Among the many reversals of ideological role that have taken place in American politics in recent years, perhaps the most spectacular has been the abandonment by American liberals of their longstanding commitment to the strong Presidency. This may at first seem a minor development, reflecting nothing more than the current pattern of party strengths in Washington, but in fact it represents a profound departure from the liberal tradition, and indeed from the constitutional order of 20th-century America. The practical alternative to what Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., now stigmatizes as an “imperial” Presidency is not, as many seem to imagine, a somewhat less grandiose style in the White House and a general revitalization of our institutions. It is instead a seriously diminished Presidency and a sharp reduction in the capacities of American government. The Presidency is not an isolated office but the centerpiece of a complex political system. To change it is to change the whole of which it is a part, and the constitutional whole whose future depends on the fate of the strong Presidency is one created largely by liberals for the purpose of promoting liberal values.
Traditional liberal support for the strong Presidency has its roots in the liberal community’s historic ambivalence toward the U.S. Constitution. Liberals, as partisans of democracy and social reform, have always objected to those elements of the Constitution which were designed to “refine” the will of the people and to make it difficult for government to undertake ambitious social programs. But this objection has not been an insuperable one for liberals, who have long understood that America’s 18th-century institutions contained possibilities for democratization and reform that the Founders did not contemplate. The Constitution could be made to promote liberal values, they saw, if the powers and dignity of the Presidency were enhanced, and if a doctrine of loose constitutional interpretation which justified that enhancement could be made to prevail. Thus the traditional liberal theory of the wide sphere of permissible government activity, its preference for national government over the states, its defense of a strong two-party system, its commitment to a vigorous and free press, and its attachment to national public opinion as against the forces of tradition and localism.
The political sociology on which this view is based has seen the states as seedbeds of local prejudice and recalcitrance, and Congress as a congeries of special interests dominated by the less progressive elements of American society. The Presidency, by contrast, has been regarded as more likely to be disposed favorably toward liberal objectives. By its nature, moreover, the Presidency, particularly when acting in concert with the Supreme Court, is able to move more directly and effectively than Congress, which is bound by the deliberative process itself as much as by the diversity of the interests it must satisfy. The Presidency, in the liberal view, is uniquely equipped to authorize and give legitimacy to political and social programs which are of urgent importance but which can be counted on to meet opposition or be hamstrung if left to the inherently obstructionist procedures of the national legislature. The programs in whose name liberals have enlisted the support of a strong Presidency have ranged from active anti-Communism abroad to the struggle to end racial discrimination and extend social welfare at home.
The liberal hope for the Presidency, it should be emphasized, has never rested on the election of extraordinary men. It has, rather, been a hope of casting every President, regardless of his personal capacities, in a prime-ministerial role by expanding American expectations of the Presidency and by exploiting the powers of two modern institutions: the political party and the press. Woodrow Wilson, the first modern theorist of the strong Presidency, believed that these alone could transform the Presidency into an authentic governing institution, as distinct from an office that expands or contracts to fit its occupant. The parties as coalitions of local organizations would give structure and focus to presidential elections and would provide Presidents with a permanent means of influencing other elected officials. The press would put Presidents on display, enabling them to define new issues and lead public opinion over the heads of lesser officials and party hierarchs. Together, Wilson argued, they would enable Presidents to form and lead real governments, and the electorate to choose governments, and influence their conduct, on substantive policy grounds.
The liberal theory of the strong Presidency was never intended to lead to a personality cult, but it did nevertheless encourage a kind of religious feeling toward the institution and the person—a feeling which reached a peak of sorts in the liberal adoration of FDR. By the late 1950’s, Richard Neustadt in Presidential Power equated the effort of a President to maximize his personal power with the effectiveness of government in serving the national interest. The liberals’ beatification of John F. Kennedy after his death and their enthusiastic worship of Lyndon Johnson before he committed the sin of Vietnam marked the apotheosis of this conception of a strong, activist, power-seeking Presidency. In the early and middle 1960’s the conception passed increasingly into the culture to become a dominant theme in movies, novels, journalism, and scholarship.
