January 4, 2006

"Personally, I am always struck by how weak the American president is compared to, say, a British prime minister..."

BBC Washington correspondent Matt Frei gives us some perspective on our current political struggles:
Once again all the papers are groaning under the weight of dense articles and worthy columns about the right balance between executive powers in a time of war and the need to check any president's monarchical instincts.

The Bush buddies argue that Dubya is doing what it takes to fight the war on terror. The Bush baiters charge he's behaving like a nascent dictator. This debate is as old as George Washington - who advocated a quasi-monarchical role for the president - and Thomas Jefferson, who wanted to take the "chief" out of chief executive.

It is bitter and it goes to the very heart of the American system of governance.

Personally, I am always struck by how weak the American president is compared to, say, a British prime minister, who can do more or less as he and his party please if they have the right majority in parliament.

Potus - President of the United States, as the secret service refer to the most powerful man on Earth in their briefs - is more like a Venetian doge: surrounded by the trappings of monarchy but forever checked in the exercise of his power.
Well, checked power... that really is one of our big ideas. We did try to distinguish ourselves from the British when we came up with that one, you know.

14 comments:

Sloanasaurus said...

People forget that much of the check on Presidential power comes from term limits and federalism as well as the three branches of government.

In venezuala, Chavez is taking dictorial powers by putting his croanies in the legislative and judicial branches and taking "federalizing" control of all the police forces. Ultimately, Chavez will be granted the Presidency for" life by these croanies and democracy will dissappear from Venezuala.

In the United States that would be more difficult because you have to do the same thing with all the state governments as well and you would have to reach down to the local levels to control police forces. This would take either a major national crisis on the scale of the Civil War or decades of slow institutional change.

Jacques Cuze said...

Well, checked power... that really is one of our big ideas. We did try to distinguish ourselves from the British when we came up with that one, you know.

Then in general, how do you feel about the Bush/Cheney expansion of powers these past four years? The attacks on habeas, the secrecy surrounding the energy meetings, the warrantless surveillance when warrants were obtainable, the "it's not torture if we say it's not torture", the politicizing and crony hiring in positions that used to be led by non-partisan scientists, the outsourcing of the (supposedly non-partisan) US Army to corporations and mercenaries, PATRIOT and PATRIOT II, the refusal to give Congress proper budgets and accountings for the war, the corruption of the press by secretly paying for favorable articles in the press, the demonizing of critics, the warnings that disagreement with the administration is tantamount to treason, etc.? Good stuff? Bad stuff? Oh, it's Congress' fault or it's for the Supreme Court to decide?

In Comic Form: Keyboard Kommando Komics Present:

How do you feel about this?

PatCA said...

If Blair is so powerful, why has his entire anti-terror package been defeated?

Number of radicals deported after his crackdown: zero.

DaveG said...

quxxo -

I feel that the Executive Branch is co-equal to the Legislative Branch, and if either of those is corrupt and overreaching, it is the Legislative Branch. Congress cannot constitutionally make laws that strip the Executive Branch of its Constitutional authority, although they seem to constantly attempt to. The tie-breaker should be the Judicial Branch, but given their apparent desire to be legislators as well, I don't think they are to be trusted either.

Now ask us how we felt when Clinton/Gore made the same "expansion of powers" during their regime.

Theo Boehm said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Theo Boehm said...

The differences between the powers and roles of the American President and British Prime Minister form an interesting narrative in the history of WWII. Churchill notes in his memoirs that, in the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor at least, Roosevelt had nothing like the streamlined British system for putting his executive will into action. Roosevelt had what were to Churchill rather informal and ad-hoc relationships with the Secretary of War and the other service chiefs.

Churchill, on the other hand, had better staff organization to implement actions, but he was limited by the Cabinet system. He was part of an all-party War Cabinet, and the overall decision-making was collective. In Cabinet, Churchill was the first if not among equals, at least first among those who had to agree to make the thing work. Churchill notes that the President and his close advisors could make decisions that would require Cabinet approval in Britain, and Churchill makes a number of complaints that he was often limited by what he could persuade his colleagues to do. The Prime Minister had more effective power, but it was checked by Parliament. This remains true today.

During the course of WWII and afterward more formal structures were developed to define the role of the American President in defense and intelligence, but Presidents repeatedly seem to have pushed against perceived limitations. The executive in this country has been caught in a more complex and ultimately politicized web than the Prime Minister, who answers first and foremost to his party and Parliament. The analogy with the Venetian doge, while not perfect, is indeed apt.

Icepick said...

Theo, nice comment!

DaveG, please cite examples of what the Clinton regime did to expand its power. Agree with him or not, Quxxo has provided a fairly specific list of complaints. If you're going to say "The other guys did it too" then you should cite specifics, at least.

vbspurs said...

It's amusing that Matt Frei would say this, as it's always been the case that our PM has been seen as checked by the benches' and factions' barracking in Parliament.

In the UK today, there is a backlash at the "presidential" style seen by some, as being employed by Tony Blair (with Gordon Brown as his unspoken VP).

The press especially find this new development suspicious, and "American", so I'm wondering just what are the exact differences in power structure between the two.

And if anyone wants a study on presidential power, just Google "French Presidency".

His powers are by far, the most generous of any First World president.

For starters, he has the bureaucracy at his virtual command, unlike that of the British PM and American president.

