The Increasing Irrelevance of the U.S. Presidency

Posted: September 27, 2011 in Globalization
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By Stephan Richter | Friday, September 23, 2011- The Globalist

Much of the criticism of President Obama, be it from the left or right, obscures a pivotal truth about the U.S. political system: The presidency, long considered the pinnacle of political power, is becoming increasingly irrelevant. The Richter Scale explores what this means for the future of the United States.

Amidst all the criticism of Barack Obama, half of it deserved and half not (or vastly exaggerated), a pivotal truth about the evolution of the U.S. political system is being obscured: The U.S. presidency — which until recently was considered the pinnacle of political power not just within the United States itself, but globally — is increasingly becoming irrelevant in domestic politics.

This is due, in part, to special circumstances, such as the neophyte tendency of the sitting president to negotiate with himself, and hence give away valuable negotiating chits long before he had to. Another cause is this president’s focus on “giving a good speech” — i.e., his highly paternalistic way of reminding the unruly children (i.e., all politicians) to please, please behave in a responsible manner.

Yet another factor is that American politicians, to varying degrees, but in both political camps, behave as lone riders whose only sense of loyalty is to themselves and their own personal political fortunes.

What to do under those circumstances? Americans, especially in difficult times, are always quick to assert the need for “leadership.” And, of course, no form of leadership has been more sanctified than presidential leadership.

It is thus quite curious that — whether with regard to the big health reform package, which the Obama Administration let Congress craft largely on its own, or on the debt ceiling negotiations, where the Administration once again did not present a detailed package — such leadership has not been forthcoming.

However, before one jumps to conclusions — à la, 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, then much pressing legislation — and even scores of minutiae, such as presidential appointments several levels below cabinet rank — 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 other’s throats.

What the debt-ceiling negotiations demonstrate is that, at least 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 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.

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 — for it forces the United States to become more like other countries, a parliamentary democracy not in name and in form, but in political practice.

Over time, the elevated nature with which the office of the U.S. president has been treated in the past, along with its 19th 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.

Politics is a contact sport, especially so in the United States, where — much more than in other developed countries — two fundamentally opposed, even mutually exclusive, visions of the country’s future are in direct combat with each other. Under those circumstances, every participant, almost by necessity, has to act as a hyper-partisan.

This shift, while disorienting for the time being, is to be welcomed. Why? Because it addresses 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.

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 unrealistic in the U.S. case. 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 would be 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 to be welcomed.

Just don’t blame Obama for this structural shift. The president’s regality may have accelerated the trend, but, in the end, that outcome is 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 will ultimately be remembered for.


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