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The Democratic Debate, Second Edition
Bruce Miroff, Raymond Seidelman, Todd Swanstrom
Chapter Overview
Chapter Twelve: Presidential Leadership and Elite Democracy

Contemporary presidents have many resources at their disposal to help them claim the role of champion of popular democracy. But the text proposes a wary approach to this claim: The presidency is more often closer to elite democracy than to popular democracy.

At the time of the founding, the most important advocate of presidential leadership was Alexander Hamilton, who wanted an energetic executive to resist popular passions while supplying creative political direction to the Republic. The Anti-federalists warned that such a lofty figure would come to resemble a monarch and would reduce republican citizens to passive spectators. In the twentieth century the presidency, especially in the hands of Franklin D. Roosevelt, has come to be associated with popular democracy. Yet popular democratic hopes for the presidency have been regularly disappointed, while the capacity of the presidency to threaten democratic values has been underscored by the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, the Iran-Contra affair, and the campaign finance scandals of the Clinton presidency. The chapter assesses the powers and limitations of the modern presidency, suggesting that external forces are at least as important as individual aspirations in shaping presidential performance. It is these forces that primarily determine whether a president will side with popular or elite democracy.

From Popular to Elite Democracy: The Case of Bill Clinton

With ample prodding from the media, Americans focus on the person in the White House. They know far more about presidential personality than presidential policies. This way of viewing the presidency tends to obscure the systemic forces that shape a presidency. It is these forces that largely determine whether a president turns out to be a popular or an elite democrat, as the case of Bill Clinton illustrates.

Clinton ran for office in 1992 as a folksy popular democrat from Arkansas, connecting with his public through town meetings and proposing an agenda entitled "Putting People First." During his first term he delivered on some of his populist promises, but more notable was his transformation into an elite democrat. His notorious $200 haircut symbolized his preference for hanging out with the rich and famous, but it would be too trivial to recall had it not foreshadowed Clinton's increasing immersion in the world of the wealthy as he raised prodigious sums for his reelection campaign. Town meetings with the mass public had been replaced by 1996 with White House coffee klatsches and sleepovers for affluent contributors.

Even more important for Clinton's transformation into an elite democrat was the pressure he experienced to reorient his economic agenda. Instead of the promised investments in education and worker retraining that would put people first, Clinton cut the deficit in order to please Wall Street, hoping that it would bring interest rates down and stimulate growth. Even as Clinton grumbled that he was being turned into a moderate Republican, his economic strategy precluded him from talking about economic inequality. Although the strategy was effective in promoting growth, it left Wall Street investors as the big gainers from Clinton's first term while suppressing discussion about the economic inequities and anxieties that continue to beset ordinary Americans.

The Presidency as an Institution

In their concern for strong presidential leadership, Americans tend to overemphasize the personal side of the president. What is often left unexplored are the powers, and limitations, of the presidency as an institution. The expansion of the institutional presidency has been justified in popular democratic terms, but several of its features have proved troubling for popular democracy.

Directly surrounding the president is the White House staff, composed of the president's personal aides and advisers along with their numerous assistants. Since the Franklin Roosevelt presidency, when the Brownlow Committee reported that "the president needs help," there has been a dramatic growth in the size of the White House staff. Following Richard Nixon's reign, supported by a bloated staff of over 550 people, subsequent presidents have slightly reduced its size. Modern presidents have turned to the staff, more than to the Cabinet, for political advice and help in running the government.

To understand why, we must recognize the differences between the Cabinet and the White House staff. In selecting Cabinet members, the president is likely to consider qualities like public prestige, executive ability, and representativeness that increase candidates' chances of confirmation by the Senate. By contrast, White House staffers do not need Senate approval and do not have to testify before Congress. Cabinet members must answer to many forces beside the president, who has greater flexibility with, and can expect greater loyalty from, White House staff. Staffers tend to be individuals with personal relationships to the president and reflect his personal roots and political biases. Yet the growth of the White House staff has been a mixed blessing. Some recent presidencies demonstrate that overly loyal staffers can provide a distorted picture of the political reality outside the White House; rather than enhancing the scope of presidential power, they have instead produced a peculiar form of presidential blindness, similar to the monarchical mentality against which the Anti-federalists had warned.

