Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Reinventing Leeway: The President and Agenda Certification

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Reinventing Leeway: The President and Agenda Certification

Article excerpt

Presidents certify agendas in the separated system. They are unusually well placed to perform that function. They do it best when acknowledging and promoting leeway, a condition facilitating competitive speculation by fostering the initiation, advancement, and serious review of policy and political choices. I will maintain that reinventing leeway is essentially an exercise in capitalizing on the conspicuous features of separationism, a rite encouraged in post-World War II politics by the frequency of split-party government. Presidents during this time who declined the invitation to accept the signal importance of leeway in certifying agendas typically were compelled later to make adjustments. My argument will rightly be tagged as conservative and unconventional. Conservatively, it stresses the need for optimal display of the features of the separated system, both for purposes of refinement and reform. Yet, it refrains from habitual reproach of the separation of powers, with a flight then to various unitarian remedies, making it unconventional.

Thwarting Reform with Change

Separation of powers and federalism in a democratic polity are designed to reflect different interpretations of change and to resist root and branch reform. Variable forms of representation are featured--a president elected nationally for a four-year term, renewable once; senators elected singly from states for six-year renewable terms; representatives elected by decennially redrawn districts within states for renewable two-year terms; and throngs of state and local executives, legislators, and even judges elected for variable term lengths and limits. The result is a kaleidoscope of perspectives on any event with wide-ranging effects. Change then takes many forms as viewed from the variable sightings of short, long, or limited termers representing different constituencies. Policy making is hugely complicated by such an arrangement, but consciousness of interests and sensitivity to effects are surely facilitated.

A representational mix that promotes access is unlikely to ease unified lawmaking (see Cain and Jones 1989). Negotiated settlements through bargaining are more characteristic, with policy, law, or reform made through a series of approximations. Transactional leadership is valued, transformational leadership is typically frustrated, and charismatic leadership is actively thwarted. Hazlitt (1942), who judged that the American system of government was inflexible and possibly evil, nevertheless concluded correctly that, "We cannot force [our leaders] to cooperate with each other. We cannot select or remove them at will, but only at fixed intervals."(1) Leaderless is the label applied to the system by some. Hazlitt is nearer the truth in spotting many power holders with legitimate and independent claims to leadership. Seldom can their cooperation and acquiescence be muscled into place. And so, negotiating and bargaining skills are required, along with sensitivity to alternative and competing perspectives.

Is there a higher order or command to force integration toward a unity of goals or purpose? Are there times for combining that which is separated constitutionally, institutionally, and electorally? A direct and clearly definable threat from the outside is one such instance. Collective fear is unifying, and crisis has an ordering effect. Under those conditions, the president has the greatest opportunity to lead since crisis is thought to be best treated by hierarchy, and, at least organizationally, the president is situated atop an elaborate hierarchical structure (including his role as commander in chief of the armed forces). Even so, the constitutional distribution of powers requires the president to proceed in a consultative manner so as to maintain support for the decisions taken.

Elections, too, may sometimes appear to express a unity of purpose, although signals normally are more diffuse. Overwhelming one-party wins are rare and maintaining that strength through a presidency even rarer. …

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