President vs. Prime Minister

Fareed Zakaria suggests that President Obama’s problem is that he has been acting like a Prime Minister–the head of his party in a parliamentary system–rather than a President, the head of state:

Over the past six months — which have correlated with his dramatic drop in the polls — Obama has behaved less like a president and more like a prime minister. He has not outlined a broad vision for the country. He has not embraced the best solutions — from left and right — for the nation's problems. Instead he has behaved as the head of the Democratic Party in Congress, working almost entirely with and through that caucus, slicing and dicing policy proposals to cobble together legislative majorities. He has allowed the great policy program of his presidency to be written and defined by a collection of congressional Democrats, accepting the lopsided bills that emerged and the corruption inherent in the process.

If he represents all the people, Obama should remember that for 85 percent of Americans, the great health-care crisis is about cost. For about 15 percent, it is about extending coverage. Yet his plan does little about the first and focuses mostly on the second. It promotes too little of the real discipline that would force costs down and instead throws in a few ideas, experiments, and pilot programs that could, over time and if rigorously expanded, do so.

Watching the legislative process, Bismarck allegedly observed, is like watching the making of sausages. The health-care bill is particularly sausage-like. It has special exemptions on future costs for five states, exemptions for unions, concessions to almost every special interest in the industry and of course no reform at all of the crazy legal system because the trial-lawyers bar remains untouchable for the Democratic Party. . . .

On health care, energy, taxes, immigration, deficits and everything else, Obama should get away from the politics of legislating and go back to being president. He should put forward the best proposals to help solve America's problems. He may or may not get much support from Republicans, but he will earn political capital and power, which in the long run is the only way to enact a big, transforming agenda. This approach is exactly what Obama campaigned on. He promised that he would reach out to all sections of the country, listen to the best ideas and appeal to the nation as a whole. “I don’t see a blue America and a red America, I see only the United States of America,” he said. Obama needs to shift course and govern as the president he promised to become. That’s change I could believe in.

That’s a good lesson in the difference between parliamentary governments (such as the British and most other democracies have) and the American constitutional system. On the other hand, do we really want a President as a king-above-the-fray? Wouldn’t that potentially be more of a threat to liberty than a party leader tied to electoral politics and thus the will of the people? Do we really want a government that can “get things done” in an easy manner?

I’ve noticed that whenever a new democratic system gets started–in Russia, Iraq, Afghanistan–they always set up a parliamentary system (in which the majority party or coalition chooses the chief executive) rather than a separately-elected president like we have. Why do you think that is? Is there wisdom in that?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Bruce Gee

    I think Zakaria’s comments are spot-on. The Jekyll-Hyde of Obama’s presidency is perplexing: he ran as a populist, and rules as a Chicago politico. As soon as he entered the oval office, he bristled with power: “I won.” The jig’s up though, the American people–not just conservatives–are on to him. Yet his SOTU address was more of the same, very discouraging. He seems to have very strong impulses to rule rather than govern. I’m not sure he has the chops to actually come up with creative solutions to our problems, as Congress and a lot of people are expecting him to do.

    As for your questions: our presidents all emerge from one of two political parties, so while the parties themselves don’t select a prime minister, it is obvious that the political tilt will be one way or another. All of the backroom stuff tends to go the way of the party in power, even if fig leaves are offered in public. So I am not sure there is a huge difference.

  • Bruce Gee

    I think Zakaria’s comments are spot-on. The Jekyll-Hyde of Obama’s presidency is perplexing: he ran as a populist, and rules as a Chicago politico. As soon as he entered the oval office, he bristled with power: “I won.” The jig’s up though, the American people–not just conservatives–are on to him. Yet his SOTU address was more of the same, very discouraging. He seems to have very strong impulses to rule rather than govern. I’m not sure he has the chops to actually come up with creative solutions to our problems, as Congress and a lot of people are expecting him to do.

    As for your questions: our presidents all emerge from one of two political parties, so while the parties themselves don’t select a prime minister, it is obvious that the political tilt will be one way or another. All of the backroom stuff tends to go the way of the party in power, even if fig leaves are offered in public. So I am not sure there is a huge difference.