In the intervening decade a revolution has taken place in the allegiances of liberals. Publicists who used to praise the strong Presidency now attack it as the spearhead of imperialism. One-time denouncers of Congress for its “obstruction” of presidential initiatives now look with an approval bordering on exultation upon its growing defiance of the White House; their current complaint is that Congress does not assert itself often enough or sharply enough against President Ford. Liberal politicians who used to rail against the press for its plutocratic bias against progressive Presidents now celebrate the new adversary spirit which consistently emphasizes what is questionable, inefficient, dishonest, and corrupt in the Presidency. And people who used to celebrate the Constitution as a flexible and “living” document now speak of it in legalistic tones reminiscent of John Calhoun.
What accounts for this extraordinary about-face? To some extent, of course, the new attitude is an epiphenomenon of liberal opposition to the Vietnam war and Watergate—inspired by those experiences and articulated for the purpose of mobilizing opposition to the particular presidential policies responsible. But the attitude has long since acquired a life of its own. The Vietnam war, the Watergate crimes, and the Nixon Presidency are now irrevocably part of history, yet liberal retreat from the constitutional heritage of Wilson and Roosevelt continues so far unabated.
The liberals’ own story, as told for instance in Schlesinger’s The Imperial Presidency, is that such changes as have taken place represent not an abandonment of liberal values but a reaffirmation of them. The Presidency, they concede, was intended by the Founders as a quasi-monarchical office with enough power to constitute a strong check on the native factionalism of free societies, and to this was later added the expectation that Presidents would be leaders in the fight for domestic reform. What happened was simply that over time, and especially under the pressures of the cold war, the Presidency became too effective a counterweight against factional turbulence to be compatible with American values. Thus it is not liberals who have abandoned the Presidency, they say; it is rather the Presidency which has abandoned them.
There is something to this argument. War has indeed increased the scope of presidential power, and America’s postwar foreign policy has prevented it from contracting. In the popular mind the Presidency has in fact acquired monarchical properties. The White House staff has grown enormously since the time of FDR, and the amount of money spent on the President’s person and activity has surpassed the standard of all but a handful of history’s most glorious autocrats. The politicization of nearly everything has drawn the Presidency ever deeper into the intimate details of domestic political life.
Yet the truth is that in critical respects the power of the Presidency has not been growing over the last several decades, but diminishing. This is truer in the domestic field than in the field of foreign policy, where the President’s powers still overshadow those of the other branches, yet even in foreign affairs, as the War Powers Act of 1973 and Congress’s refusal to extend aid to a dying South Vietnam in 1975 have recently reminded us, any objective account of the trend of the last ten years (let alone of the post-Watergate period) has to be one of relative presidential retreat and congressional resurgence. And in the domestic field the matter is even clearer: whether one considers the long-term historical trend or merely the events of recent years, the overwhelming fact is that the Presidency is getting weaker.
A President’s constitutional power over domestic affairs is a thing of bits and pieces. His one inalienable source of leverage over the legislative process is the veto, and his principal Executive power lies in his ability to hire and fire about three thousand high-level (so-called “Schedule C”) officials at will. Clearly this is not the stuff of which Rooseveltian stature is made, not even when one throws in an Office of Management and Budget, the Commander-in-Chief powers, a Council of Economic Advisers, the right to present messages to Congress, and all the other statutory resources of the White House. Though these are necessary conditions of the strong Presidency, they are far from being sufficient. What makes the strong Presidency strong is, above everything else, its ability to lead public opinion and influence other elected officials. That ability derives partly from the man, partly from circumstance, and partly from the political party and the press. And since men and circumstances vary, what makes the modern Presidency institutionally powerful are the resources it derives from the political party and the press. Over the past several decades it has been receiving less and less useful support from these institutions.
More than half a century of “reform” sentiment and “reform” legislation has reduced the political party to a mere shadow of the vigorous coalition of local institutions that it was in the days of Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and FDR. Organizationally the parties have been eviscerated in most parts of the country, and politically they have been brought nearer the point of impotence by the rising indifference of American voters to the party label and their growing habit of ticket-splitting. The result is that Presidents today have fewer resources for influencing the many other persons in government, especially Congressmen, who share legislative and administrative functions. And they face a growing probability that Congress will be dominated either by the opposite party or by members of their own party whose election owes virtually nothing to the coattail effect and whose chances of reelection are certain to be unaffected by the success of an administration.
