Continue reading On the U.S. Government’s Fiscal Imbalance: Federalism to the Rescue?
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At the outset of the Trump administration in the U.S., real economic output was projected to grow at an annual rate of 1.9 percent over the next decade. The new federal president was hoping his proposals of tax cuts and $1 trillion in additional infrastructure spending over a decade would bump up the annual growth to 4 percent. I submit, however, that just over 2 percent more in the growth rate would not alter the stark “budget reality” facing the new president and the American people.
The full essay is at “U.S. Government’s Fiscal Imbalance.”
1. Alan Rappeport, “Federal Debt Projected to Grow by Nearly $10 Trillion Over Next Decade,” The New York Times, January 24, 2017.
Continue reading On the U.S. Government’s Fiscal Imbalance: Federalism to the Rescue?
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While he was running for the U.S. presidency in 1968, Richard Nixon told H.R. Haldeman “that they should find a way to secretly ‘monkey wrench’ peace talks in Vietnam” by trying to get the South Vietnamese government to refuse to attend peace talks in Paris until after the U.S. election.Specifically, Nixon gave instructions that Anna Chennault, a Republican fundraiser, should keep “working on” South Vietnamese officials so they would not agree to a peace agreement before the U.S. election.“Potentially, this is worse than anything he did in Watergate,” said John Farrell, who discovered evidence of Nixon’s involvement from Haldeman’s notes on a conversation with the candidate. That Nixon committed a crime to win the election is itself an indication that the way Americans elect the federal president was flawed. That he went on to cover up the Watergate crime committed during the 1972 campaign only to win by a landslide should give pause to anyone having faith in an unchecked popular election. I contend that the American Founders had designed the Electoral College in part to catch such a candidate from becoming president, even if the College had never operated as such. Yet it could.
The full essay is at “The Case of Nixon’s Treason.”
1. Peter Baker, “Nixon Sought ‘Monkey Wrench’ in Vietnam Talks,” The New York Times, January 3, 2017.
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Most delegates in the U.S. Constitutional Convention in 1787 recognized the value of constitutional safeguards against excess democracy, or mob rule. The U.S. House of Representatives was to be the only democratically elected federal institution—the U.S. Senate, the U.S. Supreme Court, and even the U.S. Presidency were to be filled by the state legislatures, the U.S. President and U.S. Senate, and electors elected by citizens, respectively. The people were to be represented in the U.S. House and the State governments in the U.S. Senate. The Constitutional Amendment in the early twentieth century that made U.S. senators selected by the people rather than the governments of the States materially unbalanced the original design. In terms of the selection of the U.S. president by electors, the political parties captured them such that whichever party’s candidate wins a State, the electors there are those of the winning party. Even if the electors could vote contrary to the popular vote in a State, such voting could only be a rare exception given the party-control. Hence the electors have not been able to function as intended—as a check against excess democracy. The case of Russian interference in the presidential election of 2016 presents an additional use for the Electoral College, were it to function as designed and intended. Of course, this is a huge assumption to make, even just in taking into account the American mentality regarding self-governance.
The full essay is at “How American Presidents Are Selected.”
Continue reading How American Presidents Are Selected: Beyond Russian Interference
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The matter of how the U.S. President is to be selected was a tough nut for the delegates in the Constitutional Convention in 1787 to crack. Mason observed the following in convention, “In every Stage of the Question relative to the Executive, the difficulty of the subject and the diversity of the opinions concerning it have appeared.”The alternative proposals centered around the Congress, State legislatures, the governors, the people, and electors designated for the specific purpose as the possible determiners. Although the delegates were men of considerable experience, their best judgments about how the alternatives would play out were subject to error as well as the confines of their times. In re-assessing the Electoral College, we could do worse than adjust those judgments and rid them of circumstances pertaining to them that no longer apply. For example, the Southern States no longer have slaves, so the question of whether those States would be disadvantaged by going with a popular vote no longer applies; the alternative of going with the popular vote nationwide no longer suffers from that once-intractable pickle. Yet lest we rush headlong into a popular vote without respect to the States, we are well advised not to dismiss the points made by the convention delegates, for we too are constrained by our times, and we may thus not be fully able to take into account points that have been forgotten.