  • kerner

    Zakaria’s comments reflect an attitude that used to be more widely held. That the president, regardless of his own party, should SERIOUSLY consider the beliefs of his entire constituency. While a partisan president would naturally try to lead the nation in the direction to which he believes it should go, he shouldn’t try to push too hard too fast. In other words, he shouldn’t try to jam major changes down an unwilling public’s throat, but rather should use his postion to convince as many Americans as he can to accept as much as possible.

    Congress, under this theory, would be expected to give the president his way in some areas, and resist him only on matters of firm principle.

    An example of this was the former custom of confirming judicial appointments if they were “qualified”. Back then, “qualified” meant sufficiently educated and experienced and possessed of the proper judicial temperament. This concept is, of course, gone now.

    The problem is that the American people have become more polarized, and the two major paries have reflected this. All the griping we now hear from the Democrat “base” (i.e., the daily Kos crowd, etc.) sounds a lot like the griping we heard from the conservative “base” five years ago.

    I think the left is more responsible for abandonning the old ways than the right is, but this is a function of numbers. If the USA is 40% conservative, 40% moderate, and 20% liberal (as I have read it is), it is much easier for right wing politicians to lead the country gradually to the right. The left today finds itself in a position of trying to do everything at once because it has not had power for a long time, and may lose it soon. And they are unwilling to wait until they can convince a majority of people to their way of thinking, beecause they realize that may never happen.

  • kerner

    Zakaria’s comments reflect an attitude that used to be more widely held. That the president, regardless of his own party, should SERIOUSLY consider the beliefs of his entire constituency. While a partisan president would naturally try to lead the nation in the direction to which he believes it should go, he shouldn’t try to push too hard too fast. In other words, he shouldn’t try to jam major changes down an unwilling public’s throat, but rather should use his postion to convince as many Americans as he can to accept as much as possible.

    Congress, under this theory, would be expected to give the president his way in some areas, and resist him only on matters of firm principle.

    An example of this was the former custom of confirming judicial appointments if they were “qualified”. Back then, “qualified” meant sufficiently educated and experienced and possessed of the proper judicial temperament. This concept is, of course, gone now.

    The problem is that the American people have become more polarized, and the two major paries have reflected this. All the griping we now hear from the Democrat “base” (i.e., the daily Kos crowd, etc.) sounds a lot like the griping we heard from the conservative “base” five years ago.

    I think the left is more responsible for abandonning the old ways than the right is, but this is a function of numbers. If the USA is 40% conservative, 40% moderate, and 20% liberal (as I have read it is), it is much easier for right wing politicians to lead the country gradually to the right. The left today finds itself in a position of trying to do everything at once because it has not had power for a long time, and may lose it soon. And they are unwilling to wait until they can convince a majority of people to their way of thinking, beecause they realize that may never happen.

  • CRB

    Here is another take on the problem, which concludes with:
    “Obama is our first everything-and-nothing president”

    http://www.victorhanson.com/articles/hanson012810.html

  • CRB

    Here is another take on the problem, which concludes with:
    “Obama is our first everything-and-nothing president”

    http://www.victorhanson.com/articles/hanson012810.html

  • Peter Leavitt

    The framers of the Constititution definitely wanted a strong president, balanced by a strong Congress and federal court system They knew from the weakness of the Articles of Confederation period that a strong presidency was vital.

    As to Obama, Shelby Steele has been proved right that he is a classic black bargainer who probably doesn’t really know his own mind . That’s why people find him a confusing person or they project their own views onto him. Victor Davis Hanson writes: If we do not know who Barack Obama is, that may be because Barack Obama does not know who Barack Obama is. Barry Dunham? Barry Soetoro? Barack Soetoro? Barry Obama? Barack Obama? We knew for better worse who Reagan, Bush, and Clinton were; Obama is an enigma.

