How much can a president do anyway?
Washington — I wonder if Ronald Reagan knows the difficulties that face him if he is elected presi dent? This is not a partisan question. Jimmy Carter has already experienced the obstacles to a president -- any president -- in seeking to achieve a coherent program. The president is, of course, the central figure in American politics. Millions of voters of either party believe that by changing presidents (or parties) things will smooth out in Washington. The fact is that since World War II the responsibilities of the president have greatly expanded and his powers have not grown proportionately. I think that of all modern democracies the factor of political accountability is lowest in Washington.
Writing about West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt in the new York Times the other day John Vinocour casaually noted that German voters "consider a platform plank a kind of signed dealer's warranty". It is stunning to read that in Washington. Under the American system it is difficult to carry through a program or to honor an election pledge. Yes, "strong" presidents occasionally crack the whip but it generally doesn't last very long.
The conservative American Enterprise Institute has published two remarkable sets of essays about our government, "The New American Political System" (1978) and "Presidents and Prime Ministers" (1980), both paperbacks. In an essay in the first, British student Anthony King argues that presidential powers have been curbed: "Members of Congress, always divided from the president by profound differences of outlook and interest now, after Vietnam and Watergate, view the presidency with an almost institutionalized suspicion." He says that isn't the only problem: "The dispersal of power in Congress makes it more difficult to transact business with that body, the disappearance of the old party organizations deprives the president of both a valuable restraint and a potential source of strength (the president is 'chief of party' no longer.)"
In the second series of essays published by the AEI, the powers of the American president are contrasted with various prime ministers, English, West German, French, Scandinavian, and so on. What astonishes foreign observers is the lack of accountability in Washington. No, American observers don't regard a platform plank as "a kind of signed dealer's warranty." It is easy to blame Jimmy Carter for overpromising himself in 1976 and I am not making a case for him either way. But it might be wise for the voter to consider the problem. (So many disappointed voters seem to have concluded that platform pledges don't mean much anyway that they have stopped voting: Only 54 percent went to the polls in 1976.)
Here is Richard Rose, a professor from Scotland, summing up the Washington situation as he sees it (perhaps with horror). HE thinks the upheaval of events in the 1970s "altered the unstable distribution of political power" in the capital. There are so many divisions and sub-governments here now, he thinks, "that few issues can be resolved in any one place, there is little central direction that a president can provide, ana few central decisions can be made."
According to this student, "almost every modern study of the presidency" argues that the "collective political authority is too weak." So-called "sub-governments" are increasing in scale, controversy, and political significance, he says, while simultaneously "becoming more remote from direction by the one representative of collective authority in Washington, the president."
Politicians are trying to do something about it. Ronald Reagan, George Bush, the minority leaders of Congress, and several score GOP House and Senate candidates met on the steps of the Capitol this month and pledged to follow party discipline in the years ahead. On the Democratic side, Rep. Henry Reuss of Wisconsin will shortly announce a plan for a 300-member Democratic Council to be a kind of super-Democratic National Committee to act as intermediary between White House, Congress, and the states, and to try to restore party coherence.
The thing American politics lacks is accountability. Let Professor Rose have the last words: ". . . The US lacks a single institution that can effectively assert the collective authority of government on major issues of the day. . . The price can be just as high for the United States as the price the Soviets pay for having an over-centralized economy."