The Increasing Irrelevance of the U.S. Presidency
The weakened office of the President raises very serious questions about the ability of the United States to adapt to modern times.
September 23, 2011
Whatever the fascination in either political camp with the performance of the President of the United States, whether Barack Obama or someone else, a pivotal truth about the evolution of the U.S. political system is being obscured: The U.S. presidency is increasingly becoming irrelevant in domestic politics.
That is quite a downer, considering that the office until recently was considered the pinnacle of political power not just within the United States itself, but globally.
Mind you, this assessment is not due to special circumstances, such as the tendency of the current president to negotiate with himself, and hence give away valuable negotiating chits long before he had to. Or with this president’s focus on “giving a good speech” — but engaging in precious little follow-up.
Another factor that makes things difficult for any president is the lack of party discipline in the United States. American politicians, to varying degrees, tend to act as lone riders whose only sense of loyalty is to themselves and their own personal political fortunes. The president is only valuable to those officials as long as he is massively popular and has political coattails they can ride easily.
A call for leadership
What to do under these circumstances? Americans, especially in difficult times, are always quick to assert the need for “leadership.” And, of course, no form of leadership is more sanctified than presidential leadership.
Before one jumps to any conclusions — thinking, for example, it’s just Mr. Obama (and the Democrats) who can’t lead, whereas any Republican president and a Republican Congress certainly would — it is worth reflecting on the nature of divided government in the contemporary United States.
The evidence from the Obama years is that, even if one party has the White House and a significant majority in both Houses of Congress, as the Democrats had in 2009 and 2010, this is not enough to exert presidential leadership.
As long as there are 41 senators of the opposition party with a strong sense of determination (or even fewer than 41 but with the help of a few lone rider senators from the majority), then much of the pressing legislation — and even scores of minutiae, such as presidential appointments several levels below cabinet rank or district judges — can be held up for good.
Of course, there is always the question about whether the Democrats are as ardently united in their opposition to a Republican president as the Republicans are in theirs to a Democrat serving in the White House.
But the more important issue is whether — given the acerbic nature of political dialogue in Washington — any president, by virtue of the nature of the office, will turn into an increasingly futile herder of two gangs of cats who are hell-bent on being at each others’ throats.
In an atmosphere of extreme politicization, the only thing that ultimately matters in the power equation is the two political parties in the two houses of Congress. Hence, what is made out to be a personal weakness of Mr. Obama’s will reveal itself as a structural facet in the U.S. body politic.
In a heavily antagonistic political framework, the “presider” is superfluous. In other words, it’s not Mr. Obama, but the office, stupid. Hard to believe though it may be, this shift is ultimately a good thing.
It forces the United States to become more like other countries, a parliamentary democracy not in name and in form, but in political practice. And legislative leadership supremacy would not be so unusual, but rather a return to prior eras — such as the late 19th century — when the U.S. presidency has been almost an afterthought.
Over time, the elevated nature with which the office of the U.S. president has been treated at various times in the past, along with its early 19th-century (and mid-20th century) pomp and decorum, is an illusion — or worse, a quasi-royalist fiction. It creates an expectation of a top-down regime of politics that is long gone.
This realization, while disorienting for the time being, is to be welcomed. Why? Because it points to very serious questions about the ability of the United States to adapt to modern times, as well as to the age of globalization and complexity management. The latter two put a premium on the ability of all nations to adjust — and preferably to an immediate response.
Stuck in tradition
In recent decades, however, the U.S. system has proven quite resistant to change, even in moments of crisis. The formal alternative, shifting away from the 1787 constitution and adopting a more modern one, is not realistic in the case of the United States. It is a remarkably tradition-bound country, and is especially so now, as far as the Republicans are concerned.
The idea of mimicking modern France — which had its start as a democratic republic pretty much at the same time as the United States (in the late 1780s) and is now onto its Fifth Republic — may be endearing. But it is unrealistic in the case of the United States.
France uses the founding of a new republic as a solution to move forward whenever it has gotten stuck in its old political ways. Such constitutional flexibility is unimaginable in the United States of today.
Given that, the silent shift in the constitutional structures — more toward a congressional government as presaged by Woodrow Wilson back in 1885, 28 years before he became president in 1913 — is ultimately to be welcomed.
The bitterness of the current domestic political dealings will hopefully subside in time, as Americans get used to a new political reality where the presidency is a much-diminished entity.
Ending the misplaced belief in its quasi-magical powers can only strengthen American democracy for what it is here (and almost everywhere) — an imperfect, highly human endeavor at self-government.
The biggest betrayal of the essence of the United States of America, it turns out, is its ill-placed and outdated belief in the powers of the presidency. Making that abundantly clear is what Mr. Obama’s tenure may ultimately be remembered for.
Editor’s note: This piece was originally published on September 23, 2011. It was updated by the author on June 3, 2014.
What is currently (but erroneously) made out to be a personal weakness of Mr. Obama's will reveal itself as a structural shift in the U.S. body politic.
The only thing that ultimately matters in the power equation is the two political parties in the two houses of Congress.
The elevated nature with which the office of the U.S. president has been treated in the past is an illusion.