The full essay is at “The Electoral College.”
1. James Madison, Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 Reported by James Madison (New York: W. W. Norton, 1966): 370.
Continue reading The Electoral College: Beyond the Conventional Wisdom
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In a matter of days after his being elected as President of the United States, Donald Trump decided to put his business empire in the hands of his children. As laudable as it is for a father to have such pride in his offspring, the conflicts of interest cannot be ignored. It cannot be pretended that the Trump Organization would be in a blind trust; nor, given the element of temptation that is “huge” in a conflict of interest, would it be wise to simply trust the new president to do the right thing. While a president’s business should not have to take a major hit, the notion that assuming public office is a duty should be sufficient to justify costs—even in terms of opportunities lost (i.e., opportunity cost)—arising as a result of the business being put in a blind trust. In the case of a business empire, whose properties are of course known to the future president, expunging any chance of conflicts of interest is prohibitive, if not unrealistic. So the task, I submit, is to do what can realistically be done while recognizing that conflicts of interest are inherently unethical—meaning that human nature should not be expected to stand up to the inherent temptation.
The full essay is at “Donald Trump: Conflicts of Interest.”
Burn’s concept of transformational leadership highlights a moral commitments to develop followers. I submit that transformation applies to leadership in at least two, much more direct—or central—ways: as referring to a leader’s own transformation and to a leader’s vision being transformational.
The full essay is at “Transformational Leadership.”
1. James M. Burns, J. Leadership(New York: Harper & Row, 1978).
Continue reading Transforming Transformational Leadership: Foundations over Ideology
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In July, 2016, the FBI came to the conclusion that while Hillary Clinton was serving as U.S. Secretary of State, she risked classified information by using private computer servers for email and other purposes. The FBI’s director explicitly stated that she had been extremely reckless. In legal terms, that means gross negligence. At the time, a 99-year-old statute whereby gross negligence is sufficient for a fine or imprisonment of up to ten years was still on the books. Whether or not the person knew the actions were wrong is not relevant to the statute, and thus the enforcement. So it was perplexing to a significant number of Americans—including prosecutors and other lawyers—that the FBI director did not recommend prosecution. Crucially, extremely reckless is the same as gross negligence in legal terms.
The full essay is at “Extreme Recklessness.”
Continue reading Extreme Reckless with National Security: The Case of Hillary Clinton
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Even as the Electoral College has never performed as intended, that the delegates at the U.S. federal constitutional convention devised it can help us to flesh out some of the hidden, or overlooked, deficiencies in how a U.S. president is selected in t… . . . → Read More: Picking a U.S. President: Excessive and Insufficient Democracy
Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both strongly believed that the continued viability of a republic depends on an educated and virtuous citizenry. Public education and even the practice of some of the professional schools (e.g., medicine and law) since at least the early twentieth century to require a degree in another school (e.g. Liberal Arts and Sciences) before being admitted to the undergraduate program (i.e., the M.D. and J.D. or LLB, respectively). This lateral move is unique to the U.S.; entering medical and law students in the E.U. need not already have a college degree. I submit that the Founding Fathers’ firm political belief in the importance of an educated electorate concerns the value of not only having a broad array of knowledge, but also reason being able to assess its own inferences, or assumptions; for inferences, or leaps of reason, go into political judgments. Ultimately, voters make judgements, whether concerning the worthiness of candidates on a ballot, their policies, or proposals on a referendum. To the extent that subjecting assumptions to the “stress test” of reasoning is not a salient part of secondary education, an electorate is likely to make sub-optimal judgements, resulting in suboptimal elected officials, public policies, and laws.
The full essay is at “A Homework Assignment for ‘We the People’.”
Throughout the twentieth century, the U.S. Government grabbed more and more power from the governments of the member-states. Even within the U.S. Government, presidents have tended to over-reach. Specifically, they have put their role in proposing legislation and treaties above their role as that government’s chief executive in enforcing existing laws. In May 2015, Sen. Elizabeth Warren issued a report whose thesis is that presidents of both parties had failed to enforce the labor-provisions in the existing trade treaties. That the current president, Barak Obama, was in the midst of negotiating yet another trade treaty said to have labor provisions included opens him up to the charge of over-reaching. That is to say, rather than focusing first on enforcing existing trade arrangements to which the U.S. was then a party, he was going beyond—that is, over-reaching—to negotiate yet another deal. Such over-reaching is akin to going beyond the negative legislative power in vetoing legislation to spend a lot of time proposing legislation at the expense of devoting time to running the executive branch as its chief executive and conferring with members of Congress on ways to improve the administration of existing law. In this essay, I use Warren’s report as a means into answering why the overreaching habit has become so ubiquitous among American presidents that the electorate barely recognizes it as such.
