Head of State
Acting Head of Government
Member of Cabinet
Domestic Policy Council
National Economic Council
National Security Council
Seat White House, Washington, D.C.
Appointer President of the United States
Term length Situational
Constituting instrument United States Constitution

An Acting President of the United States is an individual who legitimately exercises the powers and duties of the office of President of the United States even though that person does not hold the office in his or her own right. There is an established order in which officials of the United States federal government may be called upon to take on presidential responsibilities if the incumbent president becomes incapacitated, dies, resigns, or is removed from office (by impeachment by the House of Representatives and subsequent conviction by the Senate) during their four-year term of office, or, if a president has not been chosen before Inauguration Day, or if the president-elect has failed to qualify by that date.

Presidential succession is referred to multiple times in the U.S. Constitution  Article II, Section 1, Clause 6, as well as the 20th Amendment and 25th Amendment. The Vice President is the only officeholder named in the Constitution as a presidential successor. The Article II succession clause authorizes Congress to designate which federal officeholders would accede to the presidency in the event the vice president were unavailable to do so, which it has done on three occasions. The current Presidential Succession Act was adopted in 1947, and last revised in 2006. The succession order is as follows: Vice President, Speaker of the House of Representatives, President pro tempore of the Senate, and then the eligible heads of federal executive departments who form the president's Cabinet, beginning with the Secretary of State.

If the president dies, resigns or is removed from office, the vice president automatically becomes president. Likewise, were a president-elect to die during the transition period, or decline to serve, the vice president-elect would become president on Inauguration Day. A vice president can also become the acting president if the president becomes incapacitated. If the presidency and vice presidency both become vacant however, the statutory successor called upon would not become president, but would only be acting as president. To date, two vice presidents—George H. W. Bush (once) and Dick Cheney (twice)—have been acting president. No one lower in the line of succession has yet been called upon to act as president.

Constitutional provisions

Regarding eligibility

The qualifications for Acting President are the same as those for the office of President. Article II, Section 1, Clause 5 prescribes three eligibility requirements for the presidency. At the time of taking office one must: be a natural-born U.S. citizen of the United States; be at least thirty-five years old; and be a resident in the United States for at least fourteen years.[1]

A person who meets these requirements may still be constitutionally disqualified from the presidency under any of the following conditions:

  • Article I, Section 3, Clause 7, gives the U.S. Senate the option of disqualifying individuals convicted in impeachment cases from holding federal office in the future.[2]
  • Section 3 of the 14th Amendment prohibits any person who swore an oath to support the Constitution, and later rebelled against the United States, can become president. However, this disqualification can be lifted by a two-thirds vote of each house of Congress.[3]
  • The 22nd Amendment prohibits anyone from being elected to the presidency more than twice (or once, if the person serves as president or acting president for more than two years of a presidential term to which someone else was originally elected).[4][5]

Regarding succession

Article II, Section 1, Clause 6 makes the vice president first in the line of succession. It also empowers Congress to provide by law who would act as president in the case where neither the president nor the vice president were able to serve.[6]

Two constitutional amendments elaborate on the subject of presidential succession and fill gaps exposed over time in the original provision:

  • Section 3 of the 20th Amendment declares that if the president-elect dies before his term begins, the vice president-elect becomes president on Inauguration Day and serves for the full term to which the president-elect was elected, and also that, if on Inauguration Day, a president has not been chosen or the president-elect does not qualify for the presidency, the vice president-elect acts as president until a president is chosen or the president-elect qualifies. It also authorizes Congress to provide for instances in which neither a president-elect nor a vice president-elect have qualified.[7] Acting on this authority, Congress incorporated "failure to qualify" as a possible condition for presidential succession into the Presidential Succession Act of 1947.[8]
  • Sections 3 and 4 of the Twenty-fifth Amendment provide for situations where the president is temporarily disabled, such as if the president has a surgical procedure, becomes unfit, or is otherwise unable to discharge the powers or duties of the presidency.[9]


Before Twenty-fifth Amendment

On April 4, 1841, William Henry Harrison was the first sitting President to die in office.[10] The Cabinet decided that Vice President John Tyler would assume the responsibilities of President under the title "Vice-President acting President".[11] Instead of accepting the Cabinet's proposed title, Tyler asserted that the Constitution gave him full and unqualified powers of office and had himself sworn in immediately as President, setting a critical precedent for an orderly transfer of power following a President's death.[12] However, there were members of Congress such as Representative John Quincy Adams who felt that Tyler should be a caretaker under the title of "Acting President", or remain vice president in name.[13] Senator Henry Clay saw Tyler as the "vice-president" and his presidency as a mere "regency".[14]

