In this section you will learn:
- What executives do.
- The difference between the head of state and the head of government.
- The difference between a president and a prime minister.
The chief executive of a nation has two potential tasks: head of government and head of state. Head of government is in charge of the day-to-day affairs of the state, like the chief executive of a large corporation. The head of state represents the nation to the world, and may include any number of ceremonial duties. Some chief executives combine both functions; others perform one or the other.
Types of Executives
In congressional systems, the chief executive, often called the president, is both head of government and head of state. Approximately 48 nations feature a separately elected president, who is in some way a check on the power of the chief legislative body. In some handful of states, the chief executive is a monarch—a king, a prince or a sultan, for example—who owes his or her job to heredity. The majority of nations have a parliamentary system. In parliamentary systems, the prime minister or premier is the head of government. Depending on the nation, the head of state may be a hereditary monarch such as Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain. It might also be a separately elected president, such as in Germany. The German presidency is a largely ceremonial post; the president has veto powers over the Bundestag, the main house of parliament, but has never used them. He or she serves a five-year term, elected the federal convention, which includes all the members of parliament plus members chosen by the state parliaments. Policy and power, however, rest with the chancellor, the equivalent of Canada’s prime minister. And many more people around the world could probably tell you that Germany’s chancellor in 2012 was Angela Merkel than could tell you that Germany’s president was Joachim Gauck.
A prime minister or chancellor in a parliamentary system is also a member of the more powerful house of the legislature, and also typically the leader of that party. Assuming that the prime minister has an outright parliamentary majority, as opposed to heading a coalition of allied parties, he or she has some advantages and challenges with regard to governing. Since by definition the prime minister has a legislative majority, it should be easier to push through one’s legislative agenda. You start every day with the votes you need. That’s an oversimplification, of course. Members of parliament, even of your own party, will have their own take on things, and what the parliamentary majority wants may not be precisely what the majority of people want. So no parliamentary majority is completely immune from public pressure. On the other hand, unlike a separately elected president in a congressional system, a prime minister owes his or her power to his or her legislative majority. If the majority becomes unhappy with the prime minister’s leadership, they can conduct a no-confidence vote and that executive’s career at the top of the heap may be over.
Presidents in Congressional Systems
Presidents in congressional systems are separately elected. Such a president may or may not have a working majority in the legislature. If she or he doesn’t, it will be more difficult to get her or his policy agenda turned into law. The key point here is that a president in a congressional system does not have anywhere near complete power to change government and policy. Although such a president is both chief of state and head of government, she or he lacks full authority to dictate which way government is going to go. Nonetheless, citizens in countries with this kind of president tend to put all of their hopes and dreams and fears onto the presidency, and onto the particular president in office at any given time. Let us consider the presidency, using the U.S. presidency as an example.
The U.S. President
The U.S. presidency is probably the single most powerful office on earth, and yet the president finds himself (and someday herself) in the middle of competing power centers. Presidents get far too much credit for what goes right in the country, and far too much blame for what goes wrong. A president is elected every four years in years divisible by four. U.S. presidents may serve no more than two terms or 10 years, in the case of a president assuming office mid-term. This came from the 22nd amendment, adopted 1947 after Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected and re-elected four times beginning in 1932.
The U.S. president has a number of formal powers. He or she can:
- Carry out legislation. The president directs the executive branch and the federal bureaucracy to carry out the laws as passed by Congress.
- Provide information and advice to Congress, including through the State of the Union address.
- Negotiate treaties and executive agreements with foreign states. Treaties must be approved by the Senate; executive agreements need not and are more easily contravened either by act of Congress or by the next president.
- Make appointments to positions in the executive branch. He has about 3,000 jobs to fill, including cabinet secretaries. The cabinet doesn’t actually function like a cabinet, however; they don’t all get together and have meetings. From the original four positions, the cabinet has grown to 14, and the president may designate other officials as cabinet level, such as UN ambassador.
- Grant pardons. The president can pardon criminals who have been convicted of crimes except in cases of impeachment.
- Act as chief of state and commander in chief of the armed forces.
- Sign legislation to make it law and veto legislation to block it (Congress can override vetoes by a two-thirds vote). The president has limited ability to impound federal funds, and can issue executive orders to the bureaucracy. Both of these actions can be easily overturned by Congress, simply by passing a new law.
