Of the three branches of government, the presidency is the easiest to imagine getting rid of. Throughout history and today there are plenty of examples of societies without a president. It could be a parliamentary system with a prime minister instead or an ancient Greek example with a direct democracy of citizens. Most of us are at least a little bit familiar with some alternatives.
Before getting to the alternatives, though, we need to look at whether the alternatives would be better than what we have now. I’m not into scrapping things for the sake of doing so. I want to scrap the things that make our lives worse while keeping the things that are worthwhile. According to the National Endowment for the Humanities (The President’s Roles and Responsibilities: Understanding the President’s Job | NEH-Edsitement) the President has seven official and unofficial roles. They are:
- Chief of State
- Chief Executive
- Chief Diplomat
- Legislative Leader
- Chief of Party
- Guardian of the Economy
I’m of two minds when it comes to the chief of state. On the one hand, organization is easier with a focal point. On the other hand, countries typically have a chief of state just because they always have, and people have not adequately looked at other organizational options. Assuming that most people will want a chief of state, though, there is no reason why it has to be embodied in the same person as the other duties of the President. Just look at constitutional monarchies. It could certainly be argued that it works better having one person who just does the ceremonial aspects of the job while others concentrate on the other aspects. And, in America at least, not all Presidents have made good Chiefs of State. It’s risky having the position tied to everything else the president does.
Chief executive is what I think of as the core of the presidency. The president is the person who runs the executive branch of government. It can also be thought of as head of the federal bureaucracy of chief administrator. In a lot of ways, I think this role can be handled by the bureaucracy rather than by a person. As it stands, it’s basically a lot of delegating anyway. I know there are a lot of problems with meritocracy, but it does seem strange that all of the experts have to defer ultimate decision-making to someone whose only qualifications are being older than 45 and being a “natural born citizen”. Plus, a lot of Presidents have been very bad at this part of the job.
I’ve always wondered why the diplomatic corps reports to the President rather than Congress. It seems a lot like another appeal to tradition. It carries a whiff of the time of kings and political marriages. In actuality, this is another hugely variable role. Some Presidents have been very good at diplomacy while others have been terrible. It’s an area that can use a lot more consistency.
Commander-in-Chief might be the most famous official role of the President. It also might be the most indispensable. Civilian oversite of the military is huge. I don’t particularly care what it’s called, but someone, or a small group, has to be elected for this position. Unless. . .we completely restructure the military. Maybe we shouldn’t even have a standing military, which would make this position much less necessary. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
It seems funny that the Legislative Leader is not a member of the legislature. One thing I think the current system does right is separating the branches of government. Let’s break this connection. Maybe the executive can have a legislative liaison, but they shouldn’t be leading the legislature.
Having the President be the Chief of Party is just bad. The President should be beholden to only two things, the law and the people. There is no room for party politics. I understand that the President is the most powerful member of the party and being chief is kind of de facto, but we should be looking for ways to distance elected officials from their parties once they take office.
Guardian of the Economy sounds made up by someone playing Dungeons and Dragons. It’s an important job, though. The trouble is no one is any good at it and many are flat out bad. The economy kind of runs itself. I do wish the state would take a more active role in managing the economy, but for a long time now they don’t do much beyond manipulating the price and availability of money. You don’t see them popping bubbles or anything like that. They do subsidize some companies and industries, but they’re usually the ones that don’t need it and don’t deserve it. Anyway, this seems like it should be done by a committee.
So, those are the seven roles, and my takeaway is simple: all of that should not be given to one person. I wonder if the reason we so rarely have good Presidents is because the job is impossible. They are set up to fail. I can definitely get behind scrapping the presidency as an institution. As for starting over, I would go with an executive council to lead the executive branch. There could be seven members, one for each role. They would be elected but staggered every two years, so we only have one new council member joining at a time. And they would only serve one term each. And it would be a requirement that they retire after serving the term. And, when they’re running for office, they know the seat they will be filling. There would be a Chief of State election, then, two years later, a Chief Executive election, and on and on.
That’s just my current idea. I’m certainly open to suggestions. What would you have instead of a President?