Though France, there are two sets of laws in force (criminal, civil), but also "administrative", this works in the French president's favour.

Cheers,
Victoria

Cold Pillow said...

Our Presidents powers are checked? But don't you know we are at war! If you deny the Presidents right to act unilaterally and without oversight you are pro-terrorist and part of the hate America first crowd. Right?

Gabe said...

An interesting article on this topic was written by Lloyd Cutler - To Form a Government (Foreign Affairs, 1980) - No (free)link that I can find, but here is a link to the Google Scholar citation.

Cutler, who passed away this past May, was brought in to the Carter administration as White House Counsel to convince the Senate to pass the SALT II treaty. Obviously, he was unsuccessful and this article explains the difficulties in running a government the way we do and possible reforms - all using the SALT II experience as a base.

Worth a read if you live near a good library (or have JSTOR)!

David said...

In a democracy the people vote the person into office that most represents their personal interests and desires. This desire necessarily encompasses their view of how the government should impact their lives in foreign and domestic affairs.

These desires are often ignored by the party out of favor. In this case, it is evident that the party out of favor will do anything to get itself back into power at the expense of the properly declared wish of the majority.

This deprives the Commander-In-Chief of the necessary lattitude to effectively prosecute, in this case, the war on terror.

We have now a two front war. The Commander-In-Chief must fight the terrorists on the one hand (emphasis on one) and what amounts to a fifth column on the other.

Since a majority of Americans voted Bush into office not once but twice, it is logical to assume that some Democrats and most Republicans support the Commander-In-Chief.

Logically, this view illuminates the disparity between the party leadership and the majority within the party.

Answer the questions of motivation, opportunity, and means. It then becomes clear who benefits from a weakened CinC and failed policy!

All this rhetoric about checks and balances, state power, etc. is simply a revisit to PoliSci 101. The paranoid fear that a runaway POTUS could run roughshod over a cowering, bugged, and surveilled populace is absurd and focuses our attention on the 'red herring' of abuse of power versus the very real threat of another 9/11.

Theo Boehm said...

Icepick, thank you.

David,
I agree to a certain extent with your comments, but I do have a few quibbles.

First, George Bush is not, at least in his first term, a majority President. He lost the popular vote in the first election by a substantial six-figure number. Americans have been closely divided about him since the beginning.

Secondly, if “the current rhetoric about checks and balances, state power, etc.” is an exercise in revisiting PoliSci 101, then I say good! Given the appalling ignorance in this country about even the most basic facts of our government and laws, the public could certainly use a PoliSci course. Whether the current debate rises to that level is a question, but a spirited discussion can never do harm.

That said, there is a real question of whether the President’s political and media opponents have crossed a line into something resembling fifth-column activities. I frankly don’t know, but I think in general not. I agree with the view, however, that it is much overblown to say that the current President “could run roughshod over a cowering, bugged, and surveilled populace. I think Sen. Lieberman has it about right in his willingness to support the President and give him fairly wide latitude during the current crisis, while reserving the right to roundly criticize and oppose him for his failings.

Unlike Churchill and Roosevelt, referred to in a previous comment, George Bush is a miserable failure as a politician. A worthy politician should consider it his or her first duty to unite the people in time of crisis and must possess the ability to do this. Bush may have wanted to unify the nation, but he lacks the most basic ability. Bush has become the most divisive President since Nixon and in many ways exceeds Nixon in his corrosive effect on the politics of and civil discourse in this country. Churchill and Roosevelt were able to unite people effectively to endure and prevail in the greatest conflict in history. To mention George Bush in the same breath as these is to demonstrate how far our polity has fallen.

David said...

Theo; I agree with you about Lieberman. He is a fresh breeze of reasonableness. I believe we should be studying history in order to be effective at Political Science.

It is my studied opinion, open to debate of course, that both Churchill and Roosevelt were not popular leaders. Churchill famously did not belong at court but was one of the greatest speakers I have ever studied.

Can you imagine Churchill sleeping late and running the war in his bathrobe, smoking a cigar, and drinking?

Roosevelt was pilloried for his polio and his wife was unconscionably criticized for her looks.

Israel's Sharon is a brilliant General and poor diplomat.

Bush is a terrible speaker but has the ability to maintain his laser focus on the real problem of our time. This at a time when moral relativism competes head on with the strictures of morality.

While driving around today I was surveilled at the bank ATM, cameras at the mall, cell tower tracking as I used my cell phone and laptop, and the bank called up to question two purchases I made on my credit card over the internet. I was also informed that it would be in my best interest to call the number on the back of my credit card whenever I go out of town and purchase outside the normal parameters of my spending experience. I look down at two different modems and notice that DirecTV and Comcast are noting my viewing habits as I block to tracking cookies developed from a spyware scan.

I note when the President goes on the air and presents his case his numbers go up. He needs to speak more often no matter how he butchers the language.

A case can be made that the fifth column reference stated earlier is active. It consists of the failure of our educational system to teach the basics: reading, writing, and arithmetic. I believe I can make a case that "Hollywood" is teaching it's twisted version of history to fill the gap left open by our schools.

By the by, I would welcome a brief discussion on the philosophical difference, if any, between leading and uniting.

Drew said...

I would like to thank Theo and David for their respectful and educated dialogue. It has been a refreshing change from the left versus right bickering to which I contribute.