The full essay is at “Overreacting on Trade.”
Continue reading President Obama Overreaching on Trade
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Just after President Obama’s 2014 State of the Union Address, CNN found that among the Americans who had watched the speech, 76 percent had a “ total positive” reaction, 44 percent of which being “very positive,” and 22 percent had a negative reaction.What is left unsaid can be even more useful than what is reported. In this case, the poll does not reveal the criteria used by the respondents to assess the speech. The devil lies in the details here, in not only the actual criteria used, but also the very content of the speech. In this essay, I investigate the suitability of the criterion that can be labeled “extent of detail in the speech,” given the purpose of the speech as laid out in the U.S. Constitution and, moreover, the presidential office.
In his 2014 address, Barak Obama stayed largely away from “the vision thing.” This point is significant to the extent that “presiding over the whole” is an important feature of the office. Even realistic bipartisan legislative items, such as immigration and trade reform, received cursory mention. In the midst of an often deadlocked Congress, the president chose to truncate his constitutional obligation “to give to the Congress information of the state of the Union” in order to attend to specific proposals achievable through three governmental devices. In other words, like presidents before him, Barak Obama chose to make the speech fit almost exclusively into the second part of the obligation—to “recommend to [Congress’s] consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”
Of the devices, he pushed specific legislative proposals, including increasing the minimum wage a few dollars, creating a new way to save for retirement (the “MyIRA”), and extending unemployment compensation three months. He also announced regulatory actions, such as reducing acceptable industrial carbon-emissions, as well as executive orders to increase the minimum wage that federal contractors would have to pay their workers. The president even touted his achievement in having secured the voluntary agreement of several CEOs not to discriminate against the long-term unemployed. To be sure, the State of the Union Address had already morphed into a largely partisan list of proposals. Barak Obama may have moved the de facto standard for the address even further toward a list of things on the president’s agenda. In the context of legislative gridlock and a media-fomented societal sense that the stuff of visionary leadership must finally bow down to American pragmatism, the “big picture” on the recommendations side of the presidential responsibility took second stage to governmental minutia.
“I wouldn’t tell you that executive action is a substitute for major bipartisan legislation; it’s not,” Dan Pfeiffer of the White House admitted.Interestingly, the advisor to the president did not mention that both executive action and incrementalist legislative output oriented to very specific points in public policy pertain to bureaucratic rather than visionary leadership. In a way, the viewers whose criteria accept the president’s missing forest as a whole while fixing attention on whether particular branches of selected trees ought to be pruned lets the leader off the hook, especially if the presiding role of the office, such as in looking out for the good of the whole systemically, is part of the job.
Burns’ distinction between transactional and transformational leadership may be utilized here as well. Burns classifies both types under moral leadership in his definitive work, Leadership.The transactional leader takes the followers’ needs as given and attends, via particular (i.e., incrementalist) transactions with the followers, to the extant lower needs already preoccupying the followers as well as the leader (e.g., raising the minimum wage). In contrast, the transformational leader raises, or transforms, the needs that the followers consider the most important to higher, distinctively moral, needs that would transform both the followers and the leader, even if merely in looking at a problem in a new light (i.e., through the lenses of a novel paradigm). It should come as no surprise that “the vision thing” and charisma have great value in transformational leadership and none at all in the transactional sort. For example, the president could have inserted his recommendation for a raise in the minimum wage within a vision of sustenance as a fundamental, and thus unconditional, human right. The transformation would involve raising the perceived need at issue from that of negotiating a new conditional set of terms for domestic food aid (“food stamps”) and a maximum in unemployment compensation to replacing that mindset among leaders and followers alike with one that is rooted and justified in basic (i.e., unconditional) human rights.
