Searching for solutions to the paradox of the presidency

Searching for solutions to the paradox of the presidency

The Miller Center convened experts to consider reforming the presidency

As the 2024 presidential election rapidly approaches, the American presidency faces a growing paradox. Executive power has grown significantly over the past four decades, increasingly enabling presidents to act unilaterally. At the same time, presidents have become more prone to failure, challenged by numerous crises and losing public trust.

In October 2023, the Miller Center convened more than 60 leading experts on the American presidency for a two-day conference examining this paradox. Participants including senior officials who served in Republican and Democratic administrations, along with top scholars and journalists, proposed answers to the event’s central question: How do we create a more responsible and more effective presidency?

The Miller Center’s inaugural Conference on the American Presidency was part of the UVA Karsh Institute of Democracy’s Democracy360 festival. To frame the discussion, a dozen participants wrote essays analyzing critical issues, from political polarization to abuse of power, that confront all three branches of government.

Panelists opened the conference by scrutinizing the growth in executive power and the federal bureaucracy since the early 20th century and the danger this expansion poses to the country’s system of checks and balances. In their joint essay, UVA professors Sidney Milkis and Rachel Augustine Potter use the term “executive-centered partisanship” to describe this growth in executive power combined with a political structure that makes the president the head of their political party.

After President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Executive Office of the President in 1939, executive administration, rather than lawmaking, became “the core activity of American government,” explained Milkis, the Miller Center’s White Burkett Miller Professor of Governance and Foreign Affairs.

Outside groups now use the executive branch to advance their causes and cut through the checks-and-balances system.

At the same time, Milkis explained, electoral reforms such as open caucuses and direct primaries led to the weakening of traditional party organizations, which “enhanced the influence of donors, interest groups, and social activists who scorned the pragmatic politics and compromise” credited with forging majority coalitions. Consequently, outside groups now use the executive branch to advance their causes and cut through the checks-and-balances system, Milkis said.

Potter, a Miller Center faculty senior fellow, argued that partisan gridlock in Congress has also shifted much of policymaking from the legislative to the executive branch, incentivizing presidents to use executive action to advance their political agendas. In recent years, presidents frequently have wielded unilateral action in a partisan manner, she explained.

To rein in executive-centered partisanship, “[we need] to maneuver our institutions of government into a position where compromise becomes not only possible but necessary, [which] does involve reducing the fundamental authorities of the president,” said Joshua Bolten, who served as chief of staff to President George W. Bush.

Several speakers emphasized the need to reform the presidential selection process and presidential campaigns, which have become “popularity contests” run “almost exclusively on fictive policy,” argued Elaine C. Kamarck, who cofounded the New Democrat movement that helped elect President Bill Clinton. “The people who are adept at fictive policy [have] the president’s ear and the president’s trust,” continued Kamarck, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Meanwhile, executive agencies often lack access to the White House, causing “government failure across the board,” she said.

Additionally, panelists warned of the alarming rise in acute polarization and threats of political violence across the country and their impact on the presidency and Congress. In a national poll conducted by UVA’s Center for Politics and published last October, 41 percent of Biden voters and 38 percent of Trump voters at least somewhat believed that the other side had become so extreme that it would be acceptable to use violence to prevent them from achieving their goals.

As legislators have grown increasingly focused on catering to voter bases and getting reelected, Congress has abdicated many of its lawmaking duties, said Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, Miller Center practitioner senior fellow. “These are fundamentally political actors,” she said.

"The people who are adept at fictive policy [have] the president’s ear and the president’s trust."

Panelists noted how polarization obstructs lawmaking, prevents bipartisanship, and tempts presidents to employ unilateral actions.

Polarization “weakens presidents [and] their unilateral tools are a poor substitute for legislating—but those [tools] are often all that presidents have to work with,” said Frances E. Lee, a politics and public affairs professor at Princeton University.

William Howell, director of the University of Chicago’s Center for Effective Government and a professor in the Harris School of Public Policy and Department of Political Science, echoed concerns about augmenting presidential power. Republicans have been consistently frustrated in their long-standing mission to contain the dominant liberal components of the “administrative state,” which is a network of executive departments and agencies charged with interpreting and implementing federal statutes. Much of this network—sometimes referred to as the “deep state”—was built by Democratic administrations through the New Deal and Great Society to accomplish progressive objectives. But other elements were signed into law by Republican presidents, such as Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and George H.W. Bush. Howell argued that these conservatives now aim to build “a strongman presidency” with unfettered control over appointments and numerous unilateral powers to retrench the administrative state, raising profound concerns about checks and balances— and the future of democracy.

Discussing how the executive and judicial branches fuel polarization, Bob Bauer, who served as White House counsel to President Barack Obama, voiced concern about the size and duties of the counsel’s office. He characterized the office as an “enabling legal institution” for the president. “It’s very important,” Bauer said, that lawyers warn the president “of the potential consequences of pursuing an action that could be rejected by the courts.”

Many questions surrounding executive powers are “by and large unsettled questions of law,” said J. Michael Luttig, who was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. Luttig argued that President Donald Trump pushed the powers of the president “beyond their limits” and “inflamed the passions of the population often against the government [and] institutions of our democracy and law”—a criticism of the former president echoed by several other panelists throughout the conference.

Luttig argued that President Donald Trump pushed the powers of the president “beyond their limits."

