August 31, 2011
The Only Thing Keeping Obama in OfficeBy James G. Wiles
There was Fareed Zakaria on his program GPS last weekend banging on about the superiority of the British parliamentary system over America's presidential one. Good luck with that excuse. There's such a delicious irony in the CNN/Newsweek commentator's suggestion that it's hard not to snicker.
Under a parliamentary system, Barack Obama would have been ousted as prime minister when the Republicans took back the House of Representatives in November 2010. At a minimum, a Prime Minister Obama today would be in the process of being defenestrated by his own parliamentary party as part of a repositioning of the Dems for the 2012 election. Faced with Mr. Obama's dismal poll ratings, Hillary and the president's fellow Democrats in Congress would be rising up to "do him down," as the Brits say.
(Maybe she still will. Senator Eugene McCarthy didn't even announce that he was challenging President Lyndon Baines Johnson for the 1968 Democratic nomination until November 30, 1967. Four months later, LBJ withdrew from the race.).
A British prime minister is head of government because he's been elected to that post by his own party's MPs, not by the voters. Thus, the brutal fact is that a prime minister can at any time be given the bum's rush from 10 Downing Street by a revolt in his own ranks. In the last 21 years, two British prime ministers have been ousted by a rival via exactly that route.
The first was the UK's greatest conservative post-war leader, Margaret Thatcher, in 1990 -- after eleven years in office. It happened again in 1997 to the man who ousted her, John Major. Far behind in the polls, virtually certain of defeat at the next required election, both PMs were forced out by their own parliamentary colleagues.
That's how it works under the Westminster system, which Fareed Zakaria likes.
The Founding Fathers didn't like the Westminster system. And the informed choice they made has served us well in times of national crisis.
That cunning old bird, Benjamin Franklin, knew Westminster well. He'd been a lobbyist in London for almost 20 years when the Revolution broke out in 1775. Dr. Franklin (his honorary doctorates came from St. Andrews and Oxford) worked Parliament on behalf of, among other clients, the colonies of Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. He knew well the pervasive corruption, patronage, and confused governance of Georgian England.
Later, after helping write the Declaration of Independence in 1776, Franklin served as the first U.S. minister to France. There, he learned to speak French and saw l'ancien régime in action. Ben Franklin brought that life experience to the Constitutional Convention in 1787. He and the other Founders rejected kings and parliaments. They designed instead a presidential system.
Absent impeachment, which requires a two-thirds vote in the Senate for conviction, a president cannot be removed until his term expires. Thus, an American president can, like Mr. Obama, remain in office even though his public support has collapsed. This is not some design defect: it is the intended result from the Founders.
This stability has been painted as a weakness of the American system. Walter Bagehot, most notably, urged this point in The English Constitution. I believe American history proves the contrary -- especially when one factors in the inherent instability of a parliamentary system where there are more than two major political parties represented.
It was our presidential system which enabled Abraham Lincoln to remain in office as a war president after 1863. That enabled the North to crush the South's rebellion and save the Union. More recently, it probably enabled another war president, George W. Bush, to remain in office after 2006 and win the Iraq War.
Either way, only the design of the Founding Fathers is keeping President Barack Obama in office right now. Does that mean that Mr. Obama should simply resign, for the good of the country and the Democratic Party? Well, Roger L. Simon, over at pajamasmedia.com, made exactly that argument in a post on August 5.
Roger Simon's point has only improved with time. During possibly the most famous presidential vacation since Teddy Roosevelt went bear-hunting in Mississippi in 1902, Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal and Jim Geraghty in nationalreviewonline.com (among others) both speculated that the President might "do an LBJ." The danger to America's national security of a broken president's continuing in office for another year and a half -- something I commented on -- is the exact reason Richard Nixon gave for resigning in 1974.
Of course, the Nixon precedent didn't deter Bill Clinton from staying in office after he was impeached in 1998.
But the real argument in favor of what would be only the second presidential resignation in history is economic, not political. What the American people need right now is a change in the animal spirits of the economic marketplace. The best stimulus which could be given to the U.S. economy before November 2012 would be the voluntary departure of Barack Obama as our president -- and the rollback or defunding by Congress of virtually everything the Executive Branch has done since taking office.
An announcement à la LBJ by Mr. Obama that he's not going to seek a second term wouldn't be enough to break the Capital Strike.
The other objection to Fareed Zakaria's suggestion is that parliamentary government is, when it works well, one-party rule. That's a "tell."
Democrats always seem to like one-party rule, as long as they're the one party doing the ruling. When in the White House, Democrats argue for centralizing all power in the presidency. But once a Republican gets in, Democrats change their tune and talk about the dangers of an imperial presidency.
Presidential scholar and JFK advisor Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. practically gave himself whiplash doing that.
With the shift from President Bush to President Obama, this shift happened once again. Now, with the Archangel Barack's approval rating in the 30s, we're hearing the familiar refrain that it's the American form of government which needs to be changed, not the head of that government.
In short, Fareed Zakaria's plaint strikes me as just special pleading. The problem is not our form of government, but the occupant of the White House. That's fixable.
We don't need another leftist rationale for why Barack Obama shouldn't be blamed for the current state of affairs. It didn't work for Jimmy Carter -- the last time, be it remembered, the American people were criticized for their "narcissism" -- and it won't work for this president. The American people don't believe it.
And, whether under a presidential system or a parliamentary system, American voters are going to get the last word. Most of us can't wait.
Until then, I'm content with the Founders' choice.
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