The Presidency’s Effect

How curious it must be for people around the world to read about the ongoing investigation of the President of the United States, Bill Clinton. To some, the focus on President Clinton’s relationships with women must seem misplaced. Others will see investigations of long-ago land deals in Arkansas and wonder why the investigation goes forward at all.

For business people trading with the U.S., the concern has to be how all this will play out in policy terms. Can President Clinton be effective in his dealings with the American Congress or his negotiations with other countries? Are there implications for U.S. trade policies in President Clinton’s beleaguered status?

President Clinton’s defenders assure us that the various accusations will have no impact on the President. He has made his denials and is tending to business as usual. Others, far less friendly to the administration, have all but claimed that President Clinton will launch a war to distract everyone from his personal problems.

Both extremes surely overstate the point. Any President’s effectiveness is impaired by controversies that reduce his personal credibility and his reputation for veracity. This is because, constitutionally, the presidency is a relatively weak office. The United States has a system of separation of powers which embeds judicial functions in a separate judiciary, and legislative functions in the House of Representatives and the Senate. In addition, the U.S.A. has many state and local governments that do much of the important work.

Of course, this weakness of the office explains why it is so vulnerable to anything which might reflect poorly on its occupant. The power of the Presidency is mostly the power of persuasion, what Theodore Roosevelt called the “Bully Pulpit,” meaning an excellent forum for persuading legislators and the citizenry of the righteousness or the importance of a cause or piece of legislation.

President Clinton’s weakness, even before the latest accusations, has impacted trade policy. Most notably, President Clinton failed to win from Congress an extension of “fast track” negotiating authority for free trade agreements. This authority allows the President to negotiate a pact with another country with the assurance it will be submitted as negotiated to the legislative branch for a straight yes or no vote with no amendments permitted. Without this authority, free trade negotiations cannot really go forward as most countries wouldn’t want to make their best offers with the prospect that Congress might still demand more.

Though the Presidency is a weak office, not at all like Prime Minister, which is always assured of party support in a parliamentary system, it does have important functions in the American system. One vital function is that the President and Vice President are the only officeholders elected nationally. As such, they are the ones on whom the burden falls to represent the national interest as opposed to particular interests of a constituency or region.

When the President is a weak one, arguments in favor of policies that impose identifiable harm on discrete constituencies are not heeded. As such, the political system starts to overlook the large interests of the country, such as free trade, in favor of special interests screaming loudly, such as labor unions. A strong President rallies Americans and their legislators to the big picture. A weak President is barely heard.

So the President’s weakened state does real damage and, as such, all Americans, indeed all those who care for America, no matter how partisan they may be, should be saddened at President Clinton’s travails. They harm the country.

Yet, the American constitutional system is an ingenious one, and one designed specifically to deal with inept or problematic leadership. It is a system often frustrating in its inability to move quickly, but it also is a system that prevents anyone from doing too much harm, too fast.

Americans don’t like government intervention anyway. Fortunately, Americans have arranged things so that their food can be grown, processed, transported, and exported without too much interference from government and without any participation by the President of the United States.