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The Presidency in Crisis American Studies Today Online

The problems of the Clinton Administration and the defeat of the Democrats in this year's Congressional elections cannot all be attributed to defects in Bill Clinton's personality or style of government, but signify a major change in the relationship between the Presidency, Congress and the people.

by Niall Palmer of Brunel University College

Posted 23-Jan-2014


I: Vietnam, Watergate and Presidential Power

II: Party Weakness And Reform

III: New Technology: Politics by Computer

Conclusion: The Presidency Adrift.


The scenario, for students of American politics, is depressingly familiar. Over halfway through his administration, President Clinton's re-election prospects look bleak as he comes under attack for mismanaging his political agenda and failing to deliver on his campaign promises. Critics claim he lacks the courage of his convictions, has badly mishandled relations with Congress and is out of touch with public opinion. The hopes raised at his election in 1992 have dissolved in disillusionment and recrimination. In November 1994, frustrated voters elected the first Republican Congress since 1955. Effective political power has passed, at least temporarily, from the Presidency to Congress.

We have been here before. After the enforced resignation of Richard Nixon (1969-74), the presidency suffered a haemorrhage of prestige and authority. Both the Ford (1974-77) and Carter (1977-81) administrations were attacked for weak leadership, poor congressional relations and an incoherent policy agenda. Both Presidents were defeated in re-election bids. Commentators began speculating that America had entered another era of one-term presidents or that the Presidency, as a political institution, was no longer workable. The skill and showmanship of the Reagan administrations (1981-89) put a temporary stop to such notions. Reagan appeared comfortable with the levers of power, enjoying considerable early success in Congress, and his White House displayed an adroit ability for 'managing' the media. His triumphant re-election in 1984 seemed to indicate that presidential power was measurable by personality, the extent of the former depending on the strength of the latter. Clearly, scholars argued, the presidency was workable in the right hands.

Since 1989, the old doubts have resurfaced. The Bush and Clinton administrations have laboured under bad Congressional relations, difficult economic conditions and a crippling budget deficit. President Bush was defeated in his bid for re-election in 1992 and it seems possible that Clinton will himself become the fourth Chief Executive in six elections to be removed from office after one term.

Is 'failure' in the Oval Office a matter of personality? Do the individual flaws of Carter, Bush or Clinton explain the almost continual state of crisis in which executive leadership in the United States seems to languish? It is suggested in this article that they form only part of any explanation. For a broader perspective, attention should instead be directed at the social and political environment within which the presidency operates.

Presidential authority and effectiveness rest upon three main foundations:

  • coalition-building within Congress (based largely upon partisan support),
  • the maintenance of a relatively coherent domestic and foreign policy agenda and
  • the cultivation of a positive image for transmission to voters via the news media.

Since the 1960s these foundations have been steadily eroded, leaving the office of the presidency adrift in a much-changed and still changing political landscape. The most important of these corrosive influences are outlined below.

I: Vietnam, Watergate and Presidential Power

Within roughly ten years, the presidency's dominant phase was brought to an end by the disastrous war in Southeast Asia and by revelations of corruption and deceit in the executive branch. In 1973 Congress passed the War Powers Act to restrict the Executive's ability to involve the U.S. in armed conflict abroad without congressional consent. Presidents now tread more carefully in foreign policy than at any point since 1945. In 1980, Jimmy Carter withdrew his SALT II treaty from Senate consideration in the face of certain defeat. George Bush only narrowly won Senate approval for Operation Desert Storm in January 1991. Bill Clinton provoked a storm of protest by his 1995 decision to mount an independent executive bailout of the Mexican economy against the wishes of Congress. Since Vietnam, Congress has established its own specialist subcommittees and its own foreign policy initiatives and is more inclined to intervene in or oppose those of the White House. Hence both Bush and Clinton were disappointed in their efforts to coax financial aid from the legislature for the new Russian Republic.

The Watergate scandals also provoked a rash of measures to increase presidential accountability and restrict White House control over budget and resource allocation procedures. The 1975 Budget and Impoundment Control Act involved Congress more deeply in setting national economic policy. Since 1975, the budget process has become a virtual bloodbath as President and Congress battle for control of spending priorities. Again, White House freedom of movement has been significantly curtailed.

