The mighty, weak presidency

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

2 November 2012

Another observation from Chait's Obama endorsement:

The Republican strategy is perfectly clear and not even very well hidden. Yet many of us don’t accept it as a reality because it does not feel true. We instinctively hold the president, not Congress, responsible, another finding political scientists have measured. The hunger to attribute all outcomes to the president is so deep that the political elite take it on faith. Bob Woodward, who is justly famed as a reporter but whose opinions are interesting only as a barometer of Washington establishmentarianism, blamed Obama because Republicans turned down an extraordinarily favorable budget deal. “Presidents work their will — or should work their will,” Woodward declared, “on the important matters of national business.”

How can a president “work his will” in such a way as to force autonomous members of the opposite party controlling a co-equal branch of government to sacrifice their own calculated self-interest? It is a form of magical thinking, but a pervasive one. Which is exactly why the Republican strategy — making Obama’s promise to transcend partisanship fail by withholding cooperation — has worked.

I agree with this, yet disagree with the conclusion to which it would seem to logically lead: that the presidency is unimportant. Here's how I reconcile a view of Washington in which the president is both vitally important and substantially powerless. (I'm referring here to domestic politics; in foreign policy, the president has a great deal of power, particularly consindering the office's usurpation/Congress's neglection of the Congressional power to declare war and the refusal of every president since Nixon to recognise the constitutionality to recognise the War Powers Act.)

American government is set up so that Congress, the presidency, and the courts are co-equal branches that share power between them. The Constitution is designed so that Congress is more powerful than the president, and although the commander in chief is more powerful than the founders had hoped he would be, he or she is still very much at the mercy of the legislative branch.

Nonetheless, Congress is made up of 100 senators and 435 representatives, and finds it very difficult to work in accord. The president is the single most powerful political figure in Washington, even though he is constantly stymied by Congress, the courts, and his own bureaucracy. It is a mistake to think that governmental failure or success should be attributed entirely, or often even mostly, at the feet of the president. But no one else in Washington has as much power as he does. It matters enormously who the president is, even if his ability to get things done is limited at best.

Tags: Checks And Balances, Congress, The Presidency, The Us Constitution

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