The notion of an imperial presidency was premised on the role of the United States in world affairs. In 1973, Arthur Schlesinger argued that the presidency was “resurgent” in World War II, “ascendant” during the Korean War, and “rampant” in the Vietnam War. Schlesinger deemed Nixon to be a revolutionary president. More recent versions of the imperial presidency point to George Bush’s use of executive power in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, or President Obama’s executive orders to protect certain undocumented immigrants from being deported. The assumption behind the imperial presidency is that the president has won the competition for power, and the presidency is the only institution that has means, legitimacy, and popular support to provide national leadership. Moreover, the president can govern either with the consent of Congress or, if necessary, exert executive power independent of Congress.
Presidential leadership is enabled by unified party control of government; that is, the president can be the most effective legislative leader when his party wins a majority of seats in the House and Senate. The linkage of rising presidential power and legitimacy combined with unified party control of the branches allows for “responsible party government,” which challenges the framers’ theory of separation of powers. Advocates of responsible party government assert that political party is the critical link between public opinion and government effectiveness. By electing a president and majorities of his party to the House and Senate at the same time, the voters deliver a popular mandate for governing. Since the president is at the top of the ticket and presidential campaigns are about national issues, the mandate is typically conveyed to Congress through the president. Contrary to the vision of the framers, Congress is not an institution that “refines and enlarges” the public interest through a deliberative process or by regulating factions; its primary function is to enact into law the president’s priorities, which are an articulation of the public’s wishes. The president should propose and the Congress should dispose.
Responsible party government with strong presidential leadership was first advanced by Woodrow Wilson, but it prevailed with the rise of the modern president. It has become a standard for judging the American political system that displaces the expectations that go with the constitutional system of shared, competing, and balanced powers. What the framers sought to separate, the responsible party government theory seeks to bring together. In addition to providing for the enactment of the President’s and party’s agenda, Responsible Party Government also allows the public to assess the effectiveness of the governing party. Unlike a system of separated powers, where voters may have trouble knowing whom to blame or credit, Responsible Party Government may allow voters to evaluate government’s effectiveness and, ultimately, to reward or punish those in power via the ballot box.
The voters have delivered unified party governments a few times in the post-World War II period. The classic case was in 1964, when Lyndon Johnson won the presidency in a landslide with 61% of the popular vote and the Democrats added thirty-six seats to the House. The mandate was clear and Congress followed through by enacting major legislation in health care (Medicare and Medicaid) and civil rights. The election of 1980 looked like a mandate as well. Republican Ronald Reagan won only 51% of the popular vote, but he took 44 states and a total of 489 Electoral College votes and his party gained 34 seats in the House and 12 in the Senate. The Republicans did not have a majority in the House, but Reagan did have the support of a conservative coalition of Republicans and Southern Democrats. The Congress pushed through Reagan’s program of tax cuts, defense spending increases, and reductions in domestic spending. The 2008 election also qualifies as a mandate for responsible party government. Barack Obama promised change and he won a solid 53% of the vote, while his party gained 20 House seats and 6 Senate seats. The Democratic Congress rallied to pass a major economic stimulus bill and health care reform—the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare.
There have been other presidential election years when a single party has won unified control of government—the Democrats in 1992 and Republicans in 2000. But neither could be considered mandate-style elections. Bill Clinton won only 43% of the vote in 1992, which prompted Republican Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-KS) to quip, “That meant 57% of Americans voted against him.” In 2000, George Bush received fewer popular votes than Democrat Al Gore. Bush’s winning margin of a few hundred votes in the state of Florida, with its beleaguered electoral system, gave him a narrow Electoral College majority which could hardly be considered a popular mandate.
Since we can count on one hand the number of mandate-type elections, the voters do not seem to approve of responsible party government. What does this mean for governing? According to theory, when the voters do not deliver unified party government or a clear popular mandate, the political system is bound to be gridlocked. Thus, whereas responsible parties can make the system “work” in terms of producing legislation in accordance with public opinion, divided party control of Congress and the presidency is not likely to produce much, particularly in the current era of hyperpartisanship. Without majorities of the same party in both the House and Senate, the President resorts to executive power and acts independently of Congress to achieve his goals. Thus, recent presidents routinely use executive orders to carry out policy, write signing statements on bills they don’t want to veto, and negotiate major international agreements with little concern about congressional approved. Presidents justify taking such actions, for, as President Obama has remarked, “we can’t wait” for Congress to act.
In the face of divided government, unilateral executive action reflects the modern president’s impatience with Enlightenment notions of balance of power or republican governance. The modern president who governs by popular mandate replaces the House as the primary linkage to, and voice of, the people. One is left to wonder, under such a scheme, whether it is possible to hear the “mild voice of reason” amidst the “clamors of an impatient avidity for immediate and immoderate gain.” (Federalist, No. 42)