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Another Cut at Two Presidencies

My colleague, Prof. Klunk, wrote what has become one of the more popular posts on this site–an investigation of whether or not there are two presidencies. His post is about Aaron Wildavsky’s version of the two presidencies theory, the idea that there is a “foreign policy” presidency and a “domestic policy” presidency.

In this post, I want to explore a different two presidencies theory–advanced by Jeffrey Tulis–and use it as an excuse to pontificate about last night’s State of the Union Address. (I apologize in advance to Tulis. I probably will do his argument some disservice here.)

In the Rhetorical Presidency, Tulis argues that there are two constitutional presidencies–an uppercase “Constitutional” presidency and a lowercase “constitutional” presidency. (An abbreviated version of the argument can be found in Michael Nelson’s The Presidency and the Political System.) The “Constitutional” presidency refers to the presidency as it was conceived by the men who wrote the Constitution. This presidency is a limited presidency in which the president draws his authority from the Constitution and does not lead public opinion. Indeed, the Founders designed the presidency in order to limit the potential influence of a given president on the political system. The office exists within a separation of powers system, with the the three branches pursuing different objectives and performing different functions. The president’s function is to administer the laws that Congress passes. This presidency is a very limited presidency from a contemporary perspective. In the Richard Neustadt’s phrasing, the president is “an invaluable clerk,” someone whose actions are needed for the federal government to run effectively but who–by virtue of the constitutional limitations on his power–yields little independent influence over its direction.

The “constitutional” presidency, in contrast, is one in which the president draws his authority from his ability to lead public opinion in addition to the authority granted to the president by the Constitution. This vision of presidency demands that the president take an active role in determining the government’s direction. It is a rhetorical presidency–one in which the president must take the pulse of public opinion, turn that vague opinion into concrete policy proposals, and then actively work to convince the public (and thereby Congress) to support it. The lowercase “constitutional” presidency requires the president to be more than a clerk; it requires the president to be a leader.

Tulis argues that the two constitutional presidencies ultimately conflict with each other. The “constitutional” presidency demands an activist president that seeks to lead the public–and thereby the government–with bold policy proposals. The “Constitutional” emphasizes the institutional limits on the president’s ability to do so.

So what does this have to do with the last night’s State of the Union? I think President Obama’s speech last night was a perfect example of the tension that Tulis talks about.

On the one hand, there are a lot of things that President Obama would like to do. Using the example that a lot of people are talking about today, President Obama would like to raise the minimum wage. There’s actually a fair amount of public support for doing so. According to a November 2013 Gallup Poll, 76% of respondents said they would support raising the minimum wage to $9 per hour (the proposal from last year’s State of the Union). People are also still worried about their financial situation and the direction the economy is going. So here’s a case where President Obama can potentially be a leader by taking a proposal that has popular support, turning it into a concrete policy proposal, and then advocating for its passage.

But given current levels of partisan disagreement in Congress there’s no chance that Congress will actually raise the minimum wage. The House Republicans, for strategical political reasons and because of sincere policy beliefs, are not at all interested in raising the minimum wage. President Obama knows that. Everyone in Congress knows that. The talking heads on cable news know that (if they are being honest). Really, any reasonable political observer knows that the president’s proposal is basically dead in the water.

The end result is that because we (the public) expect the president to be a leader, President Obama has to get up in front of the nation and give a speech full of bold policy proposals that cannot be enacted because the Republicans control the House and they are not interested in passing his proposals. He has to create the appearance of being influential in a system where he actually has only a limited amount of influence.

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