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What's Wrong with the Presidency (And What Can Be Done to Fix It)

Mr. Gould made the following remarks at the Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin, May 6, 2003, on the occasion of a talk and book-signing for The Modern American Presidency (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2003).

The story of the modern presidency is a cautionary tale rather than an American success saga. The instituion badly needs rethinking and fundamental reorientation. As it stands now, the presidency is beset with intractable problems. These difficulties, I believe arise from the interaction of three main forces:

1. The increase in size of the presidency.
2. The rise of what has been called "continuous campaigning."
3. The impact of the twin pressures of celebrity and show business. (One key structural change in the Constitution, the Twenty-Second Amendment, completed the emergence of the presidency as we know it.)

The growth in the size of the presidency is a well-recognized phenomenon. William McKinley's small staff of George Cortelyou and six stenographers in 1901 has exploded into thousands of people who serve the president directly or indirectly. The real expansion of the institution came in the 1950s and 1960s at the height of the Cold War. Here the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower was key, as under his management the chief-of-staff form of presidential administration appeared and grew. Despite regular campaign promises from many presidents to reduce the size of the White House staff, the number of individuals who work there has steadily grown.

The other two forces operating on the presidency had more serious effects than just the growth in size. The entertainment industry in particular helped to shape the modern presidency.

One way to see this phenomenon is to consider the presidential press conference which did not exist in 1901. Under McKinley from 1897 onward the press was brought into the White House proper with tables allocated to reporters on the second floor outside the president's office. Theodore Roosevelt's years brought a separate press room, and under Woodrow Wilson the press conference itself began and then stopped. During the Harding and Coolidge presidencies, regular weekly press conferences became a norm and this ritual reached a peak during the term of Franklin D. Roosevelt with more than nine hundred such sessions. The reporters crowded around the president's desk, the president could not be quoted directly, and the event was not open to the public.

Over the next two decades, first radio, then television came into the press conferences, until under Jack Kennedy the press sessions became popular prime-time entertainment. Then commenced a slow decline in the number of such conferences under Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon accompanied by a more elaborate staging of them as media events. Now such press conferences, when they occur, are spectacles that presidents hold as rarely as possible. Their purpose is no longer to make news or convey information but to portray the president as on top of his job. The White House manages the proceedings with choreography worthy of a ballet, journalists have their seating arranged with great care, and recalcitrant journalists are punished for impertinent queries.

Why did all this occur? In my judgment, the emergence of television and the mass media, with their premiums on simplicity and brevity of issues, the short attention span of a television audience, and the need to pursue high ratings from other programming made the press conference and other news-gathering procedures too slow and dull for modern audiences. The presidency had to turn itself into an arm of show-business to retain its allure.

Press conferences are thus but one way that the presidency has become, as I say in the book, "a perennial campaign, combined with the essential features of a television network and a Hollywood studio." I might also have said "a theme park." Presidential events are produced with meticulous thoroughness, as President Bush's trip to the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln attested. The elaborate stagecraft involved, from the airplane landing to the careful navigation of the vessel to avoid showing the California coastline in the distance during Bush's speech, was worthy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer at the height of its success.

Lastly, we come to the "continuous campaign," the term now applied to the political operations of the presidency. Though every president had been mindful of re-election, it was under Richard Nixon that the idea of perpetual campaigning really took root. Nixon believed that he faced ruthless political enemies out to destroy him and his administration and a continuous campaign effort was needed to thwart them. "The staff doesn't understand that we are in a continuous campaign," he told H.R. Haldeman in March 1971.

Such a strategy serves the function of having the incumbent re-elected but its effect is felt throughout the presidency from the first day in office. Since every decision that the president makes has a potential impact on the voters, it becomes almost impossible to consider an issue outside an electoral context. Round-the-clock polling insures that the political operatives can always inform the president how some judgment, in the words of a Nixon aide, will play in Peoria, Illinois with rank and file Americans.

As politicians, presidents should be aware of how their judgments will affect citizens, but deciding every issue on the basis of how it might sway a current or future campaign has over time made difficult decisions that will serve the national interest but entail sacrifice or pain less likely.

Forming a context for these events is a related structural problem. The Twenty-Second Amendment, adopted after World War II, limits each president to two elective terms. More important, the amendment creates a framework within which the president must concentrate on re-election to be eligible for greatness. Once re-elected, however, the remaining days are numbered and the fickle public, spurred by the media, looks to the next presidential election for excitement. Presidencies have become the political equivalent of situation comedies--there is an initial burst of energy and excitement during the first three years, a suspenseful show in the fourth as the main character faces cancellation, and once renewed by re-election there are three more years of declining audiences before the show ends after eight seasons.