The Founding Fathers didn’t really envision the president having as much power as he does today, but this was probably inevitable. If nothing else, the nature of the situation suggests that one person—the president—can pull himself together and make a decision faster than can a group of 535 people—many of whom think they should be president—divided into two typically contentious groups. The organizational dynamics of the situation dictate that the president will be the dominant player in the political scene.
Consequently, although it is Congress’ job to make law, 80–90 of legislation proposed in Congress comes from the executive branch, including all of the cabinet agencies under the president. As a consequence, at times Congress is more of an arbiter or gate-keeper of policy, as opposed to leading the way.
Nonetheless, the president has the power to persuade, not to command. He can’t say jump and expect immediate action outside of the White House. This power is not inconsiderable. U.S. citizens may be acutely unhappy with a particular president, but on the whole, Americans have tended to have a great reverence for the office of the president, and this lends itself to substantial power if used properly. That’s one reason why presidents go around and make speeches: It’s usually to try to sway public opinion in the direction of policy goals, which can be very useful if you’re butting heads with a recalcitrant Congress. This has been true since Franklin Delano Roosevelt first gave his famous “fireside chats” on the radio in the 1930s. Roosevelt spoke each week on the radio when that was the chief medium of mass communication. His comforting president gave people a little hope in otherwise difficult times. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton also were very good at using the media to persuade the masses. To the extent that the news media still covers politics in any meaningful way, the U.S. House of Representatives gets fairly meager coverage, while the U.S. Senate gets a little more. What the president says, by definition, is news, so that the president’s face and voice are ever-present.
This is important because presidents must succeed symbolically. They must be seen to be in charge, to care, to be trying to do something to make people’s lives better. So Franklin Delano Roosevelt, under whose watch the Great Depression stretched on for nearly 10 more years, still remained popular with many voters because they believed that he cared about them. Ditto for Ronald Reagan, who, as George H.W. Bush once sneered during the 1980 primaries, had “that vision thing.” The unfortunate Mr. Bush, who enjoyed record popularity at the successful conclusion of the first Gulf War, still failed to get re-elected in part because the economy was sagging and he seemed out of touch with what that meant to people. Ronald Reagan, in contrast, pursued policy that people said they disagreed with in reliable opinion polls. But they elected him twice because they liked him. So the president’s actual performance and his popularity may diverge quite a bit. Voters who may not be paying close attention are often compelled by the form rather than the substance of the president’s action.
Quick and decisive action usually helps the president’s approval ratings, which is why presidents score big points on the foreign policy front but not many on the home front (unless the economy does well). The Founding Fathers actually imagined that Congress, in particular the Senate, would direct foreign policy, but this is not workable. The gang of 535 simply can’t respond quickly enough. The president, meanwhile, can travel the world, meet with foreign leaders, negotiate treaties, open doors and be seen to be taking decisive action and solving problems. In the 1980s, as the Soviet Union collapsed from within, Ronald Reagan’s stern anti-communist speeches and efforts to negotiate with the Soviets helped him look like the conquering hero of the Cold War. Some scholars do give Reagan credit, but one could argue that the Soviet Union was on its last legs when Reagan was first elected.
As commander-in-chief, the president can put the armed forces to work. As a consequence, U.S. troops have been sent overseas more than 150 times but Congress has declared war only six times, and not once since World War II. In the wake of the United States’ involvement in Vietnam, which went from being a training mission to having half a million men and women serving there, Congress felt the need to assert itself. They passed the
War Powers Act in 1973, which requires the president to commit troops for more than six months before reporting to Congress and justifying her or his actions. It’s not clear if this works, as it hasn’t been tested, and the hammer is still with the president. Congress can’t order the troops home. Its only recourse is to cut off funding for the mission. That would likely be seen as endangering the lives of the men and women who have been sent overseas, which is likely to be extremely unpopular back home.
Other presidents in other countries will have particular mixes of duties and authority, but this is the general model for what a president in a non-parliamentary system. One could argue, as the United States has one of the oldest governments in the world, that the American presidency was the model for what followed. It’s probably no accident that this system of government is most common in North and South America.
- Chief executives may have both ceremonial and practical responsibilities in government.
- A president in a congressional system is a separately elected official who represents the executive branch of government, which is usually co-equal with the other branches of government.
- A prime minister is the leader of the majority party or majority coalition in a parliamentary style of government. He or she serves as the head of government, but not usually head of state.
- What would it mean if the United States had a parliamentary style of government? At this moment, who would be in charge and what would that mean for policy for the country?