    Shelby Steele writes in a WSJ article Here as follows:

    I think that Mr. Obama is not just inexperienced; he is also hampered by a distinct inner emptiness—not an emptiness that comes from stupidity or a lack of ability but an emptiness that has been actually nurtured and developed as an adaptation to the political world…

    …[H]e has come forward in American politics by emptying himself of strong convictions, by rejecting principled stands as “ideological,” and by promising to deliver us from the “tired” culture-war debates of the past. He aspires to be “post-ideological,” “post-racial” and “post-partisan,” which is to say that he defines himself by a series of “nots”—thus implying that being nothing is better than being something. He tries to make a politics out of emptiness itself.

    Fareed Zakaria’s view that the problem is that he is trying a parliamentary style of government obscures Obama’s own serious faults as a leader. In my view the man is in way over his head.

  • Peter Leavitt

    The framers of the Constititution definitely wanted a strong president, balanced by a strong Congress and federal court system They knew from the weakness of the Articles of Confederation period that a strong presidency was vital.

    As to Obama, Shelby Steele has been proved right that he is a classic black bargainer who probably doesn’t really know his own mind . That’s why people find him a confusing person or they project their own views onto him. Victor Davis Hanson writes: If we do not know who Barack Obama is, that may be because Barack Obama does not know who Barack Obama is. Barry Dunham? Barry Soetoro? Barack Soetoro? Barry Obama? Barack Obama? We knew for better worse who Reagan, Bush, and Clinton were; Obama is an enigma.

    Shelby Steele writes in a WSJ article Here as follows:

    I think that Mr. Obama is not just inexperienced; he is also hampered by a distinct inner emptiness—not an emptiness that comes from stupidity or a lack of ability but an emptiness that has been actually nurtured and developed as an adaptation to the political world…

    …[H]e has come forward in American politics by emptying himself of strong convictions, by rejecting principled stands as “ideological,” and by promising to deliver us from the “tired” culture-war debates of the past. He aspires to be “post-ideological,” “post-racial” and “post-partisan,” which is to say that he defines himself by a series of “nots”—thus implying that being nothing is better than being something. He tries to make a politics out of emptiness itself.

    Fareed Zakaria’s view that the problem is that he is trying a parliamentary style of government obscures Obama’s own serious faults as a leader. In my view the man is in way over his head.

  • D S

    In way over his head? Of course he is. But our enlightened electorate either knew this or chose to ignore it when they voted this con man into office. Three more years of holding our breath.

  • D S

    In way over his head? Of course he is. But our enlightened electorate either knew this or chose to ignore it when they voted this con man into office. Three more years of holding our breath.

  • Bruce Gee

    I think Shelby Steele crosses a line in judging this man. Let’s keep it to his words and actions, and not pretend that we can see into his very soul. Heart-judging is not for us to do. It can lead to a lot of crazy places, most of them misled.

  • Bruce Gee

    I think Shelby Steele crosses a line in judging this man. Let’s keep it to his words and actions, and not pretend that we can see into his very soul. Heart-judging is not for us to do. It can lead to a lot of crazy places, most of them misled.

  • Wyldeirishman

    I’m still hung up on the Bismark metaphor, because under the ever-increasing power-creep of government-run health care, we probably won’t be allowed to eat any real sausages at all.

    Because they contain trans-fats (and other deliciousness), the angioplasty, bypass, and other cardiology-related expenses probably won’t be covered unless we can prove that we are, in fact, consuming a more healthy (albeit ersatz) version of said sausage (comprised mainly of compressed soy protein, whey, spices, and peace & harmony).

  • Wyldeirishman

    I’m still hung up on the Bismark metaphor, because under the ever-increasing power-creep of government-run health care, we probably won’t be allowed to eat any real sausages at all.

    Because they contain trans-fats (and other deliciousness), the angioplasty, bypass, and other cardiology-related expenses probably won’t be covered unless we can prove that we are, in fact, consuming a more healthy (albeit ersatz) version of said sausage (comprised mainly of compressed soy protein, whey, spices, and peace & harmony).

  • Peter Leavitt

    Bruce, Shelby Steele is a black man who has studied Obama and written a book about him. He obviously doesn’t the subtleties of his of his heart, though he is a bright guy with a measured understanding of him.

