Requirements to Serve as President of the United States

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What are the constitutional requirements to serve as President of the United States? Forget the nerves of steel, the charisma, the skeleton-free closet, the fund-raising network, the thick skin and the legions of loyal folks who agree with your stance on all the issues. Just to get into the game, you have to ask: How old are you and where were you born?

Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution imposes only three eligibility requirements on persons serving as president – based on the officeholder’s age, time of residency in the U.S., and citizenship status.

Under the Twelfth Amendment, the same three qualifications apply to the Vice President of the United States.

  • Only “natural-born” U.S. citizens (or those born abroad, but only to parents at least one of whom was a U.S. citizen at the time) may serve president of the United States, though from time to time that requirement is called into question, recently in the case of potential 2016 presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R – Texas), who was born in Canada to Cuban-born father and a U.S-born mother.
  • One must also be at least 35 years of age to be president. John F. Kennedy was the youngest person to be elected president; he was 43 years old when he was inaugurated in 1961. There is no maximum age limit set forth in the Constitution. Ronald Reagan was the oldest president; at the end of his term in 1988, he was nearly 77.
  • Finally, one must have lived in the United States for at least 14 years to be president, in addition to being a natural-born citizen. The Constitution is vague on this point. For example, it does not make clear whether those 14 years need to be consecutive or what the precise definition of residency is. So far, however, this requirement has never been challenged.

These are the only explicit criteria in the Constitution.

Further Discussion

Age

In setting the minimum age for serving as president at 35 – compared to 30 for senators and 25 for representatives – the Framers of the Constitution implemented their belief that the person holding the nation’s highest elected office should be a person of maturity and experience.

Remember that in the 1780s, people in their 30s were considered to be middle-aged. As early Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story once noted, the “character and talent” of a middle aged person is “fully developed,” allowing them a greater opportunity to have experienced “public service” and to have served “in the public councils.”

US Residency

While a Member of Congress need only be an “inhabitant” of the state he or she represents, the president must have been a “resident” of the U.S. for at least 14 years. While the Framers’ intent in imposing this difference is not clear, some constitutional experts suggest they felt the president should have actually been present and living in the US for the required period of time, compared to an inhabitant, who may have lived in another country for most of their lives. On this, Justice Story once wrote, “by ‘residence,’ in the Constitution, is to be understood, not an absolute inhabitancy within the United States during the whole period; but such an inhabitancy, as includes a permanent domicile in the United States.”

US Citizenship

By far the most often challenged constitutional to serve as president is that the officeholder be a “natural born Citizen” of the United States, compared to Members of Congress who need only to have held U.S. citizenship for a required number of years.

In this requirement, the Framers clearly intended to exclude any chance of foreign influence from the highest administrative position in the federal government. For example, John Jay felt so strongly on the issue that he sent a letter of George Washington in which he demanded that the new Constitution require “a strong check to the admission of Foreigners into the administration of our national Government; and to declare expressly that the Commander in Chief of the American army shall not be given to nor devolve on, any but a natural born Citizen.”

Phaedra Trethan is a freelance writer and a former copy editor for The Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper