The Glory and the Burden: the American Presidency from FDR to Trump
by Robert Schmuhl (University of Notre Dame Press, $25 /£20.35)
Felix M. Larkin
Robert Schmuhl, professor emeritus of American Studies and Journalism at the University of Notre Dame, is well known in Ireland for his contributions to Morning Ireland on RTÉ Radio 1.
In the prologue to this important and timely book, he tells us that he has been studying the American presidency since his high school days in the 1960s – and he is deeply troubled by what he identifies as “multiple maladies” in the American political system, which he regards as the reason for the decline in the presidency from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Donald Trump. His book analyses these maladies.
The first of them is the chaotic nominating process. The present system is the product of ‘reforms’ introduced after the disastrous Democratic Party convention in Chicago in 1968. These ‘reforms’ shifted the selection of presidential candidates in both parties from the party leaders with expertise in politics and government to grassroots members voting in primaries.
This tends to favour candidates who are not Washington insiders, and every president bar one – George Bush senior – elected since 1976 has been an ‘outsider’ with no, or little, experience in the federal government.
Moreover, the early primaries in unrepresentative states like Iowa and New Hampshire skew the outcome of the nominating process by creating momentum for candidates successful in those primaries. Schmuhl argues that a phased programme of regional primaries – in, say, five geographic regions – would more effectively test the credentials of those seeking the presidency.
The 22nd Amendment of the US Constitution is, in Schmuhl’s opinion, a further ‘reform’ that has had a deleterious effect. Ratified in 1951, this amendment limited presidents to a maximum of two terms. It codified in law what had been the unwritten rule for all presidents up to FDR – who was elected four times and served for over 12 years.
However, it has had the effect of making any president who wins a second term a ‘lame duck’ immediately after re-election.
Another issue is increased partisanship in Washington. The early post-World War II era in the US was one in which there was a broad consensus on both domestic and foreign policy, and many items of legislation – including the controversial Civil Rights Act of 1964 – enjoyed significant cross-party support. Not so today.
Schmuhl identifies the key date in the breakdown of bipartisanship as 1987 when President Reagan’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Robert Bork, was voted down by the Democrats on largely political grounds.
Thereafter, in Schmuhl’s words, “brass-knuckled partisanship was de rigueur…and presidents increasingly had to deal with the consequences”.
More generally, there has been a break-down of consensus within the American public. Schmuhl attributes this to the proliferation of communications media: for example, new television channels with ideological agendas and the ‘social media’ such as Facebook and Twitter.
In an interview in 2014 quoted by Schmuhl, President Obama complained that “the balkanisation of the media means that we just don’t have a common place where we get common facts and a common worldview the way we did 20 [or] 30 years ago”. This absence of “a common place” has polarised political opinion.
The final malady discussed by Schmuhl is the Electoral College. On five occasions since 1824, the winner of the popular vote has lost the presidential election in the Electoral College – most recently, in 2000 (Al Gore) and 2016 (Hillary Clinton).
There have been three consecutive two-term presidents – Clinton, Bush junior and Obama – and this occurred only once before”
This arises because each state has two votes in the Electoral College in addition to the votes that reflect its population (thereby privileging smaller states), and the winner – without regard to his margin of victory – takes all the Electoral College votes in each state (except in Maine and Nabraska, where there is proportional allocation of the votes).
The fact that two of the last three presidents were first elected contrary to the will of the majority undermines the authority of the presidency.
Despite these “multiple maladies”, Schmuhl points out that the US presidency has enjoyed a remarkable period of stability over the past 25 years.
There have been three consecutive two-term presidents – Clinton, Bush junior and Obama – and this occurred only once before, with Jefferson, Madison and Monroe between 1801 and 1825.
Will there be four-in-a-row after 2020? Most of us hope not – but while we may deprecate Trump’s presidency, what this book tells us is that the problems besetting the presidency are bigger than any one individual’s incompetence or lack of character; the problem is systemic.