  • Peter Leavitt

    Bruce, Shelby Steele is a black man who has studied Obama and written a book about him. He obviously doesn’t the subtleties of his of his heart, though he is a bright guy with a measured understanding of him.

  • Cincinnatus

    Bruce, I’m fairly certain that all Shelby Steele was saying is that Barack Obama is a political hack in the sense that he is willing to reconfigure his political attachments to match the preferences of the voters, to be what he needs to be to win. Obama, according to Steele (and many Americans at the moment) has no firm ideological, moral, or political commitments or beliefs. Said phenomenon is neither a) new, b) surprising, c) complicated, or d) admirable. It’s an American tradition of political hackery and demagoguery, and I’m fairly certain it’s true of a majority of elected officials in this country. In fact, Steele should have just said that rather than sharing his pseudo-psychological analysis.

  • Cincinnatus

    Bruce, I’m fairly certain that all Shelby Steele was saying is that Barack Obama is a political hack in the sense that he is willing to reconfigure his political attachments to match the preferences of the voters, to be what he needs to be to win. Obama, according to Steele (and many Americans at the moment) has no firm ideological, moral, or political commitments or beliefs. Said phenomenon is neither a) new, b) surprising, c) complicated, or d) admirable. It’s an American tradition of political hackery and demagoguery, and I’m fairly certain it’s true of a majority of elected officials in this country. In fact, Steele should have just said that rather than sharing his pseudo-psychological analysis.

  • Cincinnatus

    *I’m not necessarily endorsing Steele’s view, though it would be consistent with our conceptions of the skilled Chicago politico.

  • Cincinnatus

    *I’m not necessarily endorsing Steele’s view, though it would be consistent with our conceptions of the skilled Chicago politico.

  • fws

    does anyone here know why we did not simply adopt a parliamentary system? it seems that current american thinking even favors that system. we steered iraq and afghanistan in that direction.

  • fws

    does anyone here know why we did not simply adopt a parliamentary system? it seems that current american thinking even favors that system. we steered iraq and afghanistan in that direction.

  • jim_claybourn

    he’s a pathological narcissist.

    look it up

  • jim_claybourn

    he’s a pathological narcissist.

    look it up

  • CRB
  • CRB
  • Cincinnatus

    fws@11: As long as “current American thinking” includes the fact that the average American demands and expects certain things of his “own” representative, his own specific congressman, current American thinking does not favor a parliamentary system. Parliamentary government is about what the (head of the) party in power wants, and the party in power gets what it wants without exception. That is not an entirely “American” idea.

    As for your other point, I have no idea how the management of our Asian conflicts has anything to do with parliamentary models of governance.

  • Cincinnatus

    fws@11: As long as “current American thinking” includes the fact that the average American demands and expects certain things of his “own” representative, his own specific congressman, current American thinking does not favor a parliamentary system. Parliamentary government is about what the (head of the) party in power wants, and the party in power gets what it wants without exception. That is not an entirely “American” idea.

    As for your other point, I have no idea how the management of our Asian conflicts has anything to do with parliamentary models of governance.

  • fws

    cincinatus @ 14. the two countries we occupy in asia adopted parliamentary govts rather than a federal system like our which seems would have been tailor made for them. I am assuming they adopted a parliamentary system because we suggested it. that was what was behind my comment. it could also be because they are both former brittish colonies….

    i had an earlier question as to why we did not simply adopt a parliamentary system. anyone have historical background on that?

  • fws

    cincinatus @ 14. the two countries we occupy in asia adopted parliamentary govts rather than a federal system like our which seems would have been tailor made for them. I am assuming they adopted a parliamentary system because we suggested it. that was what was behind my comment. it could also be because they are both former brittish colonies….

    i had an earlier question as to why we did not simply adopt a parliamentary system. anyone have historical background on that?

  • wayne.pelling

    and as a citizen of country that has a prime minster and since Federation in 1901 they have always acted presidentially -the worst being the prime minister 1972-1975,who was kicked out by the Governor-General ,our representative of the head of State-the Queen of Australia.Yes complicated and i personally would like to see a US presidential system here,except that some Indigenous Australians worry that their rights would be compromised under a Presidential system ,rather than the current system where the Queen of Great Britain is recognised in our Consitution as being the Queen of Australia,however she never meets with the cabinet .

