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.