In conclusion, the gradual shift in emphasis that has gone virtually unnoticed at the societal level as Americans have critiqued State of the Union addresses is “the canary in the coal mine” already letting us know that both the presiding and related leadership roles of the U.S. presidency have come to be encroached on by the office’s chief executive, or bureaucratic/managerial, role and partisan objectives on an intra-policy level. Viewers of the speech have gone right along, pegging their respective criteria to what the address itself has become—even if this means validating presidential preoccupations at odds with the office itself, as per its place and functions in the larger system of public governance in the United States. Put another way, democracy may be unknowingly susceptible to making a lapse into the new basis for the status quo. If so, republics may be destined by the fates or inherent design to suffer a long decline without any awareness among the populous of the downward slope. In other words, we may be skiing downhill in “white-out” conditions, utterly clueless as to where we are going until it is too late.
1. Ariel Edwards-Levy and Mark Blumenthal, “State of the Union Poll Gives Obama Positive Marks,” The Huffington Post, January 29, 2014.
2. The U.S. Constitution, Article 2, Section 3.
3.Susan Page, “Speech-wise: What a Difference [a] Year Makes,” USA Today, January 29, 2014.
4. James M. Burns, Leadership (New York: HarperCollins, 1978).
On The O’Reilly Factor on the evening of Obama’s health-care “summit” at the White House in 2009, Bill O’Reilly told Laura Ingrahams that the president had done an adequate job in moderating the discussion. Laura replied, “He is not a moderator; he is the President of the United States.” O’Reilly provided his own perspective, in admitting that “moderating is not enough in the long-run because the country wants leadership.” The host was only partially correct.
I submit that any country profits by having a presider; from this role, he or she can lead with credibility rather than being perceived as a partisan. For example, President Obama evinced leadership in the interest of the United States as a whole in taking Osama bin Laden out on May 1, 2011. The president could stand for the union as a whole in going after terrorist number 1 without being sidelined by being partisan. On a more daily basis, this role translates into moderating meetings of partisans rather than being partisan himself. The stature of the president achieved in having stood for the whole, such as in having Osama bin Laden killed, could—if not diluted by partisan positions—give the president sufficient credibility to moderate important meetings of congressional leaders who would otherwise refuse to meet.
For an American president to want the credibility required to effectively moderate meetings involving partisans while at the same time being partisan is to want his cake and to eat it too. A desire for both is suggestive of a sort of character that might not be sufficiently respect-worthy to preside. If the American Presidency stands for the union as a whole, the office is inherently oriented to staying above the fray while keeping an eye on the overall interest of the whole. Perhaps President Obama would have been able to forge a compromise at his health-care summit had he been neutral concerning Democratic and Republican proposals rather than taking on the Republican lawmakers as a partisan. That is to say, Obama might have been able to have enough sway with the Republicans to effectively preside over the meeting to keep it from going off track. This could involve pushing one side or the other to give a little more when the process would otherwise cease without a resolution. To be able to nudge either side, the chair must be viewed as credible (i.e., unbiased) by both sides. As it was, any such suggestions of the president were dismissed by the Republicans as motivated by an ulterior motive in line with the Democratic position.
The degeneration of the presidency is evinced by what the State of the Union address has become. The speech is supposed to be primarily a report on the condition of the union, with prudent recommendations. The speech is not supposed to be partisan. For one thing, the statesmanship implied in the event itself is undercut if the recommendations become the main event and they are those of the party that the president heads. In other words, the credibility, even in the president’s report of the condition of the union, is undercut if a president uses the speech to push his ideological agenda. The emphasis on such an occasion as The State of the Union is fittingly on the general welfare of the United States as a whole. If half the room is clapping on a consistent basis through the speech, something is wrong.
One of President Obama’s State of the Union Addresses. Imagine the change in content were the media to base evaluations on how low the ratio of half-chamber to full-chamber standing ovations is.
Barak Obama went to items familiar to his party in his 2013 State of the Union address, presssing for an increase in the minimum wage, for example. Was the president wading too far into the details in order to influence even more policy that that of the “big picture”? If so, was this at the expense of the statesmanship that properly goes with the event? Flying above the clouds to get a distant view of how we are doing at the time would have precluded such minor policy recommendations that incidently are very partisan in nature. So too on how to avert automatic budget cuts, the president stuck to the Democratic plan. Alternatively, he could have taken the high road and spoke on the condition of the Union in having almost $17 trillion in federal debt. This would have meant leaving it to the Congress to fiddle with the specifics on how to reduce the deficits.