  • wayne.pelling

    and as a citizen of country that has a prime minster and since Federation in 1901 they have always acted presidentially -the worst being the prime minister 1972-1975,who was kicked out by the Governor-General ,our representative of the head of State-the Queen of Australia.Yes complicated and i personally would like to see a US presidential system here,except that some Indigenous Australians worry that their rights would be compromised under a Presidential system ,rather than the current system where the Queen of Great Britain is recognised in our Consitution as being the Queen of Australia,however she never meets with the cabinet .

  • John C

    I think the malaise in American democracy lies with the stipulation that 60 Senate votes are required to pass legislation from the lower house. Surely a formula for inertia.
    As an aside, one of the participants in the 1975 crisis in Australian democracy called the Senate “unrepresetative swill”. Each state elects 12 senators thus undermining the notion of ‘one vote one value’.

  • John C

    I think the malaise in American democracy lies with the stipulation that 60 Senate votes are required to pass legislation from the lower house. Surely a formula for inertia.
    As an aside, one of the participants in the 1975 crisis in Australian democracy called the Senate “unrepresetative swill”. Each state elects 12 senators thus undermining the notion of ‘one vote one value’.

  • Cincinnatus

    fws@15: Oh, I see your point, and it is a good question. I have two guesses, though I’m not sure they justify the choice (I am not a great fan of the Westminster system). First, parliamentary systems are easier to erect: there aren’t as many moving parts. Second, and because of this lack of moving parts, such governments are able to accomplish things much faster and with little gridlock because, in most cases, they experience literally no opposition to their proposals; this may, the logic goes, be preferable when the goal is to get things done–i.e., establishing a nation–in a short time.

  • Cincinnatus

    fws@15: Oh, I see your point, and it is a good question. I have two guesses, though I’m not sure they justify the choice (I am not a great fan of the Westminster system). First, parliamentary systems are easier to erect: there aren’t as many moving parts. Second, and because of this lack of moving parts, such governments are able to accomplish things much faster and with little gridlock because, in most cases, they experience literally no opposition to their proposals; this may, the logic goes, be preferable when the goal is to get things done–i.e., establishing a nation–in a short time.

  • justme

    The 2 coolest things about the Parliamentary system (at least from watching it on CSPAN) is when the have the Prime Minister question time..wonder how our Madison Avenue marketed Presidents would come across in that arena? Would be a blast to watch! The other cool thing is that Prime Ministers can be voted out without having to wait for 4 years. Am not an expert, but don’t they have something similar to a “vote of confidence” which can oust the current PM? That is nice because even members of their own party can vote them out, in favor of another leader from the party whom they perceive as more competent or in touch with the true pulse of the country/party. Wonder how that would all go down for our current President given the present polling data? It could at least mean bigger ratings for CSPAN :)

  • justme

    The 2 coolest things about the Parliamentary system (at least from watching it on CSPAN) is when the have the Prime Minister question time..wonder how our Madison Avenue marketed Presidents would come across in that arena? Would be a blast to watch! The other cool thing is that Prime Ministers can be voted out without having to wait for 4 years. Am not an expert, but don’t they have something similar to a “vote of confidence” which can oust the current PM? That is nice because even members of their own party can vote them out, in favor of another leader from the party whom they perceive as more competent or in touch with the true pulse of the country/party. Wonder how that would all go down for our current President given the present polling data? It could at least mean bigger ratings for CSPAN :)

  • wayne pelling

    John C the person who called the Australian senate was paul keating a Prime Minister who had a presidential style and you needed to have clarified that senators are elected by the voters of each state not selected .The latter only occurs when a senator dies or retires between elections ,and then the State Government selects from a list supplied by the political party the former senator was from.
    Keating was a minimal player in the 1975 election,i was involved with a centrist party at that time, and he is always tainted with being a member of the New South Wales Right Wing of the Labor Party or as my brother a left winger in the Labor party called them ‘the criminal right’
    Oh and justme try and see if they show Question time from the Australian parliament- it is really a bullpit,not refined like Congressional debates.

