Presidents versus Monarchs

Over at his blog, presidential scholar Matthew Dickenson reminds us that U.S. Presidents are not monarchs–they aren’t even particularly powerful heads of state.

The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza wrote an interesting column two days ago under the headline “It’s Virtually Impossible to be a Successful Modern President.” Cillizza begins his piece like this: “Being president is the most powerful job in the world. At which you will almost certainly fail.”

Both those statements are wrong, of course. As I and other presidency scholars have written repeatedly, the presidency is not a very powerful office and it is certainly not the most powerful job in the world. Indeed, even among elected chief executives in modern democracies, the presidency is one of the weaker offices. The primary reason, of course, is because the Framers wanted it that way, as indicated by their decision to embed the presidency within a constitutional system of shared powers. That’s why presidents cannot dismiss Congress, call for new elections, or even count on the support of a legislative majority to pass legislation – all expectations that many prime ministers in other nations possess. And, with the ratification of the 22nd amendment, presidents lucky enough to win reelection serve most of their second term as defacto lame ducks. As Brendan Nyhan notes in his column today, however, this weakness has not stopped individuals from exaggerating the president’s potential degree of control over events.

It always amuses me (in a black humor sort of way) when Americans criticize the President–any president–for failure to do X, Y or Z. He promised to do it, and he hasn’t, so he lied…or he’s weak, or he’s in someone’s pocket. Now on occasion, some or all of those things may be true, but more often that not, the person complaining displays a total lack of understanding of how our government works.

Or increasingly, doesn’t.


  1. Anyone in this country who has been paying attention is well aware that John Boehner is running this country and President Obama. Boehner and his privately owned Congress (a large group of baboons) have this country in a headlock; until and unless the Tea Party, Koch brothers, NRA, “The Donald”, Wall Street, et al, run out of money, this will not change. Not unless we, the poor relations politically, head to the polls in droves this November and begin the process of voting the GOP out on their collective butts. Can we do it? Yes we CAN – but WILL we? That is the question. Consider the current lawsuit and possible upcoming impeachment of President Obama; spearheaded by the collective 1% who are currently in control of the country and the people. This control includes our voting rights, our choice of birth control, women’s pay levels and health decisions, education for all Americans, and on and on and on. Al Capone was finally tripped up, arrested, convicted and imprisoned for tax evasion; so why can’t we do this to the offenders who are pushing Americans closer and closer to a majority of poverty level citizens?

  2. Yes, Jo Ann, liberals tend to lack the political will or the political oomph to put a halt to the idiocies we are now enduring. My guess is that by this afternoon we will hear people proclaiming that President Obama was directly responsible for the death the other day of a US Army General in Afghanistan.

  3. Our founders had little faith in the “common man” so between their Constitution and state (colony) control of voting rights an oligarchy was born. Those with male genitals, white skin and wealth (land) were obligated to decide for all of those less endowed.

    It took many sacrificed lives and plenty of perservence on the part of many heroes but by 1920 the law had been fixed and in the 60s the culture had been. Democracy. A long, hard road. Everybody contributes to federal hiring and firing decisions.

    But the idea that decisions should be made by a handful of “qualified” caretakers never goes away. Today there are those who believe that a board of directors like the Koch’s Bros, Sheldon Adelson, Rupert Murdoch, Donald Trump, Grover Norquist, Rush Limbaugh, and Glenn Beck could save us from the hoards of poor trying to steal their money.

    But, the half of us that vote, anyway, will not give up our decision rights so those must be bought by pervasive mass media brand marketing for the board of directors above to have the influence that is their right as signaled by God and their parents for giving them most of our wealth.

    So, our generation could be the one that history recognizes as the one who gave it all away in exchange for “Dancing with the Stars”.

    Or, we could turn off TV and get to work on the massive challenges that 7B humans on earth have wrought. Climate change, education when the knowledge gained and must be taught doubles every few years, wealth distribution that eliminates crushing poverty and all of what that does to social stability, the elimination of religious competition, sex for pleasure and procreation not business, free markets based on fully informed consumers rather than manipulated sheeple.

    If we’re to earn our freedom to be what we can, we must accept the responsibility of taking care of all we can.

    And in a democracy that starts with hiring the best statesmen, and the firing of tyrants. The design of our government and democracy is not at fault. Our generation is.

  4. I fear the Current Occupant is mostly regarded as being alternatively or simultaneously dictatorial and weak because he is, well, black.

  5. Had he been a bit wiser, he would have tried. He should have fired Gen McChrystal for reporting to his office wearing Battle Fatigues, and when he further allowed him to retire a 4 star in place of his actual rank of three, he set the stage for all future failure. He had lost all respect. When the military can dis you. You’re no longer the CIC. He should have issued an order to remove all troops from Gitmo. To hell with what Congress financed. He should have moved to dismantle the CIA. He should have reigned in the NSA. All this during the long two years he had coming in. He should have told Nancy to invoke the nuclear option five minutes after Bohner declared his job was to get him out of office. Shoulda, woulda, coulda. Michelle would have done better.

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