The situation of the press is more or less the reverse. Whereas the party has been getting weaker, the press has become much more powerful in recent decades. Partly this is owing to the rise of a new medium, television, and partly it is a result of the emergence since the 1960’s of a genuinely national press, whose members practice an increasingly similar kind of journalism and exercise growing influence on the local press through the new “supplementary” wire services and by force of example. Whereas the political party continues to support its President or candidate, however weakly, the press has become ever more committed to a stance of cool independence (at least) and (more often) active mistrust of the Presidency. Thus, recent Presidents have encountered difficulty in establishing their ability, even their personal right and political responsibility, to lead public opinion. They have also discovered that their opponents in Congress have at their disposal a powerful and increasingly cooperative sounding board, owing to the “adversary”—i.e., anti-presidential—spirit that animates many of the most influential segments of the press.
Moreover, while the resources of the Presidency have been diminishing, those of the other branches have been getting bigger, and so has their ability to resist presidential influence. The vastly expanded scope and aggressiveness of the courts is the most dramatic and obvious case, to which may be added the large and growing power of the federal bureaucracy. After a century of civil-service reform, extraordinary growth in size and complexity, and the emergence of a pattern of political cooptation and protection by affected interests, the federal bureaucracy is not now, if it ever was, something that a President truly controls, or even administers. Such effect as he may have on the Executive branch comes only from a decision to concentrate his efforts on a few matters of high importance and narrow scope—or, if he can persuade Congress to go along, to create alternative bureaucracies, which he can then staff with men chosen for their loyalty to him and his policy goals.
But incomparably the most important development—and the one that is least widely appreciated and most often denied—is the fact that Congress itself has been growing steadily more powerful vis-à-vis the Presidency over the last two decades and more. This in part is a result of the ever-lengthening term of service of the average Congressman (it has risen in the House of Representatives from under two terms at the turn of the century to almost seven terms today), the increasing non-competitiveness of congressional elections (less than a fifth of Congressmen are elected with a majority of under 55 per cent), and the consequent growing independence, knowledge, and governmental savvy of the average Congressman. Presidents may come and go (and from 1960 on they have done so with greater rapidity than at any time since the 1850’s), bureau chiefs may rise and fall, but today a Congressman stays on forever.
In addition to longevity and independence, Congressmen now enjoy the benefits of the increasingly sophisticated internal organization of their branch of government. “Congress always makes what haste it can to legislate,” Woodrow Wilson wrote. “Be the matters small or great, frivolous or grave, which busy it, its aim is to have laws always a-making.” How many laws it has a-making is powerfully influenced by the number of its committees and subcommittees; today there are upward of three hundred of the latter in the two houses, and in the Senate more than one per Senator. These units do more than make laws, they also exercise extraordinary power over the administration of public policy. And they can do this with increasing effectiveness and in ever greater detail because of Congress’s huge and growing resources. More than 18,000 persons, appointed without the encumbrance of the civil-service laws, currently serve as staff for Congressmen and congressional committees—a number roughly five times that which the President can appoint—and the budget for all congressional operations now approaches $1 billion. The recently established joint committee on the budget, with its attendant staff, may well expand this congressional capability even further.
In recent years Congress has also been growing more powerful in the critical realm of agenda-setting and legislative initiative, which since early in this century has been one of the Presidency’s main legislative preserves. With the technical resources of its enormous staff, and spurred to action by the realization that Congress is now the principal training and recruiting ground for the Presidency, Congress has become a veritable beehive of initiation and innovation. The President’s legislative role, at least judging on the evidence of the Nixon years, has become increasingly that of submitting his preferred manner of dealing with a problem that some Congressman or congressional committee has inscribed on the national agenda, ordinarily with the help of affected interest groups, units of the federal bureaucracy, and the press. Thus, every important new regulatory law and agency created during the past several years has been a congressional rather than a presidential project. In short, the Presidency and the committee system have begun to exchange legislative roles.
