Reviewed by Karen Hult, Department of Political Science, Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University. Email: khult [at] vt.edu.
In Two Presidents are Better than One, David Orentlicher decries an ever more “imperial presidency” and worsening partisan polarization. These diagnoses of U.S. political problems are likely to resonate with many – especially amidst recent reports about PRISM, search warrants for journalists, IRS investigations of conservative groups, and congressional deadlock over immigration and budget deficits. What Orentlicher, an Indiana University law professor, medical doctor, and former state representative, prescribes, however, may be more problematic: a constitutional shift to a two (or more) person presidency held by individuals of different parties with formally equal authority.
For Orentlicher, the impetus for proposing such dramatic institutional reform is growing presidential power amidst increasing partisan polarization, neither of which the Framers expected or desired. His use of “imperial president” extends beyond its more familiar employment by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (1973), both temporally and substantively; as used here, the label threatens to presume what should be demonstrated. Nonetheless, it is difficult to dispute that over the course of U.S. history, the presidency has become more central to policymaking and the primary focus of public demands and expectations. Concerns about abuse of power and presidential overreach have accompanied such expansion.
The rise of the presidency threatens to marginalize those who voted for other presidential candidates, generating issues of representativeness and accountability. Especially as partisan conflict has grown sharper and more divisive over the last several decades, Orentlicher worries that numerical minorities and members of the non-presidential party no longer have incentives to remain constructively involved in governing or policy deliberation.
Orentlicher contends that a promising solution to these problems would be to elect two individuals as co-presidents, each representing a different party. Formally, the two would have “joint and equal authority”; they “would have to agree on any executive decision,” from signing a bill into law to issuing a signing statement, to making military decisions (p.25). Orentlicher maintains that the presidents would readily learn to work together, driven by incentives for reelection (in the longer run, he hopes, without term limits) and for leaving a legacy of accomplishment. By reducing the stakes of presidential elections for parties and citizens alike, Orentlicher argues that such an arrangement would reduce the ideological polarization reinforced by and the attention paid to [*322] quadrennial elections. At the same time, the change would broaden the representation of voters and parties, while also permitting the emergence and success of additional parties.
Two Presidents are Better than One is provocative and systematically argued. Firmly anchored in evidence and analyses drawn primarily from scholars of rational choice institutionalism in law and to a lesser extent political science, the work makes a strong case for change based on the existence of serious maladies in the U.S. body politic. Orentlicher’s thorough and careful argumentation extends to his prescription for a two (or more) person presidency, which he grounds empirically in the experiences of both other countries and organizations in the for-profit and nonprofit sectors. In many ways the volume resembles a legal brief, laying out the primary arguments for change while anticipating and rebutting counterarguments. Also familiar is Orentlicher’s use of analogies to bolster his contentions, frequently drawn from medicine and from heterosexual marriage.
The volume effectively highlights many of the problems of 21st century governance in the United States. Even so, the book might have paid somewhat more attention to the constraints on deliberation and decision-making posed by external influences like a fragmenting and increasingly combative news media and the accelerating role of money in elections and in policymaking. Deserving additional emphasis as well is what Mann and Ornstein (2012) indict as “extreme and asymmetric partisan polarization” (my emphasis), with a Republican Party too rarely willing to focus on governing. Two or more presidents likely would not fully escape the impact of such factors.
Meanwhile, Orentlicher for the most part neglects what many consider to be a primary part of the “executive branch,” which extends beyond the presidency to the cabinet departments and independent agencies and commissions. (His primary concern seems to be that independent regulatory boards and commissions like the Federal Reserve and the Securities and Exchange Commission are increasingly and inappropriately subject to presidential control.) Nonetheless, the more than two million career officials and several thousand political appointees both constrain presidential policy pursuits and offer useful expertise and counsel. Subject to legislative and judicial as well as presidential direction, career officials may be important “balance wheels” in governing (Rohr 1986).
Orentlicher’s assumptions of adverse selection and preference divergence also lead him to mostly dismiss the ability of those around presidents to serve as reliable sources of helpful advice or trustworthy contributors to deliberation. Other scholars, however, have highlighted the importance of cabinet councils (e.g., the National Security Council, the National Economic Council) and their staffs in assisting presidents by gathering and analyzing information, generating and assessing options, and debating alternatives. At the same time, some worry that presidential decision-making has been weakened by either too much centralization of decision-making in and around the Executive Office of the President or excessive politicization of appointees in [*323] targeted agencies. In the process, such researchers warn that presidents frequently are closed off from the input of career officials, especially substantive experts. Placing two individuals in the presidency need not reverse growing centralization, and the two might bargain over which agencies to focus on for strategic appointments. Moreover, distinct, potentially competitive staffs would serve each president (and each vice president).
Indeed, one might expect that such centralization of decision-making would persist or perhaps even accelerate with two presidents from different parties. This might be especially likely in matters of national and homeland security, as the contemporary support for internet and telephone surveillance activities from leaders of both parties illustrates. At the same time, in policy areas involving non-negotiable value differences (e.g., human reproduction, gun ownership, property rights), partisan conflict may be unavoidable and stall presidential as well as legislative decision processes. In effect, this could exacerbate the difficulties posed by the present situation of “parliamentary parties” operating in a separation of powers system (Mann and Ornstein 2012).
Even so, Two Presidents are Better than One places a good deal of its argument at the level of the relationship between the two (or possibly more) individuals who would occupy the presidency. In addition to enhancing representation and cooling party conflicts, Orentlicher contends this arrangement would improve decision-making by increasing deliberation among formal equals. Yet this last claim also might be questioned. It assumes that the presidents will be able to learn work together constructively over time, which may well happen as it has in several recent presidential-vice presidential pairings. As the volume notes, however, the presidents seem likely to divide labor, appearing to accord each a presumption of informal leadership in specific policy areas. And, as scholars like Fred Greenstein (2004) and Paul Kowert (2002) have pointed out, individual presidents vary in information processing ability, organizational capacity, ease in handling ambiguity, and emotional intelligence. Less clear is what happens when individuals of differing cognitive and emotional profiles must cope together with complex and uncertain decisions.
The sort of change that Orentlicher advocates would require a constitutional amendment as well as other revisions in federal and state laws. Yet, whether it would ever be adopted may be far less important than whether such changes – and their justifications – are seriously examined and debated.
Greenstein, Fred I. 2004. The Presidential Difference: Leadership Style from FDR to George W. Bush. 2nd ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Kowert, Paul A. 2002. Groupthink or Deadlock: When do Leaders Learn from their Advisors? Albany: State University of New York Press.
Rohr, John A. 1986. To Run a Constitution: The Legitimacy of the Administrative State. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas.
Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr. 1973. The Imperial Presidency. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Copyright 2013 by the author, Karen Hult.