Both Vietnam and Watergate undermined respect and trust in the Oval Office, creating a newly antagonistic Congress less likely to be cowed by presidential threats or vetoes. The psychological impact of these events still reverberates through American politics today and despite a more polished image, the presidency has never recovered the authority and autonomy of its 'imperial' era. Unfortunately for the White House, public and media opinion seems not to have absorbed the impact and adjusted its expectations accordingly. Post-1974 presidents are still judged by comparison with their 'imperial' predecessors. The 'Hundred Days' benchmark for assessing a new President's performance in office is still used, although it originated during the Great Depression, during a time of acute crisis that no President has since faced. Thus, with few exceptions, new Presidents are judged and found wanting according to unfair standards and at a ridiculously early stage. Despite the damage of Vietnam and Watergate and the dilution of executive power, many White House watchers have not scaled down their expectations.

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II: Party Weakness And Reform

Decline of party strength and organisation began earlier this century, partly due to the growth of the federal government under FDR whose 'New Deal' bureaucracies served to undermine traditional social functions once carried out by party machines, thus diluting party loyalty. In the 1960's and 1970s new issues such as civil rights, feminism, environmentalism and consumer rights arose to challenge traditional voting habits. These issues did not divide neatly along party lines and more voters indulged in "ticket-splitting" (voting for different parties in different elections). Partly in response to these trends, the parties themselves began to question their own policies and challenge their leaders. In Congress, reforms democratised or 'opened up' selection procedures to broader participation. Senior members found themselves surrendering committee chairmanships to unknown newcomers. Whips found it harder to enforce party discipline and junior members increasingly pursued their own personal projects to gain media attention and impress their constituency voters. Former Representative Stephen Solarz (Democrat-NewYork) specialised in foreign affairs, appearing frequently on national news networks as a congressional spokesman giving views often at variance with his own party's policy. Senator Bob Kerrey (Democrat-Nebraska) melodramatically withheld his support for the 1993 Clinton economic package until certain last minute 'assurances' were received from the White House. Such incidents typify the individualism of modern politics. Congress members have much to gain, in publicity and in tangible rewards (grants for their constituencies) from unpredictable behaviour.

The effect upon presidential influence in Congress has been destructive. President Carter struggled to pass bills through a House and Senate controlled by his own party. President Reagan's early successes were largely due to Democrat 'Boll Weevil' defections. President Clinton has likewise been unable to rely upon solid party support, particularly for his anti-crime legislation and Healthcare Reform bill. Congress has been fragmented by the new individualism of its members. Presidents cannot realistically hope that a few familiar, experienced party leaders, such as Bob Dole, Newt Gingrich or Dick Gephardt, will be able to deliver en masse the support of their junior members.

Presidents must now build precarious new support coalitions beneath each separate bill and watch each disintegrate, either after the bill is passed or often before. Where President Eisenhower could cut a deal in the 1950's with Speaker Sam Rayburn or Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, Presidents now need to cut separate deals with as many 'undecided' members as possible, stitching together a patchwork quilt of support. The process is exhausting, time-consuming and is not conducive to long-term policy planning.

The rise of the primary in presidential selection was another method used to 'open up' the political system. Primaries allow voters a direct say in the choice of the party's standard bearer in the presidential election. However, they enable candidates to hijack the party nomination for president by assembling teams of consultants, lawyers, financiers and media advisers, many of whom have no party affiliation and no loyalty or goal beyond the victory of their chosen leader. Their appeal to voters is made over the heads of party of officials who simply have to get along with the leader the electorate has foisted upon them. The victorious candidates sometimes lack any experience of government at the national level. Neither Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Michael Dukakis nor Bill Clinton had ever served in the national legislature or held a Federal Government position before being nominated for President. The perils of this deficiency cannot be overstated. Modern presidents, facing a fragmented Congress, aggressive pressure groups and a cynical media, cannot afford the luxury of limited experience. Unfortunately, the modern election system tends to favour those candidates who are effective campaigners rather than those who may be effective administrators. Given these difficulties, it is not surprising that recent Presidents have appeared to flounder. The cement of practical experience, party loyalty and common cause is too often thin or nonexistent at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

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III: New Technology: Politics by Computer

The technological revolution re-inforced the changes described above. Congress has now overtaken the White House in the use of new technology. The breakdown of the partisan bond encouraged congressional candidates to develop their own independent resource bases. Helped by reform of campaign finance laws, they took advantage of computers, faxes, direct mail and a host of other innovations. House members face re-election every twenty four months so this becomes a question of political survival. Members must pay close attention to the needs and problems of their constituents. New technology enabled them to send weekly newsletters from Washington to their home voters, detailing activities on their district's behalf. Portable television studios and satellite links permitted the greater use of live hook-ups with panels of concerned voters, re-inforcing the image of an active and caring representative. Direct mail enables the solicitation of funds to proceed on a faster, broader scale.

