David Adler: Obstacles in strengthening the presidency

December 20, 2013 

The oppressive spectacle of American politics — revealed in fractured governance, the lack of leadership and accountability to public opinion, capture of Congress by special interests, and the loss of informed debate — reflects a recurrent disease and generates, again, assertions of the need to strengthen the presidency as an antidote for what ails us. It was Woodrow Wilson’s prescription more than a century ago and, at various junctures, the elixir touted by various politicians, academics and pundits.

David Brooks, the insightful and respected New York Times columnist, and Francis Fukuyama of “The End History” fame, are among the latest adding their names to the list of calls for greater unified authority in the executive branch. Like many Americans, Brooks is frustrated by the influence of the profusion of interest groups to which members of Congress are beholden. His solution to an admittedly complex problem that eludes effective remedies in a single column — making the executive branch more powerful — is unwise and overlooks the historical problems associated with presidential power grabs.

Executive responses to issues and problems, foreign and domestic, often have missed the mark. Truman’s unilateral deployment of troops to Korea landed America in a quagmire. The Truman and Eisenhower loyalty programs in the 1950s deprived federal employees of due process protections. Johnson’s expansion of the war in Southeast Asia inflicted long-term trauma on our country.

Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs debacle was the handiwork of the executive branch. Nixon and Watergate, including the secret bombing of Cambodia, undermined confidence in the integrity of the presidency. Bush 43 and the war in Iraq marked the further decline in Americans’ belief in executive branch candor. Ongoing revelations of CIA misbehavior and NSA intelligence-gathering since the 9/11 outrage raise more questions about trust in the executive.

The potential turn toward a unified, parliamentary system, touted by Fukuyama and others for its methods of accountability, has its advocates, to be sure, but it would require wholesale constitutional changes. For starters, Article 1, Section 6 would require amendment to permit members of Congress to hold office as members of the Cabinet. It would be necessary, moreover, to extend the terms of the president beyond the strictures of the 22nd Amendment, which bars presidents from serving more than two terms. For their part, the framers of the Constitution shunned the parliamentary system for the perceived advantages of a system of separation of powers.

The unlikely embrace in the United States of a parliamentary system, and the unwisdom of the proposal to strengthen the presidency, requires meaningful reforms for the great challenges that confront our nation. The problems that we face are, in part, systemic and institutional, but they also reflect changes in the way in which governmental proposals and decisions are covered by the news media.

Those who would urge greater presidential authority, both formal and informal, including resort to the “bully pulpit,” may be disappointed by the implications for executive power of the 24/7 news cycle and the emergence of ubiquitous television talk shows. The days in which the president might utilize the pulpit as a platform of authority and a tool to rally the citizenry might be a thing of the past.

Presidential opponents’ immediate access to television to denounce ideas and proposals, to pick at them and to engage in self-indulgent demagoguery, denies the executive the instant and forceful leadership and momentum that the two Roosevelts and Reagan, among other presidents, ignited with their words from the pulpit.

David Adler is the Cecil D. Andrus professor of public affairs at Boise State University, where he serves as director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy.

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