Similarly, the president “offered Americans a populist economic vision” in his 2012 State of the Union address, “seeking to draw a contrast with his eventual Republican rival and demonstrating the widening policy gulf between the two political parties.” While offering a vision is good on the campaign trail, talking about an ideal for the future is not to describe or even analyze the present state of the Union. The ensuing string of policy proposals was “aimed at buttressing a re-election message that posits him as defender of Americans beset by inequality in the tax code and broader economy.” If there was any doubt that he intended a campaign speech, the Wall Street Journal continues, “he made a point of including policies that appeal to many possible constituencies.” Two hours before the speech, he sent an email to his campaign supporters, writing “Tonight, we set the tone for the year ahead.” This indicates that Obama did not intend to report the condition of the Union at the time. After the speech, Republicans justifiably criticized the speech as “an election-year blueprint.” In short, the encroaching partisanship over the figurehead nature of the office can be seen in how far “State of the Union” speeches have strayed from the constitutional task to report to Congress on the condition of the Union.
Were the president to resist the urge to over-reach for short-term partisan gain, he would stand to gain so much more credibility in having faith in the power of presiding. As a model to get back to, we might look back to George Washington, whose prior achievements in standing for the alliance gave him sufficient stature to preside. Hamilton and Jefferson and their allies were able to take up the mantel of partisan leadership in the cabinet, with the President thus freed up to preside over the new system of government and look to the public interest in the whole. Because partisan leadership contaminates presiding leadership, the presiding officer should take care to avoid the former in order to preserve the latter.
In fact, the delegates at the federal constitutional convention in 1787 intended the Electoral College to keep the popular demand for partisan leadership from infecting the Presidency, and thus the credibility of the office. Crucially, the electors, being selected by state legislatures, were to be once-removed from the passions of the people. In being tied to the direct popular elections in selecting electors, the state legislatures have unwittingly undone the check safeguarding the presiding role. Hence it is can be expected that presidents will act on a proclivity to be partisan as per their election campaign.
The presidency was designed to be occupied with accomplished and notable persons who could be expected to stand for the good of the whole. By virtue of his accomplished stature and self-discipline when it came to partisanship, George Washington was able to effectively preside over the Constitutional Convention of 1786. There being a presider with stature who resisted the temptation to take sides on every issue, the convention could withstand the infighting and conclude with a finished document at the end of the summer. In fact, Washington was such an effective presider that he could luxuriate on the final day with a request of his own…that the electorate of a US House seat be 20,000 rather than 30,ooo so the body would be that much more democratic (i.e., the representative being that much closer to the people…that much more knowable on an in-person basis). The problem is that weighing in on virtually every debate has become the modus operendi of every American President.
In short, the job description of the presidency was designed for one thing and yet the default has become something quite to the contrary. This can explain why we witness so many presidents fail. I was not really very surprised in watching two hours of the health-care “summit” that it was basically political theatre. I was not surprised that Barak Obama had trouble in moderating the discussion without being accused of partisan by Republican participants. So I was not surprised that the Republicans instinctively distrusted the president’s attempts to moderate the summit meeting. In such a climate, Barak’s presiding was doomed to failure for lack of credibility. It really is not his fault; his office had long before been transformed into something that is ill-suited to in design. To ignore something’s design and expect it to do that which undercuts it is a recipe for ineffectiveness.
Carol Lee and Laura Meckler, “Obama Makes Populist Pitch,” The Wall Street Journal, January 25, 2012.
“Chief Justice: State of Union Scene ‘Troubling’” MSNBC.com
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By the time Lincoln was back on the train returning to Washington, he was down with a high fever from Small Pox. I’m thinking the illness did not grip the president the second he stepped on the train. Already distraught over Mary falling off a horse-carriage, his son Tod taken grievously ill, and the old, tired war, the president was almost certainly already stricken when he delivered the address and perhaps even when he wrote it the day and evening before. I suspect that the Gettysburg Address would not have been only 272 words long had Lincoln been well.