The other main components of the Executive Office of the President (EOP) are the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Council of Economic Advisers (CEA), and National Security Council (NSC). These units were originally designed to produce institutional'objective and expert'policymaking advice for the president. In recent years, however, the EOP has become more politicized. The extension of the president's personal power through the EOP has been justified as an indispensable tool of presidential leadership. But, as illustrated by Reagan's NSC and David Stockman's OMB, the extension of personal power has not always resulted in the enhancement of presidential wisdom.

Americans see the president's Cabinet in two different ways: as the individual heads of the executive agencies, and as a collegial body dispensing its collective wisdom to the president. In reality, Cabinet meetings are largely symbolic affairs. Many Cabinet heads come to pursue the interests of their own departments ("go native"), and for important matters presidents often turn to their "inner Cabinet," composed of the secretaries of state, defense, and treasury along with the Attorney General.

Even with compliant Cabinet leaders, presidents find the management of the federal bureaucracy to be an arduous task. The modern administrative state diverges from the pyramidal model of executive management, with the president firmly in control at the top. A number of factors, including its vast size and the civil service system, limit the president's control over the bureaucracy. Presidents from both parties have been frustrated by the ability of executive agencies to resist or even ignore their directives. This has led to determined efforts to recast the bureaucracy in the president's own ideological image.

Of all recent presidents, Ronald Reagan has been most successful at this task. His administration used several methods, including personnel and budgetary strategies, to rein in executive agencies. To some scholars, Reagan's administrative strategy stands out as a blueprint for future presidencies. From a more critical perspective, however, there are drawbacks to presidential control of the bureaucracy. Too much control may hurt the morale and quality of the civil service. Most importantly, presidential domination can be used to undermine legislation favored by Congress and the American people. The weakening of OSHA during the 1980s illustrates how "successful" presidential leadership may undermine other values'public preferences, legislative intent, a skilled civil service'that also have a place in a democratic political order.

The Presidency and the Congress

As the framers intended, conflict, not cooperation, typifies the relationship between the presidency and Congress. This clash is often presented as a competition between the broad, national viewpoint of the president and the narrow, parochial views of members of Congress, making the president the sole champion of popular democracy at the national level. This idea does not bear up to close scrutiny; Congress as an institution may represent an equally broad, or broader, coalition of interests than the president. The evolution of social welfare and civil rights legislation since the 1960s demonstrates that neither branch has a monopoly on the public interest.

The separation of powers is the most important reason why Congress often opposes the president. With different political bases and constituencies, members of Congress have an incentive to chart their own courses. Presidential efforts at change may also be frustrated by Congress's decentralized structure. George C. Edwards argues that the two most important factors in determining a president's success with Congress are its partisan composition and the president's popularity. Although a president with a party majority in Congress is primed for legislative success, Bill Clinton quickly discovered that a favorable partisan balance is no guarantee of success.

The president does have several resources that can be used to improve relations with the legislature. In trying to push the legislative agenda, the president employs a legislative liaison staff to keep him informed of congressional maneuvering and to provide small favors to members of Congress. While the number of these favors, including the granting of federal judgeships and federal contracts, is small, they can prove critical in close votes. Another resource is the mystique of the presidency itself. Above all else, however, is the constitutional power of the veto. Overrides of presidential vetoes are infrequent. Numerous vetoes are most common in administrations where the opposition party controls Congress; Clinton thus used the veto power effectively to block the Republican revolution of 1995.

The constitutional system of checks and balances is frustrating to champions of strong presidential leadership. But the authors contend that this continual check on the presidency may not be a bad thing. Rather than expecting the president to triumph over Congress, we should accept that conflict between the two is normal and look closely, in each legislative contest, to determine which ideologies, interests, and values each represents.

The Presidency and Economic Power

Congress is not the only powerful and independent institution with which a president must contend. Less familiar are the connections between the presidency and powerful institutions in the political economy. The modern American economy requires some measure of centralized direction and control, for which the presidency is well suited. Presidential responsibility for the economy has thus grown with the rise of corporate capitalism. New Deal interventionism became the norm with the Employment Act of 1946, which made the federal government responsible for promoting economic growth and maintaining full employment while avoiding inflation. As an economic manager, the president has three kinds of policy tools available to him: fiscal, monetary, and income. All these policies require the agreement of other powerful actors and institutions to be made effective. For example, the president can propose new monetary policy, but the Federal Reserve has to put it into effect.

Presidential power over the economy is particularly limited by the structural power of the corporate sector. The fact that big business controls private investment means that all presidents must pay heed to "the privileged position of business." Some presidents have smooth sailing with the corporate sector. Others, pursuing policies favored by other constituencies, have had a tougher time. John Kennedy's relationship with the corporate sector provides an excellent illustration of the latter situation. JFK's courting of business has been matched by Clinton's. The privileged position of business deters even presidents elected by the votes of working people from pursuing a popular democratic economic agenda.

