A White House paradox for the '90s: The presidency is an executive office with more - and less - real power than at any other time in United States history
EVEN major candidates, none of whom really need the work, are campaigning for the job. Yet once won, the presidency is very likely to grow even more demanding than it is now as the 1990s advance.Skip to next paragraph
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The next two terms, says presidential scholar Erwin Hargrove of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., "will be very frustrating for whoever wins."
The recession will probably end. But the weight of unmet problems - in education, roads and other aging amenities, reform of the health-care system, and the ever-growing burden of public debt - still piles up at the White House door.
And some of the traditional tools a president has to solve them are obsolete.
Historically, one tool of persuasion has been the political party. For all but four years since 1968, the American government has been split, with the presidency and at least one chamber of Congress in the control of opposing parties. But even if a Democrat wins the White House and the party continues to control Congress, the party discipline of a generation ago is only a memory.
Just as the candidates for president are independent political entrepreneurs, with little reliance on their parties, so the president himself has become more autonomous, with fewer ties he can call on. Congressmen, too, are more independent, owing less allegiance to party leadership.
"The president must act as a sort of chief whip," says Ryan Barilleaux, a political scientist at Miami University in Ohio. This means rounding up votes one at a time, issue by issue.
Some argue that the end of the cold war kicks foreign affairs - an arena where a president has the most autonomous power - out of its center-ring status. Thus the White House becomes weaker, less important. The counterargument is the Gulf war and its lesson that the post-cold-war world is still a dangerous place, with the president at its nerve center.
If foreign affairs continue to give the president a prominent and flattering role as commander in chief, the terrible simplicity of the cold war is gone. Managing world affairs, says Marc Landy, a political scientist at Boston College, has become "dire but more difficult day to day."
While attention is more riveted on domestic concerns, even after the unemployment level drops, these will be increasingly difficult for the president to take strong action against.
"The legacy of the deficit does make the job well nigh impossible," says Dr. Landy.
As Ronald Reagan was taking office, political scientists were asserting that the presidency had become an impossible job. The expanding expectations piled onto a president as the symbolic leader of the country combined with immense practical difficulties in getting anything done.
Reagan's comfort in the role and his conservative initiatives gave the lie to theories of the impossible presidency.
But a new view of the job emerged during the Reagan years, a view sometimes called the "post-modern presidency." It means an electronic presidency where the chief executive can use the airwaves and communicate directly to rally and sway the public, over the heads of Congress and the federal bureaucracies. It also means an increasingly autonomous president who defines his job so that he operates without congressional approval.