I make it point of getting a flu shot every year now. Contracting the illness was particularly costly academically when I was in graduate school. Typically, I would ration any accumulated energy to going to class. Back in bed, I found writing to be quite arduous, and sustained reading to be almost as exhaustive. In terms of writing, editing particular words or sentences was easiest, for it takes far less energy to think than to write on and on.
I suspect that Lincoln wrote such a short speech because thinking up just the right word or phrase was easier than writing a lot. Small Pox is much more serious than the common cold. Lincoln was likely already exhausted and feeling bad on the train to Gettysburg and in the bedroom that night before the day of the address. Lincoln’s emphasis on diction rather than length was likely a function of the illness rather than a political calculus or ingenious breakthrough.
Lincoln’s address was so short that the photographer only caught the president as he was returning to his seat. In the photo, Lincoln’s head is down, perhaps because he was already not feeling well. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons.
By the end of the twentieth century and into the next decades at least, U.S. presidents typically relied on a speech-writing staff to write many speeches, the vast majority of which being long. One effect of this trend is the shift in presidential leadership from broad principles to incremental legislative reform. In this context of technician presidents, the attendant speech-inflation resists any feasible restraint. Strangely, presidents overlook Lincoln’s short address as a precedent and act more like the famous orator who spoke for two hours just before Lincoln. In spite of the obvious lesson from Gettysburg, the notion that a very short speech can be more powerful than a long one has been lost on the American political elite.
The explanation may lie in Lincoln’s address being a function of him being ill rather than any political calculus. Even so, a discovery is a discovery, even if it comes about by accident. That the subsequent political success of the Gettysburg Address did not give rise to an ongoing practice in political rhetoric suggests that such a short, extremely thought-out speech runs against the current of politics at the moment and even out a year or two. Stature achieved by hard-thought reputational management literally by intensely investing in word choice, or diction, is of value nevertheless even within the space of a four-year term, especially if the incumbent has courageously taken on a few vested interests by moving society off a “sacred cow” or two. Even if neither statesmanship nor politics accounts for the severe brevity of Lincoln’s address, I contend that much political gold is waiting for the leader—whether in the public or private sector—who radically alters his or her rhetorical style and preparation.
Does the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution give the president authority to order the Treasury Secretary to raise debt above the existing debt limit? I contend such authority does not exist, at least as of 2013.
In December 2012, Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, had “flatly renounced the 14th Amendment option, saying: ‘I can say that this administration does not believe that the 14th Amendment gives the president the power to ignore the debt ceiling — period.’”During October 2013, Wall Street, including investors and bank executives, was quietly coming to the opposite conclusion. Of course, fear of a declining stock market in the wake of a governmental default means that the financial sector has a strong financial interest in forestalling default by finding sufficient presidential authority in the Fourteenth Amendment.
Are these Wall Street execs qualified, whether by virtue of their jobs or wealth, to advise the White House administration on matters of constitutional interpretation? Image Source: Jason Reed/Reuters
“At the end of the day if there is no action and the United States has a default looming, I think President Obama can issue an executive order authorizing the Treasury secretary to make payments,” said David Kotok, chief investment officer of Cumberland Advisors. “There’s always been more flexibility in the hands of Treasury than they’ve acknowledged.”Kotok could cite some lawyers teaching in American law schools who claimed that “the president could essentially ignore the debt limit imposed by Congress, because the 14th Amendment states that the ‘validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law,’ including for debts like pensions and bounties to suppress insurrections, ‘shall not be questioned.’”Authorized by law is the key to unpacking the fourth section of the amendment.
To proceed to the constitutional analysis, click on: “Can the President Unilaterally Raise the Debt-Ceiling?”
1. Nelson D. Schwartz and Charlie Savage, “Wall St. Fears Go Beyond Shutdown,” The New York Times, October 2, 2013.
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E.U. and U.S. Counterparts Meet
President Barak Obama of the U.S. and Presidents Herman Van Rompuy and José Barroso of the E.U. at a news conference following the EU-US Summit at Lisbon in 2010. Even though the E.U. and U.S. are both empire-scale federal unions of states, and thus are equivalent in terms of political type or genre, they differ in terms of how their respective federal offices are arranged and constituted. Interestingly, the alternative of having more than one president (e.g., a presidential council) was debated in the U.S. Constitutional Convention in 1787.
