All the world’s a stage where Donald Trump is free to make his worst mistakes
An American president’s powers are quite circumscribed at home. This is not the case in foreign policy, writes Anthony Butler
Business Day, 11 November, 2016.
Commentators and financial market analysts are struggling to figure out the possible implications of Donald Trump’s presidential election victory earlier this week. In such disorienting times, it is helpful to look back at two enduring analyses of the character of the modern presidency, written half a century ago.
Richard E. Neustadt’s Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents, first published in 1960, argues that the institutional power of an American leader is surprisingly limited. Prime ministers, premiers, and executive presidents in other countries can issue commands through the state bureaucracy and manipulate the levers of party power to get their way.
American presidents, in contrast, confront a vigorous separation of powers, and neither Congress nor the Supreme Court can be bullied into submission. The federal system of government devolves most decisions to state, county, or town hall level. US political culture encourages the defiance of edicts from Washington. And, for all the talk of Republican dominance in all three branches of government, the big two political parties do not really exist at national level between elections.
Equally important is the limited control that the president exercises within the executive branch itself. Cabinet secretaries, the heads of government agencies like the Pentagon, and the numerous labyrinthine bureaucracies that stretch across federal, state and local government, offer myriad veto points that can frustrate presidential intentions.
To get things done, Neustadt observes, a president must rely on his ‘power to persuade’. As the first citizen, a president can get a hearing whenever he chooses, sway powerful interests inside and outside the bureaucracy, and influence citizens to mobilise behind his values. His effectiveness depends on his reputation in Washington and on his wider national prestige. A President who lacks both can be easily blocked.
Trump might wish to dismantle Obamacare, but he will need to put something in its place. He will quickly discover that healthcare reform is a vipers’ nest of populist hazards and intractable commercial interests.
Cuts to businesses taxes may make their way through Congress relatively smoothly; a slashing of income tax will be far harder, probably impossible, to accomplish.
The same is true of Trump’s anti-free-trade proposals. At best, these offend the values of much of the intellectual right, and undermine the interests of key Republican donors. As worst, they threaten a global trade war, so opposition to reckless policy change will come from across the political spectrum.
The second great book, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr’s The Imperial Presidency, was written in 1973, just as the era of President Richard Nixon was drawing to its close.
Schlesinger described an office quite different to Neustadt’s, in which the Presidency was beginning to run out of control. Foreign wars, most recently in Vietnam, had allowed presidents to accumulate unprecedented powers. Domestically, Oval Office incumbents were claiming ‘executive privilege’ in defiance of the separation of powers.
Soon after the book was published, however, Nixon was forced to resign. In a reaction against the Watergate scandal and the excesses of the Vietnam War, Congress underwent a remarkable renaissance, reasserting its right to make policy, and creating the congressional Budget Office to restore legislators’ authority over the national budget.
Schlesinger was quick to celebrate this resurgence of congressional power and the containment of the runaway presidency that it implied. But he observed that the new constraints on presidential power lay primarily in domestic affairs, where bad decisions are, in any event, usually reversible.
Trump will be effectively contained in domestic affairs. Unfortunately, he will not be on such a short leash in foreign affairs. His hostility to climate change science threatens to throw away a decade of gains. His vulgar nationalism and support for strongman politics could quickly turn peaceful conflicts into violent ones. And his unwillingness to accept American responsibility to protect the international order will generate a new era of global political uncertainty. In foreign policy, where US presidents can make big and irreversible mistakes, there are still few limitations on the havoc that a lamentable leader can wreak.
Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town