It is impossible, then, to accept the liberal disenchantment with the modern Presidency as a consequence of the office’s expanding and excessive power. The Presidency is not more powerful than it was ten or twenty years ago, it is less so. Its influence is declining relative to that of the other branches. The true growth sector in American government today—measured in terms of size, budget, reputation, or brute power—is to be found not in the White House, but in the bureaucracy, the courts, and especially in the Congress.
If the illusory “expansion” of presidential power cannot by itself account for the emergence of the new liberal anti-presidential attitude, neither can the effort by liberals to take political advantage of a situation in which a heavily Democratic Congress confronts an unelected post-Watergate President of the opposite party. The anti-presidential attitude is too pervasive and too intensely held in the liberal community to be just a partisan tactic, and the actions Congress has taken (the War Powers Act, for instance) have been too sweeping and too permanent, promising to hem in future liberal Presidents no less than present conservative ones. Besides, the new liberal anti-presidentialism is not sui generis and did not emerge in an attitudinal vacuum. Just as traditional liberal support for the strong Presidency was part and parcel of a larger commitment to democratizing government, to a firmly internationalist foreign policy, and to centralized social reform, so the growing liberal derogation of the Presidency represents a comparably wide-ranging political vision.
Like so many other recent shifts in the predilections and commitments of the American liberal community, the new liberal view of the Presidency reflects the profound sociological and ideological revolution which has been transforming that community over the past decade, and which is summed up in the emergence of what has come to be called the “new class.” These are the college-educated professionals and managers whose increasing numbers and strength have made them a visible and aggressive presence in American political life. The particular kind of social “space” the new class has created for itself in America today is overwhelmingly at the managerial level and in the public sector—in government primarily, but also in educational, professional, and other social-service institutions. Its rise within the liberal community has been paralleled by the displacement of the older, urban-ethnic, Southern, and business classes which constituted such a large part of the old liberal coalition.
Politically, the new class espouses a “humanism” that opposes itself to the ideals and achievements of liberal capitalism. It favors a foreign policy which would cast the U.S. as a partner in Third World movements of “national liberation,” and a domestic policy which would institute an egalitarian redistribution of wealth and power from rich to poor, from the old classes to the new. The historic liberal-capitalist commitment to economic growth the new class scorns as environmentally unsound and morally gross. Free markets it considers irrational and defunct; its strong preference is for vigorous central planning and social control. The new class believes that the good society is one with a more or less constant (or only very slowly growing) amount of wealth, rationally distributed by government among classes and groups as an act of humane social policy. And it is certain that none of this is possible without a massive redistribution of power from existing private and semi-public institutions (particularly the corporation) to government, and—within government—from the representatives of the old liberal-capitalist classes (machine politicians, business lobbyists, corporate lawyers, the military, etc.) to itself.
In 1972 the new class nominated its first presidential candidate, Senator George McGovern, and new-class politics went down to the most drastic defeat in U.S. history at the hand of one of the most flawed and unappealing presidential candidates in memory. This outcome, to be sure, was not entirely unpredictable; for a decade, opinion surveys had revealed that new-class views on everything from racial discrimination and abortion to economic growth and foreign affairs usually attract little support and intense opposition. But at the same time the voters were rejecting McGovern they, or at least some of them, were returning a strong liberal Democratic majority to Congress—a majority powerful enough to stymie President Nixon’s intention to dismantle the new-class program in its entirety and, in effect, to impeach him. Thus, 1972 taught two lessons. It showed that new-class politics could not govern directly, through the popularly elected Presidency; it also showed that new-class power and programs could be advanced effectively through Congress and the institutions allied with it.
A resurgent Congress and a weakened Presidency offer a surprisingly adequate instrument for the promotion of new-class concerns. In the area of foreign affairs, weakening the Presidency would accomplish the neutralization of the U.S. on the world scene, effectively assuring the success of “national-liberation” movements everywhere—the U.S. has been the only major power resisting them—and advancing the cause of the “new international economic order” which is the current name for the radical redistribution of the world’s wealth. Domestically, the experience of the past six years has shown that in such areas as environmental and safety regulation, energy, affirmative action, and social-policy spending, Congress is quite capable of taking new initiatives without the leadership of a President, or even in the face of his opposition.