The result of these interacting forces is a presidency that, whether occupied by a Republican or a Democrat, places a greater reliance on the mechanisms of celebrity than on the business of running the nation. Continuous campaigning drains away valuable time and energy from the president and his staff. The obsession with reelection distorts governance. Brilliantly operated as a kind of political spectacle, the presidency is no longer well-designed to address the country's intractable problems. Seen in light of these considerations, the emergence of the modern presidency takes on a coherence and unity that makes our current predicaments with the institution more understandable and even more human.

Could things have turned out differently? Has the modern presidency become modern in the only way possible? Impressed as I am with the intoxicating and seductive capacity of the large media and show business to shape our lives, I am doubtful that substance could ever have won out over glitz and glitter. But it is clear that becoming more like a television network and a game show is not the way to run the country. Nor are perpetual political campaigns a way to engage tough decisions. So what should we do?

So What Should Be Done?

Having written a narrative that traced the emergence of the presidency through the twentieth century and diagnosed its ills, it is appropriate for you to ask me: Okay, wise guy historian far removed from the Oval Office and the burdens of political responsibility, what would you now suggest should be done?

First and foremost, I would endorse the repeal of the Twenty-Second Amendment mandating only two elected terms for any successful president. Passed after World War II largely with Republican support, it was designed to make it impossible for any other politician, and presumably a Democrat, to serve three terms as Franklin D. Roosevelt did and then to be elected to a fourth. The amendment achieved that purpose, of course, and will operate against President Bush if he is reelected in 2004. There is at least one congressman now, Jose Serrano of New York, a Democrat, who wants to repeal the Twenty-Second Amendment, but his initiative is unlikely to go anywhere.

Why should the amendment be discarded? The first weakness is that it limits the right of the American people to elect a president for a third term if they wish to do so. More important, it places an institutional barrier to the effective working of the presidency. Knowing that the president must leave office by a certain date reduces the ability of the incumbent to support legislation, influence Congress, and shape the national debate. Press attention shifts to the new contenders for the presidency, and the holder of the office slides into limbo. The last two or three years of a two-term presidency have the atmosphere of a farewell tour.

What the amendment was designed to protect against is unlikely ever to happen again anyway. The three presidents whom it affected--Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton--would have not been viable candidates for a third term even without the constraint of the Twenty-Second Amendment.

Now my second proposal may seem to be in utter contradiction to the first, but I don't think so. Most presidents should resolve in their own minds to serve only one term and resist with all their power the empty promise of reelection. Get done what you can in a single term, Mr. or Mrs. President, and get off the stage. This prescription should not be written into law, but aspiring presidents would be wise to observe its dictates.

This judgment reflects historical circumstances. Even with the Twenty-Second Amendment removed, presidents would still likely have difficulties during their second terms. Consider these examples from the 20th century before the 22nd Amendment went into effect. Woodrow Wilson, narrowly reelected in 1916 over Charles Evans Hughes, took the nation through World War I, but saw the Democratic electoral majority collapse, the postwar era decline into social upheaval and political reaction, and his own disabling illness doom his party to a dramatic election defeat in 1920. He left office a repudiated president. "History will soften the verdict rendered by the votes last November on the Administration of Woodrow Wilson, but is not likely to reverse it," said one editor in March 1921.

Because World War II won him a third term, it is often forgotten how many problems Franklin D. Roosevelt had in his second--the Supreme Court Fight, the 1937 recession, the Republican election victory in 1938. Had the Nazis not conquered western Europe in the spring of 1940, Roosevelt would have left office in 1941 rating better than Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson among Democratic chief executives but not stamped with greatness.

Similarly, Harry S. Truman, after his surprise election victory in 1948, encountered heavy weather in his second term--McCarthyism, Korea, scandals, congressional opposition, and a slide in the polls. Retrospective rehabilitation has come to Truman, but most of it arises from his creative first term.

The list can be continued even after the Twenty-Second Amendment. Dwight D. Eisenhower's second term had a recession, a Democratic sweep in the 1958 elections, the U-2 incident, and a sense, on which John F. Kennedy capitalized in 1960, that the nation was adrift. Richard Nixon's second term troubles with Watergate need no recounting. That large legal, constitutional, and political crisis now has boiled down to a single burning issue: Was Fred Fielding "Deep Throat?"

Ronald Reagan went through the trauma of Iran-contra, and Bill Clinton faced impeachment in their second terms. In all these instances, the historical reputations of these presidents would have been no worse and probably would have been better had they declared in their fourth year that they would not seek reelection.