Image source: European Pressphoto Agency. 2010.
The personal belief stresses E.U. and U.S. equivalence politically (i.e., empire-level federal unions) and in terms of scale (i.e., empire-scale). It follows that the two E.U. presidents—of the European Council and the Commission—are together the counterpart of the U.S. president. We see this visually in the picture, even down to the podiums and manner of dress. The respective flags are also visually equivalent, being the same size and contiguous (an early American flag would be more equivalent visually and in terms of federal development). Lastly, “EU-US” illustrates equivalence, and in a font that indicates that the equivalence is modern, rather than traditional. Accordingly, I chose the Arial font, which is modern yet official-looking, for my title. The title itself highlights the theme of equivalence by “EU and US” and “counterparts.”
The following picture also shows the full presidential equivalence (while showing how the EU is not a replica of the US):
The three men look more “governmental” here. Also, the flags show a symmetry that supports to motif of equivalence.
Image source: AFP/Getty Images. 2012.
Which of these pictures do you think best depicts the motif of equivalence?
Has the presidency become too big for one person? This question was salient in the 1970s, as Americans endured Nixon’s Watergate plight, Ford’s frustrations with stagflation, and Carter’s failure to free the American hostages being held in Iran. Meanwhile, none of those presidents were able to take on OPEC (an Arab Oil Cartel). Reagan’s answer was that big government, not an overwhelming office, was the problem. Leaving aside the ideological question of whether the U.S. Government had indeed grown too big (especially relative to the state governments), I contend that occupants of the White House have serially misunderstood the nature of the office. In short, the presidents have allowed their efforts in partisan leadership to crowd out being the chief executive of the executive branch. I suspect that the explanation involves a mix of self-centeredness and simply wanting to shirk the boring stuff for more exciting activities.
To preside literally means to stand before. In the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Ben Franklin referred to the proposed office as sitting “in peaceful Council … merely to preside over our civil concerns, and [to] see that our laws are duly executed” (Madison, Notes, p. 55). Referring to the first role, which I take to be that of presiding, Governeur Morris stated on July 19 in convention that the President should be “a firm guardian of the people and of the public interest” (Madison, Notes, p. 324). In this respect, the office of the American presidency is thus geared to looking over the viability of the whole, leaving the partisanship and legislating to the legislative branch. When these two are not left to the Congress (the veto being originally intended to protect the whole rather than for ideological purposes), the credibility of presiding is compromised. Further, the administrative tasks in seeing that “our laws are duly executed” are unduly delegated or simply ignored.
In presiding, the president stands for the Union, which includes protecting its system of governance at the macro level and the Union itself, whether from internal dissolution (e.g., Lincoln) or foreign invasion (e.g., FDR). The Presidential leadership that is most credible is at this “high altitude” level. Because the office is not primarily oriented to partisanship on every single issue before the Congress, partisan leadership, such as on a garden-variety issue, is ultimately bad for a president both in terms of credibility and opportunity cost (i.e., the value of tasks closer to the office that are crowded out).
George Washington can be cited to support the thesis that the office is oriented to flying above all but the highest storm clouds. The first president had both Thomas Jefferson and James Hamilton in his cabinet. Listening to the two men debate, the presider could discern where the national interest lay rather than risk ideological group-think oriented to using the office to push an agenda. President Jackson was oriented to the good of the whole rather than a partisan ideology when he opposed Congress funding roads entirely within a given state (Missouri) and yet sent troops to South Carolina after it passed the Nullification Acts that purported nullified federal laws that hurt the state’s interests. It is not clear if the president was a federalist or an anti-federalist, as his focus was on keeping federalism in balance because that would support the viability of the Union.