The Presidency and National Security

The broad powers granted to the executive branch in the Constitution indicate that the framers expected the president to play a leading role in foreign affairs. The Supreme Court has upheld a paramount role for the president in the conduct of foreign policy. The modern president has also been able to draw upon the institutional resources of the national security state.

Strong presidential leadership is needed to craft a clear and coherent foreign policy. But presidential power is not without its dangers. Particularly during the Cold War, presidents staked out claims of authority that were constitutionally and morally questionable, and engaged in disturbing abuses of power in the areas of war making, secrecy, and repression. For example, Congress is given the power to declare war. However, presidents historically have used American forces on numerous occasions without a declaration of war.

Such use of American forces became particularly controversial during the Vietnam War, when Presidents Johnson and Nixon asserted that their role as commander-in-chief gave them vast and undefined military powers. Nixon's actions, both at home and abroad, appeared to confirm the founders' worst fears about the development of an American equivalent to a tyrannical British monarch. Congress attempted to reassert its constitutional role in war making by passing the War Powers Resolution of 1973. Although presidents have since complained that the resolution undermines their ability to guarantee national security, in reality it has had little effect. Inadequate as it may be, the War Powers Resolution does serve as a signal that we recognize the dangers of unconstrained presidential war making.

There is a similar potential for abuse in the presidential power of secrecy. Many presidential decisions with respect to foreign policy are secret. Secret action is enticing to a president'it offers him the opportunity to pursue ethically or constitutionally questionable policies, and permits him to persist in actions despite a lack of legislative or public support. Ultimately, secret action denies the American people the accountability that the constitutional system is supposed to guarantee.

In the post Cold War world, the president has lost some of his advantages in foreign policy: a despised enemy, a domestic consensus, a nuclear threat. The public is now less inclined to support presidential activism abroad. Yet presidents still tend to dominate this area'witness Bush in the Persian Gulf and Clinton in Haiti and Bosnia'aided perhaps by public inattention, as they once were aided by public fervor during the Cold War years.

The President, the Media, and the American People

The framers of the Constitution intended that the presidency would be mostly insulated from popular passions and demands for economic change. Modern presidents, by contrast, claim to be the voice of the American people, the foremost advocate of popular democracy in the federal government. In the absence of a strong party system, modern presidents increasingly are going public to enhance their political influence. But the more presidents run, the more they seem to stand still. Public expectations have paralleled the growth in presidential power; Americans today expect the president to be many, often contradictory, things. Many presidents have not been able to meet these expectations; they see a persistent decline in their rate of public approval after the "honeymoon period." The media play a major role in this. Presidents frequently complain that intense and largely negative media scrutiny badly damages their political standing. But for an attractive and articulate president, the media can provide a remarkable vehicle through which to cultivate popular support. Enter Ronald Reagan, the subject of this chapter's A Closer Look.

If Reagan's approach to the media was largely a success story, Bill Clinton's has largely been a disaster. Although the Clinton campaign used the media in innovative ways, once Clinton was in the White House it took very little time for his image to change. Some of this can be blamed on Clinton himself. His strategy to tightly control the information flow to reporters quickly backfired. And his scandals have fueled the enterprise of investigative journalism. Nevertheless, there have been other developments, including the end of dramatic Cold War foreign policy "events" and the proliferation of cable television, that are transforming White House communication efforts. To popular democrats the diminishing ability of the president to dominate the media, and therefore the democratic debate, is a welcome development.

The Presidency and Democratic Movements

Some of the finest moments of the presidency have come when the forces of popular democracy have educated presidents to a new understanding of their democratic responsibilities. The authors use John Kennedy's eventual adoption of a bold, morally urgent stance on civil rights to illustrate how presidential leadership can move a nation closer to the fulfillment of its democratic promises.

Conclusion: The Elite Democratic Presidency

We should not, however, expect that presidents will often play the role of popular democratic leader. Presidents who are genuinely concerned with popular democracy should have an intelligent dialogue with the people they lead, rather than seeking to manipulate public opinion or engage in dramatic spectacles. Yet this chapter indicates that the presidency has often been the instrument of elite democracy. Presidents may cloak themselves in its symbols, but the modern presidency is a far cry from the real American tradition of popular democracy.

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