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US Independence Day author Q&A: part three

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In honor of Independence Day in the United States, we asked some of our influential American history and politics VSI authors to ask each other some pointed questions related to significant matters in America. Their passionate responses have inspired a four day series leading up to America’s 237th birthday. Today Charles O. Jones, author of The American Presidency: A Very Short Introduction shares his answers. Previously L. Sandy Maisel and Donald A. Ritchie shared their views. Check back tomorrow for Richard M. Valelly’s responses.

Richard M. Valelly (American Politics VSI) asked: Pundits and political scientists seem to fundamentally disagree on how powerful the president is. Pundits remark on the majesty and power of the office; political scientists are struck by how demanding the position is and how hard it is for presidents to make a difference.  Yet some political scientists increasingly see a president empowered to act unilaterally.  Where are we really in the evolution of the presidency?

Charles O. Jones: The status of any one presidency is explained primarily by the extent to which the incumbent accurately assesses and effectively employs available political capital. As the only term-limited elected officials in Washington, presidents are challenged to lead a government mostly in place and at work when they arrive. Even two-term presidents are among the shortest tenured members of the official Washington community.

Therefore, influencing other power-holders is enhanced or diminished by the incumbent’s demonstrated leadership skills. Presidents can act unilaterally, paying little heed to these others. Doing so may, however, risk reducing future presidential influence, perhaps with little short-term gain and long-term unfortunate repercussions.

So: “Where are we really in the evolution of the presidency?” My opening sentence focuses on “available political capital.”  Presidents in the last 25 years have “really” possessed limited political capital by reason of narrow popular vote margins and lack of commanding party control of Congress.  Yet presidents of this era (notably Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama) have, on critical issues, overestimated their heft. Consequently, the presidency is in need of more skillful, cross-partisan leadership suited to low- or no-mandate politics. Unilateralism in a separated powers system is not recommended.

L. Sandy Maisel (American Political Parties and Elections VSI) asked: Should political leaders be judged by their ability to achieve compromise solutions to divisive issues or by their willingness to stand on principle, rather than to compromise? 

Charles O. Jones: By the Founders’ design, our national political leaders are not typically offered clear choices between principle and compromise. Therefore, judgments of their records based solely on one or the other are mostly inapt. Representational diversity, by form and interests, was locked into the nation’s governmental structure with population featured in the House of Representatives, jurisdictions (states) in the Senate, and a combination in the Electoral College. Furthermore, terms of service are varied, thus likely to affect representation: two years (House), six years staggered (Senate), and four years with a two-term limitation added (president).

This premium placed by the Founders on variable representational bases invites multiple perspectives, principles, and values in lawmaking, implementation, and evaluation. The system design also assured, again intentionally, that no one leader rules all—no kings here. Expectations of leader behaviors are bound to differ, as associated with the purposes and functions of their settings in each institutions. Presidents, cabinet secretaries, House Speakers, floor leaders, and committee chairs have different jobs.  And each is affected by actions of the others. Separation of powers systems are, by definition, interdependent.  Accordingly, leaders are regularly served menus of issues in various stages of processing.

How then should political leaders be judged in a government like ours? Primarily by their abilities to maximize representation of legitimate interests, to facilitate negotiation among those interests, and to devise strategically sound sequences, revealing of priorities. The House, Senate, presidency, and executive departments and agencies are organized to accomplish these ends.  It is the responsibility of leaders to make those bodies work effectively.

Donald A. Ritchie (The US Congress VSI) asked: The US Congress has been called a “broken branch.”  If that’s so, whose fault is it: the institution, the political parties, or the voters?

Charles O. Jones: If the answer is: “Congress today is a broken branch,” what exactly is the question?  Mostly it appears to be a variation of: “Why isn’t lawmaking working the way I want it to work?” Or: “What has happened to the Congress I once knew?” Either question implies change, which, in turn, suggests shifting political conditions. And sure enough, the so-called “broken branch” today is shaped by very different circumstances than in the past, even the recent past.

If so, perhaps what is “broken” is more aptly reactions and modifications on Capitol Hill to changing political conditions. Rather than assigning fault we might better inquire what are those shifts and how might they be better understood? Paramount among shifts are new versions of split-party arrangements between the president and Congress and the continuity of narrow-margin politics.

Split-party arrangements have been common in the post-World War II period, until 1994 featuring dominance of Democratic congressional majorities with Republican presidents. Following the dramatic 1994 mid-term election, Republican congressional majorities have, in one house or both, served with Democratic presidents for ten years (six with Clinton; four, so far, with Obama). In recent decades, these congressional majorities have been by narrow margins.

Such conditions foster partisanship, whichever party is the majority. Slim margins invite, really demand, party unity. They also offer incentives for congressional policy initiatives in competition with the president and the other party. And one may predict changes in rules as the narrow-margin majority exploits its advantages while the Senate minority resists by forcing super majority votes in that chamber.  Not pretty but when was lawmaking a work of art?

Political scientists once favored vigorous two-party competition. Now that conditions promote it, the results are said to have “broken” the branch. Whose at fault? All of the above. It is, however, good to recall representative democracy is not for the weak hearted.

Charles O. Jones is Professor of Political Science Emeritus, University of Wisconsin, Madison, and a nonresident senior fellow, Miller Center for Public Affairs, University of Virginia. A former President of the American Political Science Association and editor of the American Political Science Review, his many books include: The American Presidency: A Very Short Introduction, The Presidency in a Separated System, Clean Air, Clinton and Congress, 1993-1996, and Passages to the Presidency.

The Very Short Introductions (VSI) series combines a small format with authoritative analysis and big ideas for hundreds of topic areas. Written by our expert authors, these books can change the way you think about the things that interest you and are the perfect introduction to subjects you previously knew nothing about. Grow your knowledge with OUPblog and the VSI series every Friday and like Very Short Introductions on Facebook. Read more in the Independence Day Q&A series.

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