Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Does Our System Demand Too Much of the President?

James W. Skillen


March 30, 2012

By James W. Skillen

This article was excerpted from an essay published by the Center for Public Justice as part of its Election Series ’08.

Why do we make such a big deal of the American presidential election every four years? Obviously, the president is the highest executive official of the land. But it is more than that. In our unusual federal system, citizens of the whole country get to vote for only one official: the president of the United States. All other elected, national leaders—the Congress—are chosen by only a few Americans, either the few that reside in each of the 435 congressional districts for the House of Representatives or the few that live in each state, where state-wide elections for the Senate take place.

…This leads us to expect too much of the president—who has to be all things to all people—because we, as a national citizenry, have no way to demand much of Congress. American citizens altogether elect not a single member of Congress.

… To help expose this deficiency in our system I want to draw on a surprising source. Larry Siedentop … wrote a commentary in the Financial Times (London, 7/2/08) about the democratic deficit in the European Union (EU). He tries to explain why voters in … referendums in Ireland, France and the Netherlands turned down the latest EU proposal to strengthen the governance structure of the EU.

… The primary motive of Irish, Dutch, and French voters, says Siedentop, was to express disgruntlement about their lack of meaningful representation in the governance of the EU, whose parliament has little authority. … What has happened over the last two decades or so is that the national parliaments of the EU’s member states have transferred some of their power to the EU executives in Brussels but have not acquired for citizens across the union a genuinely representative parliament with recognized legitimacy. As a consequence, writes Siedentop, a “generalized cynicism about government is on the rise.”

What liberal democracy is all about, he says, is the protection of “equal fundamental rights, equal liberty. The self-respect following from that principle gives citizens a moral foothold, in the form of self-government, that helps to compensate for the inequalities that market freedoms and civil society create.” Without a similar embodiment of that principle in the EU, people lose … idealism about European integration and their place in it.

… Now, think with me about our American situation …Our states, … which were never sovereign and self-sufficient like the European states once were, nonetheless have, since World War II, ceded much of their formerly independent responsibility for education, health care, marriage and family, land use, resource development, transportation and insurance to the federal government. This is not necessarily a bad thing in the historical course of national integration and population growth. Americans now live together in a national polity, rather than primarily in state polities in loose relation to one another and to a distant federal government.

…[However], what is bad about the political structure of our relatively new national polity is much like what is bad about the structure of the EU. Our national legislature suffers from a democratic deficit because it simply does not represent us as citizens in our national polity. It represents us only in and from our states and congressional districts. And for that reason, among others, …“a generalized cynicism about government is on the rise.”

Most of us don’t know who our member of Congress is or what our Senators stand for and actually accomplish. When it comes to nationwide concerns, we citizens participate more vigorously in interest-group lobbying efforts on particular issues than in the election campaigns of our [Congressional] representatives. Americans love the nation but don’t think much of government and bureaucrats… Without the means of voting for nationwide representatives in the House and the Senate, we feel relatively powerless in relation to Congress. 

Look at the excitement Barack Obama’s [2008] campaign generate[d]. He [knew] that Americans want[ed] change, including change in the way politics is conducted. … Expectations [rose], as they [did] before for other presidents promising to change things…

… [But] the fact is that American idealism about government is not growing. Americans do not have high expectations that Congress [or the President] will … make Social Security solvent, bring down deficit spending, … and make America preeminent and respected in the world again.

... Our system places too great a burden on the office of the president for the well-being of the nation precisely because of the wider, national democratic deficit. Beyond this year’s election … we need democratic renewal that will enable American citizens to elect and hold accountable nationwide representatives to Congress.

—James W. Skillen is the former President of the Center for Public Justice.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”