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Monday, April 14, 2014

The American Presidency: Does It Work Anymore?

Absent a major change in the political climate and a Democratic wave election in November, we can expect many more articles like Peter Baker's in the New York Times on the frustrations facing President Obama for the remainder of his term in office. As Baker observed, it is becoming increasingly difficult for presidents to get sweeping legislation through Capitol  Hill. 

While it is tempting to blame Congress, partisan polarization, or other features of the contemporary political system, it also seems clear that there is a deeper structural problem at work--the U.S. presidency no longer works well. I consider the defects in the presidency at some length in "Two Presidents Are Better Than One: The Case for a Bipartisan Executive Branch." In this and upcoming posts, I will discuss some of the key problems with the presidency.

For example, barely more than 50 percent of the public has a voice in the policymaking decisions that emerge from the Oval Office. While presidents may once  have aspired to act as the representative of all Americans, and George Washington may actually have done so, contemporary presidents generally hew to the views of their partisan base. Even when they attract only 53 percent of the popular vote, presidents claim a broad mandate for their partisan platforms and remind the other side that “elections have consequences."

All citizens want to have a voice in their govern­ment, but nearly half the public is denied a chance for meaningful input into the devel­opment of presidential policy. This is fundamentally unfair. To paraphrase John Stuart Mill, instead of having an executive branch “of the whole people by the whole people, equally represented,” the United States has an executive branch “of the whole people by a mere majority of the people, exclusively represented.” Or as Jill Lepore wrote in The New Yorker last month, "one-half of the people ought not to be ruled by the other half." (To be sure, Lepore was speaking about women being ruled by men, but the point still stands.)

It's not only unfair to reserve all of the presidential power for half of the country, it also fans the flames of partisan conflict. We should not be surprised that when people are denied representation, they become receptive to a policy of obstruction that might enhance their chances of winning back power. In my next post, I will discuss the modern presidency and partisan conflict.

[cross-posted orentlicher.tumblr.com]

Posted by David Orentlicher on April 14, 2014 at 09:18 AM in Constitutional thoughts | Permalink


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Thanks very much for your interest and your very good questions. You are correct that the same representation problem can occur for members of Congress, and that's a problem too. There, however, the problem is mitigated by the balance of power in the entire House or Senate, particularly in the Senate when it observes a filibuster rule and also when the House and Senate are controlled by different parties. So I would address the representation problem in Congress by preserving the filibuster in the Senate and adding one in the House.

I do think we need to make it more feasible for third parties to gain representation in the executive branch, and I'll talk about that in an upcoming post.

Posted by: David Orentlicher | Apr 14, 2014 11:49:15 AM

I'm very much looking forward to reading this series of posts. A couple points that I'm hoping will come out in the discussion: What distinguishes the presidency from other elected offices that makes the exclusion of the losing constituency from the former impermissible? (Not the exclusion from the obligation of representation, which I think most would agree is counter to republican ideals, but instead the exclusion of a representative of the losing constituencies from "rul[ing]" over that "other half"? We don't demand that Democrats in Texas get their own Senator, or Republicans in San Francisco get their own congressperson.) And the more practical question, what happens with third parties? Would Ross Perot in 1992 have gotten a seat at the (tri?)partisan table?

Posted by: JVB | Apr 14, 2014 10:41:47 AM

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