For voters, too, there is new scope for activism. Pressure groups can mobilise resources and members almost instantaneously, flooding Capitol Hill with letters or jamming the switchboards with protest calls, as Republicans discovered in 1986 when the Reagan Administration publicly considered changes to Social Security laws affecting the elderly. Plans to place Congress on the Internet in 1995 will give voters direct access to the substance and detail of bills, even in their unamended form.

The consequence of this computer-enhanced interaction has been to increase the pace and complexity of politics and to isolate Senators and Representatives still further from presidential influence. During debates on the 1994 Healthcare bill, many key Democratic representatives withdrew their support from Clinton under pressure from local business groups who claimed health insurance payouts would force them to cut jobs. Much environmental legislation has suffered a similar fate and the mauling of the 1993 budget package can be attributed to members' fears that their individual districts might suffer more or benefit less from Clinton's plans. In effect, the technological revolution is widening the already large gulf between President and Congress. The former usually operates from a national perspective. The latter is motivated by regional and local concerns. Since regional and local activists can now exert enormous pressure on representatives and gain more access to vital data, it seems inevitable that Congress will be increasingly pulled out of the presidential orbit, its members deaf to White House pleas for concerted, national action.

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Conclusion: The Presidency Adrift.

This brief general survey of changes in the shape and practice of American politics is by no means exhaustive but should indicate that 'failure' in the White House is not purely a matter of individual competence. Undoubtedly, some of Clinton's problems are self-induced, particularly his reported inability to prioritise issues, manage his time effectively or steer a consistent course between competing liberal and moderate factions in the administration. The Carter White House suffered similar problems.

These flaws, however, do not fully explain the dilemmas confronting the late twentieth century presidency. The White House is trapped by outdated views of its role and influence. Voters' hopes are ritually raised and dashed every four years because media and public expectations of presidential power are rooted in the bygone age of old-style power manipulators, of FDR, Johnson and Nixon. These figures represent an era in which the presidency achieved unprecedented dominance and when the general political consensus reflected a broadly liberal, activist view of presidential power. The New Deal and Great Society programmes of the 1940's and 1960's embodied the belief that the presidency should initiate ambitious social programmes and offer direction and coherence to American politics. Those days are gone, at least for now. Congress is no longer quiescent, the media is no longer reverential. The major parties are now gradually clawing back some of their lost strength, but they are not the great vote-harvesting machines of yesteryear. Elections are longer, more costly and more reliant upon image and entertainment than ever. More importantly, they can raise to office Presidents who have only limited regional governing experience and weak ties to weakened party leaders. New technology permits pressure groups to raise the political temperature at will. These groups play a 'zero-sum game'. They are more or less disinterested in compromise or in delay. If congressional horizons are regional, pressure group horizons are narrower still.

The modern Presidency is unreasonably expected to conjure order from this mounting chaos. It is still expected to indicate a direction for the nation. But any success, as President Clinton is discovering, will always be short-lived. American politics is increasingly fast-paced, complex, decentralised and fragmented. Order is a rare commodity. Direction is an unstable one as thousands of hands, operating thousands of keyboards, grasp for the nation's steering wheel. In such an environment, a truly 'successful' Presidency may well prove to be the rarest commodity of all.

© Niall Palmer, 1995. The author retains copyright of the above article which may, however, be reproduced for distribution to students.

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American Studies Today Online is published by
American Studies Resources Centre, Aldham Robarts Library, Liverpool John Moores University, Maryland Street, Liverpool L1 9DE, United Kingdom.
Tel 0151-231 3241.
International(+44)151-231 3241.
E-mail info@americansc.org.uk
The views expressed are those of the contributors, and not necessarily those of the Centre or the University.
Liverpool John Moores University and the Contributors, 2011
Articles and reviews in this journal may be freely reproduced for use in subscribing institutions only, provided that the source is acknowledged.

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