The voice of the civics teacher is cheerful and patient. Unlike an ordinary citizen, he takes real joy in the arcane rules by which we govern ourselves, and he tries to use his enthusiasm to get his fellow Americans to pay attention, for democracy depends on their informed participation. Unlike a historian, he thinks this complex system has a life of its own, stretching backward and forward, independent of its operators. In a period when cheer and patience are notably absent from political discourse, Charles O. Jones's civics primer on The American Presidency, infused with appreciation for the proper seriousness of public life, is enriched by including a gentle reminder that this system is in peril.
Jones begins with the Constitution's framers, who developed a doctrine of "separationism" as they defined the presidency. Frustrated by the essentially executive-free Articles of Confederation, the framers knew they would write a stronger executive branch into the new government. But they retained the suspicion of centralized power that had spurred them to make a revolution in the first place. So, even as they gave more power to the president, they clearly separated the presidency from the other branches of government, deeding the legislature and judiciary their distinct spheres of competence.
Thus the preservation of American liberty required both the strong presidency and the separation of powers. Give up a strong presidency and you return to the impotent government of the pre-Constitution Congress, unable to manage its finances and vulnerable in time of attack. Give up the separation of powers and you undo the American revolution, returning to a unitary government fettered only by occasional plebiscite.
Like most students of the American presidency, Jones has a great deal of sympathy for the occupants of the Oval Office, who work at the mercy of the separationist framers. Presidents face, Jones writes, a "perpetual ordeal"; unlike parliamentary ministers, they cannot count on even a majority of their own party putting through their agenda. Nor must they deal only with Congress, but also with a government divided into myriad parts, including independent commissions like the Federal Reserve Board, whose actions more intimately affect Americans' prosperity than anything the president can do. Meanwhile, pollsters constantly ask the opinion of a distracted public about presidential performance, holding the executive implicitly accountable for matters beyond his--or even the government itself's--control. Burdened by the commitments of their predecessors, beset by the press, presidents naturally hope for the kind of crisis that will give them, even briefly, greater freedom to act.
But like most students of the American presidency, Jones has even more sympathy for committeemen and bureaucrats who toil outside the public eye. He begins by noting that the real action in the Constitutional Convention was not in the floor speeches but on the Committee on Postponed Matters, which quietly resolved into prose the disputes left open in debate. And though he tuts in the approved manner at the rampant growth of federal bureaucracy ("Talk about the need for Weight Watchers!"), he not so secretly delights in the spiderweb of organizational charts in which an expert eye can discern patterns of power normally hidden by presidential pageantry. Outlining the complex negotiations between the president and Congress over federal spending, Jones notes, "I have advised many students that if they want to have influence in government, get hired by OMB [Office of Management and Budget]." Printing a floor-plan of the presidential working suite in the West Wing, he discusses the Kremlinological expertise required to tease out exactly what happens in the inner court, where aides hold bland titles like "assistant to the President" that conceal more than they reveal. These public servants, if they think as seriously as Jones does, and refrain from becoming "arrogant 'know-it-alls,'" make American government work.
As you would expect of a scholar so keen on proper procedure and competence, Jones indicates a little unhappiness with the current administration. He has written on the transition from campaigning to governing, and knows they are related, but sees a critical distinction between the two. Campaigning is antagonistic, while government involves, in Jones's homely phrases, "sharing" and being "attentive." Bringing the campaign into the West Wing by, for example, making Karl Rove a policy advisor, diminishes the executive's ability to govern in a sharing and attentive fashion. And Jones has no respect for diminished competence--"No excuses," he says flatly of the administration's response to Hurricane Katrina.
Still, Jones expresses a generally sanguine view of the institution's ability to survive its erstwhile occupants, seeing the framers' structure as self-limiting. Poor governing renders presidents ineffective. "The American presidency is not the American government. ... Effective presidential power ... is ... exercised in recognition of the legitimate function of the other branches," Jones writes.
But suppose you have a president who uses signing statements that reverse Congressional intent and usurp the courts' interpretive role? What becomes of the separationist Constitution then? Jones does not say. And at times he undermines his civic cheer with ominous metaphors. Presidential power will continue to grow; it is "impossible to turn back the clock." The accumulation of broad war powers began long before now, and the fateful decisions have already been made about the presidency's future. Using the proverb commonly deployed for dangerous departures, Jones describes the direction of the presidency by saying that "the die" has already been "cast."
Eric Rauchway is a professor of history at the University of California, Davis, and the author, most recently, of Blessed Among Nations: How the World Made America and Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt's America.
By Eric Rauchway