How much does the U.S. Presidency matter for the direction of the United States, and for the rest of the world? Maria Armoudian speaks with William F. Grover and Joseph G. Peschek about the power of the U.S. presidency and what they term the “unsustainable presidency.”
William F. Grover is a Professor of Political Science at Saint Michael’s College, Vermont. He is an expert in American political institutions and is the author of The President as Prisoner: A Structural Critique of the Carter and Reagan Years.
Joseph G. Peschek is a Professor of Political Science at Hamline University, Minnesota. He is an expert in contemporary American politics and is the co-author of The Unsustainable Presidency: Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Beyond.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length
Maria Armoudian: I thought the way you opened your book was quite compelling with the BP oil spill and President Obama’s response to it and his daughter asking her Dad if he had plugged the hole yet. How do you see this as indicative of the unsustainable presidency? Bill Grover?
William Grover: The example was used to point out the fact that in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the public expects the president, regardless of party, to respond to all manner of crises in the world and crises at home. And we were just trying to point out that that attitude that the president is kind of the first place you go to for correcting problems, that attitude is fairly new. It is kind of a post-New Deal phenomenon and in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, people with grievances would look more to their state governments or to Congress for help, not to the president. So we were just trying to make a point there about how people’s view of the office and the importance of the office and helping people with their lives, that view has shifted over time.
MA: Joe Peschek what would you add?
Joe Peschek: Well as Bill pointed out there has been a shift in public perceptions of the presidency and I guess what we are doing in a nutshell is not trying to argue that presidencies are not powerful or unimportant, but to look at the underlying factors in society and in our economic system and the constraints that limit the range of actions a president can take, at least on very important economic, foreign policy, national security issues and so forth. We’re trying to draw attention to ways in which social conditions and things other than the president’s relationship with Congress, which is very important, but [we’re looking at] things a little more structural that shape the terrain on which presidents act.
MA: I wonder if we could talk about how much the presidency has changed over time in terms of what the job really entails. You did this really wonderful job in the first chapters talking about the various presidents and what their approach was, as well as the different theoretical ideas. Bill Grover, give us a sense of how things have changed?
BG: That is a good question. Public expectations have certainly risen. But here is an experiment you could do: just go and ask somebody on the street to name a nineteenth-century president, and if you get someone to mention somebody other than Abraham Lincoln you are pretty lucky. Particularly naming a president after the Civil War, it is not impossible but most people have no idea as the president was not that central a figure in public life. With the exception of Lincoln acting at times of crisis, in fact the greatest crisis the US ever faced during the Civil War, people could come up with some names but wouldn’t really know much of anything of those presidents because the president wasn’t the central a player in political economy. They basically did the bidding of business, particularly after the Civil War they basically did the bidding of big business during the industrial revolution and beyond that, the president wasn’t really responding to popular concerns. That obviously changes with [Franklin Delano Roosevelt] and the Great Depression and the New Deal programs that came forward, but prior to Roosevelt, it was not a particularly executive-centred view of the world.
MA: Would you say that from early in US history that this bidding for big business has really been the central focus even from the very beginning?
JP: That is a very interesting question. The economy of the United States has changed tremendously. If I can refer to the Broadway musical Hamilton – we talk a little bit about Alexander Hamilton’s analysis of the presidency, who really did see a link between a strong presidency and an active state and working with the major industrial and manufacturing sectors of the economy to promote national development. I guess I would refer to Hamilton as a forerunner of the kind of corporate state that really developed in the twentieth century where you had the development of large corporations and financial institutions. I think our analysis focusses on the so-called ‘modern presidency’ which most political scientists would date from FDR. But the connection between the corporate model of economic growth and the presidency, at least to my way of thinking, came about in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was somewhat different before that.
MA: Bill Grover do you agree?
BG: I agree with that and I think Joe is correct in that Hamilton was ahead of his time. I tell my students sometimes that Hamilton is the most important political figure they have never heard of. We hear a lot about George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and James Madison but until this musical came along people hadn’t paid a lot of attention to Hamilton, at least not in popular culture. But he was way ahead of his time in terms of using a combination of business power and political power to get things done. Until the United States emerges from the Civil War and actually can begin to develop a national economy, until that happens, Hamilton’s vision is not really realised until the latter part of the nineteenth and throughout the twentieth century.
MA: You were critical of say for example Woodrow Wilson’s assertion that he was for big business but opposed to monopolies. How does this fit in with your argument?
