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?


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