The results of a 2010 focus group reported by the New York Times indicated that Americans wanted a president who resists the temptation to engage in partisan fighting. They wanted a leader who would stand for things on which most Americans agree, such as that American society should be more civil. Such leadership is oriented to a vision of the whole that transcends partisanship. For example, Barak Obama could have run in 2008 explicitly as a multiracial (rather than black) candidate capable of personifying what America was rapidly becoming: a true melting-pot wherein multiracial persons are seen as the leading wave of the future. Taking a partisan stand on virtually every issue that come out of Congress so as to have as much as possible his way undercuts the credibility of “personification leadership” because people on the other side of a given issue will resist accepting the president as personifying anything involving themselves. In other words, Obama’s political opponents will not buy into any America that he personifies—period.
As a general principle, partisanship undercuts presiding. Paradoxically, a president wanting to maximize his influence on every issue winds up undercutting his influence that is most in line with the design and nature of his office and thus effective. In wanting so much to go his way, a president’s ego obstructs his performance on tasks that only he is in a position to accomplish. Lost in the backwash of partisan spit is not only presiding, but also executing the law as the chief executive. It is counterintuitive to conclude that a sort of presidential leadership (i.e., the partisan or ideological variety) is bad because it crowds out the more fitting administrative role. Properly understood, (presiding) leadership applies to the presidency without crowding out the administrative tasks in holding agencies accountable. Sadly, presidents typically try to get involved in as many issues as possible—hence the office appears to have grown too cumbersome for one person.
Joe Hagin, George W. Bush’s deputy chief of staff, observed while still in office that there “was much less time [under the second Bush] to catch your breath during the day.” A constant juggling of issues—from wars down to cleaning up after hurricane Katrina often taking place all at the same time—had exhausted the White House staff. “There’s only so much bandwidth in the organization,” Hagin admitted. “Can any single person fully meet the demands of the 21st century presidency?” Doris Goodwin has argued that the growth in the number of things expected of the president has expanded exponentially since WWII. “The President’s inner circle can become stretched by the constant number of things labeled ‘crises’ that land on his desk.” Just because the media labels some issue as a crisis in order to increase viewership does not mean that the issue measures on the “presiding” scale. Surely the Presidency, being intentionally designed as one person rather than a presidential council, was not initially intended to micromanage every issue in public discourse. The proliferation of news sources has increased the pressure on the President to weigh in on more things. Meanwhile, his administrative tasks are neglected even more.
President Obama delivered 57 speeches in October, 2010 alone; he had seven speechwriters at the time. It would be interesting were someone to analyze those speeches to see how many pass muster in terms of presiding rather than being partisan on topical issues. The opportunity costs of getting into every issue in hopes that each one will go the way he wants include not only foregone presiding opportunities but also administrative lapses in executive branch agencies that the chief executive and his immediate staff could have caught and rectified at an early stage.
In May 2013, President Obama claimed that he had learned that the IRS had been targeting conservative groups for audits “only with the rest of you.” This statement “drew criticism,” according to the Wall Street Journal, by “focusing attention on his management style and whether he has kept himself sufficiently informed about the agencies under his authority.” I suspect that the president enjoys giving partisan speeches more than overseeing many agencies. In other words, he allowed the time-expansive sort of (partisan) presidential leadership to eclipse his administrative duties. Even the American people tend to view the presidency as a leadership rather than administrative position—so the president gets away with trying to get as much as possible to come out his way, politically.
The problem can be viewed as one of self-discipline. While in the U.S. Senate, Sen. Obama did not enjoy the committee hearings, but attending them was part of his job. Whereas in the Senate his leader, Harry Reid, could hold him to task on the monotonous parts of the job, no such authority in the White House exists over a president. To do more administratively as chief executive of the executive branch agencies, Obama would have had to rely on his own self-discipline, which appears to be in short supply. In regard to the partisanship in the IRS, it could be asked why neither the president nor his White House staff had caught the problem in their administrative capacity as the conservative groups were being targeted. Perhaps the president had been too busy giving campaign speeches or negotiating with Republican legislators on legislative proposals.
Daniel Stone, “Hail to the Chiefs,” Newsweek, November 22, 2010, pp. 30-33.
Matt Bai, “Voter Disgust Isn’t Only About Issues,” The New York Times, October 6, 2010.
Peter Nicholas, “Obama’s Counsel Was Told of IRS Audit Findings Weeks Ago,” The Wall Street Journal, May 19, 2013.
James Madison, Notes in the Federal Convention of 1787. New York: Norton, 1987.
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