  • wayne pelling

    John C the person who called the Australian senate was paul keating a Prime Minister who had a presidential style and you needed to have clarified that senators are elected by the voters of each state not selected .The latter only occurs when a senator dies or retires between elections ,and then the State Government selects from a list supplied by the political party the former senator was from.
    Keating was a minimal player in the 1975 election,i was involved with a centrist party at that time, and he is always tainted with being a member of the New South Wales Right Wing of the Labor Party or as my brother a left winger in the Labor party called them ‘the criminal right’
    Oh and justme try and see if they show Question time from the Australian parliament- it is really a bullpit,not refined like Congressional debates.

  • justme

    thanks for the headups Wayne @20 on the Austrailian’s PM Question time….if it’s so feisty, perhaps they should put it on pay per view :)

  • justme

    thanks for the headups Wayne @20 on the Austrailian’s PM Question time….if it’s so feisty, perhaps they should put it on pay per view :)

  • John C

    Just me
    Question Time is broadcast on radio and free to air television and in Federal Parliament, most of the time, it is more theatre than bullpit.
    I would add that the Prime Minister must call an election within 3 years of being elected and can call an election anytime within the 3 years.
    As with Congress, the Senate has to pass legislation from the lower house before it becomes law.
    If the senate rejects a bill 3 times then the PM has the right to call for a double dissolution in which both houses of parliament are forced into a similtaneous election. The bill is presented to a joint sitting of the new parliament and if passed by the majority, it finally becomes law. The double dissolution is a mechanism rarely used but in theory it does ensure that voters do have a direct influence on controversial pieces of legislation. Health bill anyone?
    The Australian Federation does draw inspiration from the Westminster system of government and the American constitution.

  • John C

    Just me
    Question Time is broadcast on radio and free to air television and in Federal Parliament, most of the time, it is more theatre than bullpit.
    I would add that the Prime Minister must call an election within 3 years of being elected and can call an election anytime within the 3 years.
    As with Congress, the Senate has to pass legislation from the lower house before it becomes law.
    If the senate rejects a bill 3 times then the PM has the right to call for a double dissolution in which both houses of parliament are forced into a similtaneous election. The bill is presented to a joint sitting of the new parliament and if passed by the majority, it finally becomes law. The double dissolution is a mechanism rarely used but in theory it does ensure that voters do have a direct influence on controversial pieces of legislation. Health bill anyone?
    The Australian Federation does draw inspiration from the Westminster system of government and the American constitution.

  • wayne .pelling

    John c yes probably theatre but been personally acquainted with a junior Federal Minister ,i can tell you that there is deep seated loathing towards certain elements of the opposing parties ,as well as towards one’s foes within the same party. paul keating’s use of the word ” scumbags” and a ‘conga line of suckers” were more than theatre,but based upon deep seated Labour Party hatred towards conservatives. However keating and John Howard were once observed standing together and making caustic remarks about the left wingers of the Labour party who were going into a meeting.
    The comments by Tony Abbott regarding virginity are still being debated but the reaction is as much towards his catholicism as it is to his being a conservative.
    If you are an Australian citizen then you and i might be heading for the polls as the private health rebate bill comes up for voting in the Senate and a double dissolution seems on the cards.

  • wayne .pelling

    John c yes probably theatre but been personally acquainted with a junior Federal Minister ,i can tell you that there is deep seated loathing towards certain elements of the opposing parties ,as well as towards one’s foes within the same party. paul keating’s use of the word ” scumbags” and a ‘conga line of suckers” were more than theatre,but based upon deep seated Labour Party hatred towards conservatives. However keating and John Howard were once observed standing together and making caustic remarks about the left wingers of the Labour party who were going into a meeting.
    The comments by Tony Abbott regarding virginity are still being debated but the reaction is as much towards his catholicism as it is to his being a conservative.
    If you are an Australian citizen then you and i might be heading for the polls as the private health rebate bill comes up for voting in the Senate and a double dissolution seems on the cards.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X