The Presidency

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.

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.

The electronic presidency has more to do with symbolic leadership and boosting national confidence than with passing legislation. President Reagan, whose on-camera charisma is legendary, swayed few votes in Congress with his public appeals, according to studies by George C. Edwards III of Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas.

Few scoff at the importance of symbolic leadership to national confidence and unity, but many argue that practical responses to practical problems, such as slow productivity growth, have been put off now for years.

"The electronic presidency got us through the '80s, but no longer," argues Colin Campbell, presidential scholar at Georgetown University in Washington.

The ability to communicate directly with the public will remain an important tool for presidents to set the public agenda and build support. The president, after all, appears on TV news and on front pages more than any other public figure except the reporters and newscasters themselves.

But Dr. Campbell believes American voters will continue to grow impatient for substantive progress on matters that concern them. "The country just doesn't believe anymore that the government can stay above the fray," says Landy.

Recent presidents worked to stretch their scope of action as president without requiring Congress's help, especially since getting legislation through Congress has become more difficult. Thus, the president becomes both weaker and more independent.

Presidents have stretched their ability to conduct foreign affairs autonomously. Arms treaties, for example, require Senate approval by law. Yet Presidents Carter and Reagan both declared they would agree to negotiated arms limits as long as the Soviets would, without Senate approval.

On domestic matters, Reagan and Bush each set up White House councils to review regulations. Laws are necessarily vague in order to win support in Congress, and federal agencies usually draft the specific regulations that implement them. The definition of wetlands that federal agencies arrived at included roughly twice the land area promoted by Bush's council on regulation.

The growing importance of regulatory bodies, such as the Federal Reserve Board, has increased the importance of the president's power to appoint, notes Dr. Barilleaux.

There are several theories of cycles to presidencies. Dr. Hargrove of Vanderbilt describes presidencies of achievement, such as Reagan's; of consolidation, such as Bush's; and of preparation. Carter, although a Democrat, prepared for a conservative era of spending restraint at home and higher defense spending.

As new, unresolved issues arise during consolidation eras, Hargrove says, the need builds for a presidency of preparation. Health care is a good example of such an issue. Public anxiety on the issue has not jelled into a consensus on solutions.

Presidencies of preparation, he warns, are often frustrating because they have so much difficulty forming working majorities.

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