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

Obama the King

David Koyzis


February 12, 2010

Barack Obama has been president for just over twelve months and in his recent state of the union address he set out his priorities for his second year in office. It is no surprise that many observers are now questioning Obama’s overall effectiveness in the presidency as unemployment remains high and the effects of the recession continue to be felt by many. This points to a central difficulty in the organization of the executive branch: in effect, President Obama must function as both king and prime minister.

Many countries have a dual executive consisting of two separate offices of head of state and head of government. The head of state may be an hereditary monarch, like Queen Elizabeth II, who presides over the constitutions of sixteen realms, including Canada and the United Kingdom. Alternatively, a president may play this role, as in the Federal Republic of Germany. The head of state is supposed to be a nonpartisan figure, symbolizing the unity of the nation.

The head of government may be titled prime minister, chancellor or chairman of the council of ministers. He or she is a partisan political figure responsible for spearheading the government’s agenda and shepherding it through parliament. While the head of state is supposed to be above partisanship, the head of government is free to make political friends and enemies in the interest of enacting his legislative agenda. Controversy may follow his every move, but he nevertheless gets things done, making the hard decisions necessary to keep the business of government moving.

The United States differs from these countries in having a single executive officer who must function as both head of state and head of government. It is the rare president who is able to perform both roles equally well. Franklin D. Roosevelt was perhaps one of the few to carry it off. Through his famous fireside chats he used the still new medium of radio to communicate with the American people by appealing to their shared values. This was his kingly side. Yet he was also skilled at getting Congress to approve his New Deal agenda and the country’s entry into the war against Japan and Germany. This was his prime ministerial side.

Most other presidents have not fared nearly as well in fulfilling their dual role. John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan were elected primarily on the strength of their kingly abilities. The youthful and charismatic Kennedy was at his best behind the lectern and before the television camera, articulating his vision of what a generation of Americans standing at a “new frontier” could do to secure progress at home and protect freedom abroad. Nearly a generation later Reagan came to be lauded as the “great communicator,” using the skills he had acquired in Hollywood to make Americans feel good about themselves again after the political and economic turmoil of the 1960s and ‘70s.

By contrast, Lyndon Johnson was an effective prime minister, willing to twist arms, to threaten and to cajole in order to push his agenda through a sometimes reluctant Congress. His greatest successes came in advancing and protecting the civil rights of African Americans, who had been relegated to second-class status in much of the country beforehand. Johnson was, of course, far from a unifying figure. By the end of his presidency, he was reviled by segregationists, Vietnam War opponents and those skeptical of his hugely expensive Great Society programs.

Like Kennedy, Obama is an inspiring speaker, with a genuine gift for instilling confidence in huge numbers of people at home and abroad. He and his telegenic family have a certain ineffable regal quality about them that appeals to many. If his political agenda has thus far been less successful than he had hoped, Obama nevertheless knows how to invoke and articulate American ideals in a way that makes them appealing even to the otherwise unpersuaded. Whether this will be enough to carry him through another three years and possibly into a second term remains to be seen.

—David T. Koyzis, Professor of Political Science
    Redeemer University College

“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
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.”