The strategic fact about Congress today is that the new-class position in it is a strong one and is getting stronger. Partly this is the result of the enormous and growing staff apparatus mentioned above; partly it derives from the traditional tripartite alliance among congressional committees, federal administrative agencies, and organized “client” interests at a time when more and more of the latter two are dominated by new-class interests; and partly it has to do with the seniority system, recently modified and supplemented by a revitalized Democratic caucus, which is putting more liberal Democrats in committee chairmanships and in key Rules, Ways and Means, and other committee positions. But above all the powerful position of new-class politicians in Congress results from the peculiar character of the institution itself, which has grown increasingly insulated from popular control and from the values that prevail in the constituencies. Unless present trends are halted, the day might not be far off when the classic confrontations in American politics could be between popularly elected, “conservative” Presidents, invoking the authority and will of the national majority, and “resistant,” “obstructionist” liberal House-committee chairmen representing only the narrow oligarchical interests of the new-class constituency.
For all this, however, Congress will prove to have—indeed is already exhibiting—its limits as an instrument of new-class liberalism, or for that matter of any distinct and coherent political vision. The reason may be simply stated: congressional government is a contradiction in terms. The constitutional powers and internal structure of Congress render it incapable of acting with coherence, responsibility, and democratic accountability; and even when Congresses have tried to organize themselves to govern, they have quickly found themselves unable to do so. The problem, as Woodrow Wilson explained it in his 1884 classic, Congressional Government, is that “though honest and diligent, [Congress] is meddlesome and inefficient; and it is meddlesome and inefficient for exactly the same reasons that made it natural that the post-Revolutionary parliaments should exhibit like clumsiness and like temper: namely, because it is ‘without the guidance of recognized leaders, without adequate information, and destitute of that organization out of which alone a definite policy can come.’”
What was true of Congress in the 1870’s and 1880’s is even more true today, when internal party organization has long since disappeared as a source of even a minimal discipline. The best way to understand Congress in our own time is as a machine whose principal competence is to maximize the likelihood of its members’ reelection. In his brilliant recent book, Congress: The Electoral Connection, David Mayhew shows how every feature of Congress—staff, committees, party organization, and the like—is shaped to aid members’ chances at the polls; the result is a pattern of collective behavior he describes as “assembly coherence,” characterized by delay, particularism, the servicing of organized interests, and the practice of symbolic action in connection with all large issues in which the objective is to “take a position” that will please one’s constituency. Such a Congress is thoroughly competent at allocating specific benefits like dams or cash subsidies among groups and areas. But it will not or cannot govern. When confronted with hard choices among broad, competing social goods, its characteristic response is one of evasion, denial, and buck-passing.
Indeed, even the 94th Congress itself, hailed as one which finally would take the initiative and start governing the country, has begun to alienate many of its friends, especially in the press. The failure of this Congress to enact its own energy program and to override presidential vetoes of bills on strip-mining, job-creation, and energy has moved such writers as Tom Wicker, only yesterday a champion of the weakening Presidency, to conclude that “on complex issues such as these, congressional majorities, no matter how large, cannot really be relied upon to govern. . . . A President can act, while Congress usually can legislate effectively only in reaction to or compromise with a presidential proposal.”
Thus, the new liberals find themselves torn between their public philosophy on the one hand, and their class interests on the other. It is increasingly clear to them that the former cannot be realized—that their policy objectives cannot be achieved—in the absence of the political resources that only the strong Presidency provides. Yet the social space the new class has made for itself is predominantly in institutions other than the Presidency—in the bureaucracy, the Congress, and the not-for-profit sector. Just as the strong, popular Presidency is the only institution that can achieve the public purposes of new-class liberals, so is it the only institution that can threaten their private interests. Now that Nixon is out of office and the 94th Congress has failed to deliver, it will be interesting—and more than that, it will be deeply revelatory of the moral condition of the liberal community—to see what theme will be sounded in the next round of liberal writing on the state of the American Presidency.