BG: Well I think coming out of the progressive era Wilson was very wary of corporate power…The idea that corporate power during Wilson’s time could undermine democracy was there, but in no way were those folks, particularly Wilson, critical of capitalism. They were critical of massive concentrations of corporate power. They didn’t have a fundamental criticism of the way that business in general interacted with the political sphere. So when we used that one quote from Wilson that frames our second chapter, he takes the argument up to a certain point but beyond that he is not going to be critical of the economic system per se, only the excesses of the economic system in the hands of corporate power as seen throughout the progressive era when the critique of that became very important.
JP: If I could just add to that briefly. We have to remember in the early part of the twentieth century. there was a real upsurge of various types of radicalism in the US. The labour movement, anarchism, socialism, radical feminism, new black strivings and people like WEB Du Bois, and so that is also a context because there were definitely people in the establishment who were very nervous that these calls for fundamental change and radicalism might go too far. And some of the members of the ruling group – and I would include Wilson – sort of recognised that in order to maintain the system we were going to have to make certain concessions. And the same could be said of FDR as well. In 1936 when he was running for election, he said ‘We saved the system’. So that is the kind of perspective we are bringing to sort of see this balancing act where presidents have to lift themselves up from any one particular economic group in order to devise plans to maintain the system as a whole.
BG: If I could just add to that. When we are challenging the conventional faith that the institutions of government, particularly the executive branch interacting with the legislative branch, when we challenge this idea that the institutions will self-correct, we emphasise there is a very powerful economic structure. But we also emphasise, of course, the efficacy of social movements, that the only way that you can really challenge that kind of structural corporate-political power nexus is with social movements. And so when Joe points out that during the progressive era and then again during the Great Depression and the New Deal those social movements were absolutely crucial in extracting concessions from political and economic leaders.
MA: I thought that your examples that were most powerful were the ideas of the economic elite going on strike and what that really does to an economy and that is how power gets checked in presidents. You used several examples of this. So why don’t you explain exactly what you mean by this structure that keeps presidents in check and keeps their power limited?
BG: The structural argument that we make throughout the book suggests that regardless of party, regardless of personality, regardless of management style – those are the kind of factors that conventional political science looks to when they analyse the executive – what Joe and I are suggesting is that what lies beneath the party and the personality and the management style is a certain definition of economic growth and a certain definition of national security both of which are absorbed by both political parties. So for example when you are trying to explain why every four years people get all excited about the quadrennial hoopla called the presidential election and why people get their expectations up pretty high, and one of the questions that Joe and I was probing was why are those expectations so routinely shattered on the shoals of reality. In part, this is because both parties share a similar definition of economic growth and national security. And so the political and economic structure frames issues in ways that are in line with conventional definitions of growth. How do we define growth? Let’s have greater GDP this year than we had last year, let’s have greater GDP next year than we had this year, on and on. And that logic of economic growth that both parties are absorbed in is no longer sustainable in an era of climate change, and similarly in an era of declining US power in the world. The idea that we can pursue national security with bigger defence budgets and by being militarily assertive, those assumptions are no longer sustainable. So the structure is the way that conventional thinking frames, in both political parties, the way we address the key policy issues. Are there differences in policy issues of course, if you are a huge supporter of LGBT rights then it makes a difference if there is a Democrat in the White House versus a Republican. But when it comes to the major definitional issues of the modern presidency, a certain definition of economic growth and a certain definition of national security, you are not going to get much difference from the two political parties and that is because the debate is structured in certain ways that reflect political and economic power.
JP: Well I think you mentioned the example of the capital strike, and that would be one example of how structural economic factors could affect the presidency. In a nutshell, presidents are so sensitive to the views of the business community because in a capitalist society the investment and employment decisions of the business community, because in a capitalist society that makes a big difference in the state of the economy and the state of the economy matters greatly to presidents, and they have what some scholars call an automatic punishing mechanism. I mean in the sense that presidents knowing that capital might go on strike if they don’t like the policies of the presidency acts to block a presidency from pursuing more progressive policies in the first place. And actually, this idea has been developed by people from a number of different perspectives…So that is a kind of structural factor that doesn’t really require business corporations for example to explicitly lobby the government. Again, it is kind of a recoil mechanism, belief in business confidence. One other point, I think we use the term structural maybe a little bit eclectically, we talk about capital dominance and class dominance and so the capital strike might be the dominance of capital, but we also acknowledge that another type of structural constraint is just the massive advantages that corporations and the wealthy have to influence government through more voluntary means like campaign contributions, lobbying, having their representatives appointed to government or to set up think tanks that influence the policy process. So we are calling both of those levels of corporate influence structural, at least when it comes to economic issues.
MA: Could you say what you mean by capital strike?
