Does America Need Two Presidents at the Same Time?

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by David Orentlicher

The question comes to mind as we watch Barack Obama abandon cooperation in favor of strategies that bypass Republican obstruction on Capitol Hill. Turning to executive orders will only aggravate the problem of political dysfunction. In the short run, Obama may be able to ram his preferences through, but he invites similar action by future Republican presidents. Instead of defusing partisan conflict, Obama has fueled its expansion.

When a single person exercises the immense power of the modern presidency, people fight tooth and nail to secure that power. They spend billions to win the election, and they spend the ensuing four years positioning their party for the next election. One side of the aisle in Congress backs the president; the other side devotes itself to obstruction. Instead of responsible governance, we get the permanent campaign. It is no surprise that the sharp increase in partisan conflict has paralleled the huge expansion of presidential power.

The United States would do well to replace its one-person, one-party imperial presidency with a two-person, two-party presidency. Instead of electing the candidate with the most votes, we would send the top two finishers to the Oval Office. Presidential partners usually would come from the Democratic and Republican Parties, but they also could emerge from third parties.

By giving both sides of the political spectrum a voice in the executive branch, we would temper partisan conflict. Currently, half the public is shut out of the White House and turns readily to partisan opposition. A coalition presidency would represent the views of nearly all Americans. There no longer would be a mass of disaffected voters to mobilize against the Oval Office.

Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle would have other reasons to cooperate with a bipartisan White House. During President Obama’s first term, Republicans recognized that even if they voted for the economic stimulus or health care reform, Democrats would receive all of the credit for the programs. GOP members of Congress could benefit politically only by opposing legislative initiatives from the White House and hoping the initiatives would be defeated or would fail after enactment. With bipartisan presidential proposals, both parties could share in the credit for success.

Shared power would promote better presidential decision-making. The Constitution envisions an executive who primarily implements policy decisions made by Congress. But the modern president has assumed much of the legislative branch’s policymaking authority. While it makes sense to have a single person who can act decisively and with dispatch when the person is an executor of policy made by others, the founding fathers correctly reserved policymaking for multiple-person bodies. As Woodrow Wilson observed, “the whole purpose of democracy is that we may hold counsel with one another, so as not to depend upon the understanding of one man.”

Has shared governance ever worked? Experience with multiple executives is not very different from that with single executives. One-person presidential governments have fared well in some countries but poorly in others (e.g., in Eastern European, African and South American nations). Similarly, coalition executives have performed well in some countries, such as Switzerland and Austria, but not in others.

The key question is how the sharing should be structured. Game theory supplies a sound answer. If we gave two presidents equal power, we would give them the right incentives to cooperate. Neither president could hope to prevail over the other president.

While the founding fathers preferred a single executive in 1787, they likely would approve of a bipartisan executive today. They wanted the presidency to speak for everyone, not just residents of a particular interest group or political party. The founding fathers also believed in radical reform. When their political system failed, they understood the need for major structural change. To restore the Constitution’s vision of a truly representative government, two presidents really would be better than one.

David Orentlicher is Samuel R. Rosen Professor at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law. A scholar of constitutional law and a former state representative, David also has taught at Princeton University and the University of Chicago Law School. He wrote this for Zocalo Public Square.

SOURCE: USA Today

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