With the economy picking up steam, President Obama’s reelection prospects have brightened considerably. The unemployment rate is dropping, manufacturing activity is rebounding (with GM the top automaker again), and the stock market is rising. According to a Yahoo! forecast, the president will win in November with 303 electoral votes.
While this is good news for Obama, it reminds us how the public assigns too much credit or blame to the White House for the country’s well-being (or lack thereof). As Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson wrote in 1952, the president is the “focus of public hopes and expectations. In drama, magnitude and finality his decisions so far overshadow any others that almost alone he fills the public eye and ear.” When our political system isn’t working, the public assumes it can solve national problems by electing a new leader rather than making the structural changes that are needed.
Many observers point to Congress with its gerrymandered districts as the source of dysfunction in Washington, and public approval ratings suggest that voters agree. But as I argue in a forthcoming book (Two Presidents Are Better Than One, NYU Press 2013), we can trace the defects in our national government to the decision of the founding fathers to adopt a unitary rather than plural executive.
The framers worried about a too powerful legislature and an insufficiently energetic executive, but they left us instead with a president who controls foreign policy, oversees a vast federal bureaucracy and has become the imperial president that the framers feared and tried to guard against.
And when a single person from one political party exercises so much power, it is hardly surprising that partisan conflict has markedly increased. Half of the electorate feels that that its interests and concerns are not represented in a politically dominant White House. Instead of having a “government of the whole people by the whole people, equally represented,” the U.S. has a “government of the whole people by a mere majority of the people, exclusively represented.”
In future posts, I will discuss more about my argument that we will remedy political dysfunction in Washington only if we adopt a more consensual, European model of government, in which both major parties are represented in the executive branch. With a two-person, two-party presidency, in which the executives share power equally, we can expect the bipartisan kind of governing that voters prefer and that can overcome the gridlock in our national government.