BG: Capital strike is the ability of large corporations to punish policymakers for policy decisions. To punish them instantaneously through changes in investment policies, employment policies that are registered daily on the stock market and in other ways as well. For example, if you really had to push for a [USD$15) minimum wage or something quite radical, the threat of serious challenges to the way we normally define economic growth would encourage businesses to go on ‘strike’. It is kind of the business version of a labour strike. Whereas a labour strike requires lots of coordination and lots of hardship on the part of ordinary people in terms of perhaps losing their job or perhaps not having a paycheque for a few weeks, a capital strike happens instantaneously when businesses shift their investments at the stroke of a computer key and those are registered daily in terms of a declining stock market. So for example, when Joe and I wrote this, we were thinking: what would have happened if Bernie Sanders won the presidency? And we talked about how the reaction of business would have been swift and negative and that even before he would have taken the oath of office, he would have been facing declining business confidence and a capital strike and would have had to have been called upon to do things like perhaps tailor the appointments he would make to his cabinet. He would have been highly pressured to appoint into key positions the kinds of people who would mollify and calm the markets. That’s why you got, for example, when Barack Obama came to power in 2009: you get what was referred to as his ‘economic A-team’ – you know Robert Rubin and Larry Summers and those kinds of people. Obama wasn’t facing a capital strike, but if you really had a candidate who would challenge the power structure you would have tremendous pressure to name people to key positions who would mollify those who might engage in capital strikes. There would be tremendous pressure to do that.
MA: When you say capital strikes you could also think of that in terms of investor panic, right? So they panic because they are like ‘Oh my god we are turning to an anti-business climate’, they pull their money out of the stock market, the stock market falls and then perhaps what happens is unemployment goes up so it becomes a national problem.
BG: Yes, absolutely. During that transition period that is when the pressure would be most powerful for a different kind of candidate who might want to challenge that structure. That would be when the pressure would be most powerful to make appointments that would reflect a more pro-business point of view. In no way is this a conspiracy theory argument: businesses don’t have to collude with one another to withhold investments or lay off workers or anything, it just happens through the normal processes of business leaders making individual business decisions for their shareholders.
MA: It’s really a psychological response as I see it and also a little bit of groupthink that goes along with that.
BG: Yeah, I think the psychological piece was sometimes referred to as ‘maintaining business confidence’, confidence that whoever is in the White House is going to be a supporter of those needs. There is a psychological dimension for sure.
MA: Let’s put some of the policies that you examined from the last three presidents [before Donald Trump] into this context and help us to understand why things went the way they did both with economic issues and also with foreign policy. So maybe we should start with Bill Clinton.
JP: Bill Clinton ran on a campaign of change in 1992, ending three terms for the Republicans having the White House. And when he campaigned for president, he said he was concerned about the budget deficit but he also said “We have a public investment deficit as well and I want to spend money on infrastructure, on job training and a number of other things’. But you know, as an example of what we were just talking about with this business confidence argument, even during the transition he learned that the federal budget deficit was higher than had been forecast and immediately came under pressure from Alan Greenspan and other people. Dealing with the economy really requires reassuring financiers and investors that we can bring the budget deficit down. And as it turned out, Clinton’s public investment ideas were largely jettisoned and he found himself increasingly focussed on deficit reduction, and he himself recognised that his agenda was to some extent being dictated by the need to satisfy the bond market and he was caught in a quandary he didn’t quite control, because now the agenda was in order to restore economic growth we have to take measures to reassure investors and what they want to see is a focus on budget reduction rather than public investment. The early Clinton presidency, particularly his budget battles do illustrate pretty well the kind of pressures that Bill was just talking about that presidents face to reassure the business community.
BG: Just to take that story even forward beyond 1993, you could also add in the 1999 repeal of Glass-Steagall – which Clinton was in favour of. This was the 1933 law which separated commercial banking from investment banking, and with the repeal of Glass-Steagall, every bank was allowed to play the part of casino capitalists and involve themselves in big investments. And so this repeal and lowering the capital gains tax rate collectively became known as Clintonomics, which was really a fairly conservative approach, a fairly neoliberal approach to economic policy, and you could see that also in welfare reform when he ran for re-election in 1996. And so when it comes to NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement], welfare reform, or the repeal of Glass-Steagall, you could see that that set of priorities was at work with Bill Clinton and certainly later on with Barack Obama who also campaigned on ‘Change you can believe in’. I think that adherence to late 1980s early 1990s neoliberal policies is a constant now for the chief executive, be they a Democrat or a Republican so that also helps explain people’s dissatisfaction that change doesn’t really happen.
MA: What about with foreign policy?