Certainly for the one-term presidents of the 20th century, such a self-denying ordinance would have helped their historical standing--William Howard Taft in 1912, Herbert Hoover in 1932, Gerald Ford in 1976, Jimmy Carter in 1980, and George H.W. Bush in 1992. Since each would have left office voluntarily, historians might have predicted their defeat had they run for reelection, but enough doubt would have remained about their fate that it would have worked to the advantage of their historical reputations.

So presidents, if they think about history, should agree with Richard Nixon that "most second terms have been disastrous." The corollary of that point is that presidents would be well-advised to concentrate all their energies on making their first term successful, and then be prepared to step aside in the winter or spring of their fourth year. Obviously, they should not declare their intentions until then but keep in their minds that they really have only four years to achieve tangible accomplishments.

With such a record of difficulty, why do incumbents presidents decide to run for a second term at all? Several elements come into play. Once elected president, a politician realizes that his record in office will soon be judged by historians and political scientists against the other chief executives in the perennial rating game of deciding presidential greatness. Having little sense of history going into the job, they suddenly want to know how they will stack up against their predecessors. Will the president be "great," "near great," competent, or worst of all "inadequate" or even "poor?"

To be eligible for the great or near great category, two terms seem mandatory. So, since one-term greatness is elusive, winning a second is required. In the most recent issue of Time magazine, discussing Bush's reelection plans, the authors note that Karl Rove has planned for two Bush terms from 1998 onward "because re-election is what defines a successful presidency." In their words, the process is not just a continuing campaign, it is "the never-ending campaign."

Other pressures come from consultants, allies, lobbyists, and friends who sing the siren song that only by winning a second term can the promise of the first term be redeemed. Moreover, the party and its candidates need the drawing power of the incumbent in fund-raising, the country requires his services, and the victory of the opposition would, of course, ruin the nation. A history teacher of mine in college, James Blaine Hedges, use to tell his students that it would not have made any difference to the broad sweep of American history who had been the winner in any single presidential election. Whether that generalization is true or not (and it is harder to refute than it might seem at first glance), it is one that more chief executives should ponder.

However, the need to win a reelection victory usually entails bleaching out all strong traces of ideology and future programs. For Ronald Reagan in 1984, the theme was "morning in America," with few clues to what Reagan's future days in office would bring. Bill Clinton in 1996 was similarly content-free. We all remember the bridge to the twenty-first century. We just didn't know that Monica Lewinsky would be in the toll booth. In seeking an electoral majority, the pressures of political advertising (which does not do well with complexity) and the need to move to the center usually insure that blandness will triumph over substance.

With tired staffers worn out by four years of incumbency and a difficult campaign behind it, the reelected administration reconstitutes itself and tries to find the themes that the candidate played down before the voters. The clock is already ticking and Congress is well aware that the president's days are numbered. Second terms start out with little energy and run down from there.

So if a president cannot accomplish the enactment of an agenda in the first term, there is even less likelihood that the second term will be successful. If the first term has been fruitful, the best bet for historical approval is to step aside and leave the promise of what might have occurred in a second term rather than the drab reality of what didn't happen once the chief executive had been returned for "four more years."

The relentless quest for a second term has produced continuous campaigning. What is harmful about this trend is not tht it serves partisan interests or costs abundant sums of money. The real downside of continuous campaign is its impact on the capacity of the president and his staff to think about the nation's problems on a sustained basis.

Putting the president out before cheering crowds to spread his message, pressure Congress, and raise money is not an intellectually challenging exercise. It is simply an extension of what the chief executive and his operatives have been doing for several years. What it does demand is large amounts of staff time and White House energy. Moving the president from place to place is the equivalent of relocating a circus on a daily basis. These media-driven occasions are not designed to inform or enlighten, but solely to create pleasing pictures for the evening news and cable television viewers. But just because these events are easy to do should not obscure their real cost. They come out of the small store of time in an historical sense that any president has to get things done.

A wise president would cut them back to a bare minimum. Instead, they proliferate to the point that even the State of the Union address is now a scripted gala with hand-picked guests in the gallery. State governors have started to imitate presidents in their state of the state addresses. The day after the State of the Union the president embarks on another nation-wide junket to "win support" for a an initiative, often one that is forgotten within a week of the speech itself. Who recalled three months later President Bush's AIDS initiative until he returned to it briefly last week?

