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What Is the Difference between a President and a King?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Both presidents and kings are heads of state, but they reach their positions in very different ways. Numerous types of government can be presided over by a president, ranging from constitutional democracies to dictatorships. Kings can also work within a variety of political systems, including parliamentary governments and absolute monarchies. The differences between the two political leaders are important, and are sometimes used to highlight differences between governments as well.

A king is a head of state who inherits his position from his family. The female counterpart of a king is a queen. He is part of a monarchy which may stretch back for many generations. The king is ruler for life unless he abdicates, and is usually revered as the sovereign leader of his nation. In some countries, the king acts as an absolute ruler over his people, in an absolute monarchy. In other nations, the monarch is more like a figurehead, and political decisions are made by elected and appointed officials such as ministers and members of parliament. In nations which have retained their sovereigns, the king and his relatives are called the royal family, and special honors are accorded to them.

A president is an official who is elected, either directly by the people or through a representative system such as the Electoral College. The president usually has a set time limit on his or her term, and some nations also limit the number of terms which a president can occupy. As head of state, he or she participates in the running of the government, and usually has veto power over bills proposed by the legislature. The president also appoints cabinet officials.

In most cases, a president is also associated with a democratic system of government in which all citizens may actively participate in their nation's politics. The president is one of many elected officials who work together to lead the country with the input of the people. A king is also perfectly capable of serving in this position, but when most people think of kings, they think of an absolute monarchy.

In some cases, a dictator may take the title of president. This designation is usually technically incorrect, since most dictators intend to rule for life, and often pass the position on to children or favored people in their political parties. Since a “president” in this context has no term limits, and is usually not associated with a democratic system of government, most nations do not recognize dictators who call themselves “presidents.”

What Is Higher Than a King

There are three monarchic titles that supersede a King. They are Emperor, Great King and King of Kings. An Emperor, or Empress if female, rules over many nations at a time.

For example, Charlemagne was named Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire by Pope Leo III. The only currently ruling Emperor is the Emperor of Japan; Emperor Naruhito. He took the Chrysanthemum Throne after his father, Emperor Akihito abdicated, citing his age and declining health as reasons.

The title King of Kings was used in ancient times to denote a King who was superior to his subject Kings. This title was used in Sub-Saharan Africa, Western Asia, the Indian subcontinent and Southwestern Europe.

Great Kings ruled in the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia Minor. In modern-day Iran, the term shahanshah, or “shah of shahs” was used through 1979, when the Iranian Revolution ousted the Shah and replaced the government with an Islamic republic under the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

In Jewish tradition, Melech Malchei HaMelachim is a name used for God. Its translation means “King of Kings of Kings.” In the Christian bible, Jesus is referred to as the King of Kings.

It could be argued that in a constitutional monarchy, where the ruler is largely symbolic, the Prime Minister has more power than the King or Queen. Thus, the Prime Minister could be said to be higher than the King.

Similarities Between President and Prime Minister

A President and a Prime Minister are both the political executives of their governments. It can be difficult to determine similarities because some Prime Ministers are rather powerless, and some Presidents are merely figureheads. For this example, look at the President of the United States and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

Both the President and Prime Minister are the head of their political party. They both have a large measure of control over their military, though the final say lies elsewhere — in Congress in the U.S. and with the Queen in the U.K.

The President and Prime Minister both select their cabinet of various secretaries in charge of different aspects of running a country. However, the Prime Minister’s choice is final, where the President’s cabinet appointees must be approved by the Senate.

The Prime Minister and the President both interact with other Heads of State and Heads of Government. They may host special dinners or other events for visiting dignitaries.

The Prime Minister and the President both have to work with bicameral legislative bodies. The Prime Minister is the head of the dominant political party in Parliament, which is made up of the House of Lords and the House of Commons. The President may or may not belong to the dominant party of Congress, which is comprised of the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Difference Between Head of State and Head of Government

In a Parliamentary government, there is a distinct difference between the Head of State and the Head of Government. The Head of State has duties much largely ceremonial in nature. The Head of Government works with his or her cabinet to run the country.

As of February 2022, there are 43 nations with monarchs. Some are constitutional monarchies, where the monarch is the Head of State and duties that include:

  • Legitimizing the nation
  • Attending political functions
  • Greeting foreign dignitaries
  • Calling sessions of Parliament
  • Calling for early elections
  • Commanding the armed services

In other monarchies, such as absolute monarchies, the King or Queen is both the Head of State and the Head of Government. Absolute monarchies are the form of governance in several countries, including Brunei, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the Vatican City.

Heads of Government oversee the day-to-day operations of their governments. They work with their cabinet to propose legislation for Congress or other legislative bodies. In Parliamentary governments, the Head of Government is the Prime Minister. In Presidential governments, the Head of Government is the President — he or she holds both positions. Duties of Heads of Government include:

  • Supervising bureaucracy
  • Implementing laws
  • Making crucial decisions with the help of his cabinet and other advisors
  • In Parliamentary governments, leading the legislature

While Kings and Queens may seem to be the highest rulers in the land, that’s not always been the case. Monarchies have evolved into different forms over the years, and only one Emperor remains: the Emperor of Japan. The comparison between different types of national governance proves that even in our differences, we can always find common ground.

Historical Index is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon997037 — On Nov 08, 2016

Monarchies are not always hereditary. In fact, historically, electoral monarchies were more common than strictly hereditary ones.

By anon119230 — On Oct 17, 2010

you're also forgetting Canada, Australia, New Zealand. The Queen is the same person, however all three titles are totally independent from each other and the UK, thus the Queen of Canada politically is a different person from the Queen of Australia, though both are the same person.

By apolo72 — On Feb 15, 2008

Countries that have kings or queens include: Bhutan, Cambodia, Jordan, Nepal, Norway, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, and the United Kingdom.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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