JP: A couple of points there with respect to Clinton specifically. He was the first president elected after the end of the Cold War, and the 1990s were also the decade in which globalisation became a buzzword. So just to take those up, in terms of globalisation the Clinton administration – we think – really embraced neoliberalism, not just in terms of domestic policy but in terms of international economic policy too. Most notably in so-called free trade agreements like NAFTA and just in terms of the general paradigm that the opening of markets will lead to democracy, democratisation will lead to peace. I mean there is a very strong neoliberal streak to Clinton’s approach to global political economy. The other thing though in terms of national security policy, is that it is really significant that Clinton did actually deploy military force on quite a number of occasions, maybe more than people realise, in the Balkans and also against Iraq too. It was under Clinton that the call for regime change in Iraq was passed, a 1998 legislation that Clinton supported and in some ways signals George W Bush’s war against Iraq in the next decade. So overall, as we see Clinton, even though it is now a post-Cold War period, you think ‘Well the Soviets are not around anymore so that will lead to a new American national security strategy’. I mean the emphasis on American global leadership or hegemony – we think that is the real key factor, Cold War or not. Modern American presidents, be they Democrat or Republican, are very much committed to the goal of maintaining American global dominance, and, of course, to justify that we hear so much about American exceptionalism – that is the ideology that supports it. Clinton carried on the national security imperative that we talk about in a post-Cold War setting.
MA: If we were to compare the last three presidents – Clinton, Bush, Obama – I know you said you see quite a bit of continuity across them, particularly with economic policies, but we also see differences. How important are those differences?
BG: I think the differences are often emphasised a lot by the media because it helps reinforce the idea that we have two vibrant different points of view that are contesting for economic policy and foreign policy issues. So I think we often hear about the differences, but I think in terms of the actual conduct of US foreign policy, for example the pervasive use of drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Afghanistan by President Obama actually exceeded the amount that President George W. Bush engaged in. I think the differences are dwarfed by the continuities which strongly looks at foreign policy through an economic lens and through a lens of the strength of US power in the world. So for example, going back to Bill Clinton, he often talked in terms of foreign policy as geo-economics, and so trade agreements like NAFTA or the WTO, for him and I think also for President Obama pursuing US corporate economic interests abroad are reinforced by our trade policies and by our foreign policy, and I think the similarities on that really dwarf the differences. There is an interesting quote that Joe and I have used in the book and it is a quote from [National Security Agency] director-general Keith Alexander. He was commenting on the policy continuity between George W Bush and Obama in 2014, and he argued that you would get almost the same decision from both of them on key questions about how to defend our nation from terrorists and other threats, it almost doesn’t matter who is in the White House from his point of view. You know that level of frankness, you don’t get very often, but in that particular moment he is pointing out that regardless of whether the president is Democrat or Republican you are going to get a very similar view of US foreign policy.
JP: Not to undercut our argument,but there are differences in ruling circles about what the best strategy is for obtaining the goals of economic growth and American global dominance. And so there were differences between the Bush Administration and the Obama Administration and there are also differences within each administration, sort of internal factions. For example, under Obama, he appointed people who are regarded in terms of national security as quite liberal – Samantha Power, Susan Rice – but they are liberal hawks too. And neoliberal and liberal hawks share commitments to American military intervention and so forth with neoconservatives who we heard so much about under Bush. So you know, it is not a static set of imperatives, it is played out in different ways and there are debates over what strategies and policies would best ensure the overall goals. And I think we tried to take that into account too.
MA: We have seen differences with economic approaches domestically. So for example, we saw big economic downturns under Presidents like Bush and we saw them getting considerably better under President Obama although the economic inequalities continue.
BG: There are differences, for sure, and we are not suggesting that there aren’t differences but we do think that the similarities are much greater. For example, both Bush and Obama had economic recovery packages that they got through Congress. They were similar in size, both were going to help bail out Wall Street in response to the Great Recession. There were differences in terms of how they sell those policies and differences in terms of whether they believe government intervention can have a helpful impact. President Bush had to be dragged kicking and screaming into supporting a stimulus package and Obama was much more supportive, but he was not at all supportive of the size of a stimulus package that many economists said should be in the range of 1.5 trillion dollars. So neither one was really going to endorse a massive investment strategy to bail out Wall Street.
Another example would be the Affordable Care Act. The Affordable Care Act got no Republican support in Congress, while the Democrats were going to support it, and that is a significant difference and I think it would be silly to say that wasn’t a difference. But the similarity is that neither party is going to champion, maybe outside Bernie Sanders, a single-payer healthcare system along the lines of a Canadian system or a German system. So there are differences and there are similarities, but we think overall, the barriers beyond which neither party will go are pretty similar.
This interview was originally aired on the Scholars’ Circle. To access our archive of episodes and download this interview click here.