As both political parties get ready formally to choose their standard-bearers , attention turns to the presidency as well as to the candidates. In recent months books have rolled off the presses on the Carter years, the effect of the news media on elections, and political movers and shakers who help shape administrations. Few have been outstanding.
A cluster of them (including Clark R. Mollenhoff's "The President Who Failed" and Haynes Johnson's "In the Absence of Power") detail what might be called the "sorry" state of a particular presidency -- Jimmy Carter's.
By contrast, Professor Cronin, a former White House scholar and congressional consultant now teaching at the University of Delaware, offers a broader, more conceptional volume on the workings of the presidency. Often textbook-type analyses go virtually unnoticed except in academic circles. The Cronin work should be an exception.
It is well written, well annotated, and comprehensive. It raises the basic problem of how the American political system and the relationship between leaders and citizens can be altered to approach more closely the ideals of democracy.
Throughout his book (a volume revised and updated from an earlier one in the mid-'70s) Cronin stresses a "need for a strong but also a lean and accountable presidency, a presidency that could achieve the reforms and innovative changes that would broaden the economic and political share of the common person."
The occupant of the White House must be powerful politically and otherwise, Cronin maintains, but he also dwells on what he calls the paradox of the modern presidency: ". . . it is always too powerful, and it is always inadequate."
Cronin shows that there are clear contradictions between the qualities needed to get elected president and those required to serve with success in the Oval Office.
And this is compounded by an all-demanding, if not inconsistent, electorate, which wants a president who is "just and decent but a decisive and guileless leader"; "a programmatic but pragmatic leader"; and "a common man who gives an uncommon performance."
Cronin examines the pros and cons of turning to a "direct vote" and scrapping the time-honored Electrocal College system. his thoughts may turn out to be especially timely as the United States approaches a three-way contest, in which John Anderson's candidacy could well throw the final election into the House of Representatives.
Actually, Cronin rejects both "direct vote" and the present system in favor of a "National Bonus Plan." Such a proposal would add a pool of 102 electoral votes (in addition to the 538 state-based electoral votes) which would be awarded on a winner-take-all basis to the candidate who received at least 40 percent of the popular vote. It would virtually eliminate the possibility that the candidate with the highest popular vote total could lose the election.
In an excellent section on presidential accountability, Cronin discusses proposed checks on presidental power, or misuse of it, but patently rejects recurring suggestions for congressional votes of "no confidence" (a la parliament), institution of a "national [voter] initiative," or a six-year term of office as efficient remedies.
He insists that the answer lies not in removing the presidency from politics -- that would make a chief executive less responsible, Cronin holds -- but in strengthening political parties and making the White house "more open" and responsive to public needs.