Leah Wright Rigueur, a history professor at Johns Hopkins University, called attention to the “racial, economic, and cultural polarization that is deeply intertwined with and cannot be separated from political polarization.” Social-political movements like the Tea Party can drive the “political actions of the executive branch,” she explained.

Technology and social media have played a significant role in worsening polarization, added Kim Malone Scott, who held leadership roles at Apple and Google and serves as a member of the Center’s Governing Council. “It is easier and faster to make stuff up than it is to do real research,” said Scott, who called for “checks and balances on the power of tech.”

Panelists proposed critical improvements to presidential norms, the presidential selection process, and the political parties.

Bolten called for additional “customs and norms” that promote “governing from the center.” The Trade Promotion Authority, for example, enables presidents to negotiate trade agreements in consultation with Congress in exchange for Congress voting on the agreements without amending them.

Criticizing the lack of any form of competency screening for presidential candidates, Kamarck advocated for increased “peer review” in the nomination process. The Democratic and Republican parties could facilitate a preprimary endorsement process or conduct a preprimary “vote of confidence” among their House and Senate caucuses, national committees, and governors, Kamarck suggested. Or they could increase the number of superdelegates at their nominating conventions who can support candidates who might not have won enough primary votes.

"It is easier and faster to make stuff up than it is to do real research."

In the realm of relations between the White House and Congress, “the single best thing we can do to improve government effectiveness is to reduce the number of Senate-confirmed appointees,” said Valerie Smith Boyd, who previously held roles in the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations and is the current director of the Partnership for Public Service’s Center for Presidential Transition.

Several panelists echoed Boyd’s calls for minimizing the number of Senate-appointed positions, critiquing the negative impact that the lengthy confirmation process has on national security. Senators currently use confirmations “as a vise to get things from the administration [and] their own leadership,” said Louisa Terrell, who served as President Biden’s director of legislative affairs.

Additionally, Christopher Liddell, who was deputy chief of staff for policy coordination during the Trump administration, suggested a requirement that all appointments be confirmed within 30 days, starting when the White House puts the nomination forward.

Speakers also anticipated an impending shift in the country’s party system, stressing the cynicism many Americans currently feel toward the government. Both dominant political parties are dying because “they have stopped serving the people [in] the times that we’re in,” asserted Don Baer, who served as Clinton’s communications director.

“Talk to college students about how they feel about the parties. For you Republicans in the room, wow, it’s ugly—but it’s not much better for the Democrats.”

“Talk to college students about how they feel about the parties,” added Guian McKee, Miller Center professor of presidential studies. “For you Republicans in the room, wow, it’s ugly—but it’s not much better for the Democrats.”

Many students believe the parties “don’t act on the needs they perceive for people their age” and “the challenges they’re going to face moving forward,” McKee said. “They’re looking for alternatives.”

Conference participants emphasized the need to prevent presidential abuse of emergency powers and to explicitly define what constitutes an emergency.

“We can build in checks that some third party [can] decide whether there actually is an emergency,” argued Saikrishna Prakash, Miller Center faculty senior fellow and professor in the UVA School of Law. “If something lasts forever, it’s not an emergency, and legislation shouldn’t be triggered by an emergency.”

Prakash continued, “If it’s really, truly an emergency, give [presidents] 60 or 90 days—the measure will take effect when the president says it will and will last 60 or 90 days after Congress reconvenes.”

Several speakers called for the reformation of the Insurrection Act, referencing allegations—detailed in a federal indictment against Trump—that if the former president had successfully overturned the 2020 election results, he might have used the act to suppress protests.

“We’ve basically done nothing structurally to learn from [COVID]."

Philip Zelikow, who previously directed the 9/11 Commission and led an effort to study the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, decried the government’s actions during health crises. He argued that even though the legislative response to COVID-19 was massive financially, there was ample advance warning of the potential for a pandemic but too little planning for the possibility. As a result, when the virus arrived, the administrative and legislative response was poorly designed.

Following the 2001 anthrax attacks, Zelikow said, “the president and Congress moved together proactively to stockpile things [and] create new administrative capacities” to prepare for potential bioterror attacks. “We’ve basically done nothing structurally to learn from [COVID],” Zelikow said.

The conference concluded with a panel moderated by PBS NewsHour senior correspondent Judy Woodruff at the Paramount Theater in downtown Charlottesville. Journalists Laura Barrón-López from PBS, Elaina Plott Calabro from The Atlantic, and Mike Emanuel from Fox News participated. Cohosted by UVA’s Karsh Institute of Democracy, the event offered insight into what it takes to report on the inner workings of the White House.

Reflecting on the lessons they have learned throughout their careers, the journalists emphasized the importance of building a strong network of diverse sources, upholding journalistic integrity and objectivity, and producing accurate reporting—despite the pressures of the 24/7 news cycle and social media. Most importantly, reporters have a duty to consistently seek out truth, the panelists stressed.

“Our job is to confront” powerful leaders “because we are the watchers,” Barrón-López said. “We are the people who are making sure what is presented to the public—be it on TV or in print or on radio—is what the truth is.”

The conference’s discussions are now the starting point for a series of Miller Center research efforts and events in 2024 and beyond. These activities will include further examining how the president and Congress work together, how to improve federal government performance, how to reform the process for choosing presidents, how we hold presidents accountable, and how presidents can unify a divided nation.