What do I recommend? First, the president should reduce substantially the amount of these contrived displays. The White House is not the place to flee from. It is the arena in which presidents should do their work. It is a fiction that the president can work equally well at Camp David or at a western White House or on Air Force One. One hundred years ago an aide of Theodore Roosevelt said of that president's traveling: "When the president is away the Cabinet practically disbands & there is a lack of coordination public work."

One particular area in which presidential traveling could be pared back without loss is in partisan fund-raising. Since Franklin D. Roosevelt, presidents have used their office as a way to raise money for their party, but the system has become self-perpetuating and grotesque. Bill Clinton raised millions of dollars; George W. Bush has raised hundreds of millions.

These activities are called "party-building" and out-reach efforts by the president. In reality, they are a tacky shakedown as well-heeled donors cough up thousands for the chance to gain access to the White House. If political parties cannot raise money without having the president pass the hat or fry the fat out of donors, then these organizations should go out of business. It is beneath the dignity of the president of the United States to be putting the arm on fat cats in public, or private for that matter.

Similarly, the White House should stop being a prop in a constantly running movie production of the celebrity presidency. The Rose Garden ceremonies, the greeting of championship athletic teams, the filming of public service announcements, the backdrops for reporters, all of these are innocent enough on the surface. What is debilitating about them is the amount of time they drain away from the serious business of the presidency. Apologists for the White House will say that others do the work and the president focuses on big questions, or as the Bush administration might put it, is "fully engaged" with the big picture.

The notion that the movie and television production set that the White House has become is a place for sustained deliberative thought is a not very good joke. Presidents now move from one camera set-up to another in the equivalent of the headquarters of a twenty-four hours news channel. Literally every move that a president makes before the cameras is scripted and planned with all the precision of a Hollywood sound stage from the books they carry to the helicopter, the obligatory pause and wave at the top of the stairs, to the slogans that appear behind them on television.

Presidents present all this electronic artifice as though it were an essential part of being a successful chief executive. If a president wins reelection or enjoys wide popularity, then that is offered as justification for media manipulation and deft staging of the incumbent's public image. That all of this wizardry comes out of the president's limited stock of time to deal with crucial issues is usually put aside as the carping of partisan critics.

An important collaborator in this process of turning the presidency into an arm of show business is the media. As the newspaper industry at the turn of the twentieth century has morphed into the media conglomerates of the beginning of the twenty-first, the press has entered into co-dependency with the presidency. Presidents draw viewers when properly presented, and the media find the White House and its staged moments irresistible subjects for coverage (at least until the next sensational California homicide happens).

Reporters no longer cover the White House in the sense of pursuing news. They are there instead as props in the domestic drama that fills in the dead hours on cable television until something real happens. Both sides know how to play their parts. The reporters ask seemingly tough questions which the White House press secretary then declines to address. The two sides wait until the cameras turn off and then move to the next phase of the pre-determined coverage.

Now do any of these criticisms matter? The current president, for example rides high in the polls and seems on a course toward reelection. But listen carefully to the developing scenario. How many issues--Social Security, Medicare changes, civil rights, environmental issues, foreign policy concerns--are now being discussed in terms of their hoped-for implementation "after the next presidential election?" Soon the chorus will sing about how just "Four More Years" will bring the full realization of the president's agenda and the achievement of what the first term did not accomplish because of terrorism, Democratic obstruction, and the lack of a clear popular endorsement of the Bush administration.

Assuming the reelection of George W. Bush, another scenario is also likely in 2005-2006. Congress will be restive after years of White House dominance, the emphasis of publicity and the media will have shifted to the 2008 nomination contest, and some unexpected event will disrupt the carefully laid plans for the second Bush term. Commentators will speak of how Washington is anticipating how the next president will have to deal with pressing social issues that have been deferred, and so the cycle will begin once again. The modern American presidency will look toward what Cole Porter called "another opening, another show" and the nation will be suitably entertained but not well governed.

Somewhere, however, reality will be intruding--whether it is terrorism or an attack from a rogue nation, a dramatic crisis in funding Social Security and Medicare that cannot be avoided, a severe economic downturn, an environmental disaster, or a runaway epidemic of disease. People will wonder how did the United States get into this fix? They may not look to the presidency for one explanation of why the nation found itself in a dangerous predicament, but the descent into show business, continuous campaigning, and recurrent trivia will be one key element in the problem.

Do I think the modern presidency should be reformed to become a serious, sustained policy-making, governing institution? Absolutely. What are the chances of this happening, given the financially profitable and mutually useful incestuous relationship between the White House and the entertainment media? Precious little. Until it is clear how broken the modern presidency has become, we will not be inclined to repair its deficiencies. Let us hope that the price of this failure of will and insight is not too high for the nation to bear.