Since Twenty-fifth Amendment

Proposed by the 89th Congress and subsequently ratified by the states in 1967, the Twenty-fifth Amendment established formal procedures for addressing instances of presidential disability. Its Section 3 was invoked for the first time at 11:28 am on July 13, 1985, when President Ronald Reagan underwent colon cancer surgery while under anesthesia. Vice President George H. W. Bush became the first Acting President in United States history until 7:22 pm, when Reagan reclaimed his authority.[15][16] The Twenty-fifth Amendment was invoked for a second time at 7:09 am on June 29, 2002, when President George W. Bush underwent a colonoscopy. For two hours and fifteen minutes, Vice President Dick Cheney was the Acting President.[17] Cheney became Acting President for the second time on July 21, 2007, while Bush had a second colonoscopy.[18]

List of Acting Presidents

Acting President[19] Qualifying office Period Party President
George H. W. Bush
Born 1924
(94 years old)
Vice President July 13, 1985
11:28 am–7:22 pm
Republican Ronald Reagan
Dick Cheney
Born 1941
(77 years old)
Vice President June 29, 2002
7:09 am–9:24 am
Republican George W. Bush
July 21, 2007
7:16 am–9:21 am

See also


  1. "Article II. The Executive Branch, Annenberg Classroom". The Interactive Constitution. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: The National Constitution Center. Retrieved June 15, 2018.
  2. "Article I". US Legal System. USLegal. Retrieved June 15, 2018.
  3. Moreno, Paul. "Articles on Amendment XIV: Disqualification for Rebellion". The Heritage Guide to the Constitution. The Heritage Foundation. Retrieved June 15, 2018.
  4. Peabody, Bruce G.; Gant, Scott E. (February 1999). "The Twice and Future President: Constitutional Interstices and the Twenty-Second Amendment". Minnesota Law Review. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Law School. 83 (3): 565–635. Archived from the original on January 15, 2013. Retrieved June 12, 2015.
  5. Albert, Richard (Winter 2005). "The Evolving Vice Presidency". Temple Law Review. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Temple University of the Commonwealth System of Higher Education. 78 (4): 812–893.
  6. Feerick, John. "Essays on Article II: Presidential Succession". The Heritage Guide to the Constitution. The Heritage Foundation. Retrieved June 12, 2018.
  7. Larson, Edward J.; Shesol, Jeff. "The Twentieth Amendment". The Interactive Constitution. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: The National Constitution Center. Retrieved July 20, 2018.
  8. "The Continuity of the Presidency: The Second Report of the Continuity of Government Commission" (PDF). Preserving Our Institutions. Washington, D.C.: Continuity of Government Commission. June 2009. p. 31. Archived from the original (PDF) on May 23, 2012. Retrieved May 23, 2012 via WebCite.
  9. Kalt, Brian C.; Pozen, David. "The Twenty-fifth Amendment". The Interactive Constitution. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: The National Constitution Center. Retrieved July 20, 2018.
  10. "President Harrison Dies–April 4, 1841". Miller Center of Public Affairs. Archived from the original on July 15, 2014. Retrieved January 15, 2018.
  11. Dinnerstein, Leonard (October 1962). "The Accession of John Tyler to the Presidency". The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography. 70 (4): 447. JSTOR 4246893.
  12. "John Tyler: Life in Brief". Miller Center of Public Affairs. Archived from the original on January 31, 2017. Retrieved January 15, 2018.
  13. Chitwood, Oliver Perry (1964) [Orig. 1939, Appleton-Century]. John Tyler, Champion of the Old South. Russell & Russell. pp. 203–207. OCLC 424864.
  14. Seager, Robert, II (1963). And Tyler Too: A Biography of John and Julia Gardiner Tyler. New York: McGraw-Hill. pp. 142,151. OCLC 424866.
  15. Boyd, Gerald M. (July 14, 1985). "Reagan Transfers Power to Bush for 8-Hour Period of 'Incapacity'". The New York Times. Washington, D.C. Retrieved January 15, 2018.
  16. Maugh II, Thomas H. (July 27, 1985). "Reagan's Surgery for Colon Cancer Breaks a Taboo, Brings a Floodtide of Calls". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved January 15, 2018.
  17. "President George W. Bush's Historic Transfer of Power" (PDF). NBC. June 29, 2002. Retrieved January 15, 2018.
  18. Baker, Peter (July 21, 2007). "Bush Will Temporarily Hand Reins To Cheney". The Washington Post. Retrieved January 15, 2018.
  19. "List of Vice-Presidents Who Served as "Acting" President Under the 25th Amendment". University of California, Santa Barbara. Retrieved January 15, 2018.
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