The US Presidency—Who Does It Serve?

William Grover and Joseph Peschek’s new book, The Unsustainable Presidency, came across my desk at the library where I work. I was intrigued by the book’s jacket copy suggesting a more profound analysis of the role the US President plays in the economic and political world he (and perhaps soon, she)“leads.” I contacted Grover and asked if he would be interested in an online exchange concerning the subjects discussed in The Unsustainable Presidency. Both he and Peschek agreed. The exchange follows—Ron


Ron Jacobs: Near the beginning of your text, where you discuss, among other things, the history of how the Presidency has been perceived and promoted, you write that Arthur Schlesinger, Jr believed the US political system will always correct itself even when subjected to the “destabilizing force of capitalism.” Do you agree with this perception today? It is my personal belief that the present nature of capitalism has rendered most elements of what Americans consider democracy irrelevant, replacing them with an unaccountable system of financial transactions determined by Wall Street and the industry of international banking. What are your thoughts on this?9781137371812

William Grover/Joseph Peschek: The first two chapters of The Unsustainable Presidency explore how Political Science in particular, and scholars generally, think about the American presidency—and how they portray the office to mass audiences beyond the academy. Typically historians like Schlesinger have been cheerleaders for activist, assertive presidents in the FDR mold. He backed off his veneration of executive power in light of the excesses of Vietnam and Watergate, developing the concept of the “imperial presidency.” The president is deemed “imperial,” on this reading, when he acts without congressional authorization, especially in foreign policy—whenever the constitutional balance of power is tilted too far toward the chief executive. Think of a see-saw with the power-heavy president weighing down one end and a hapless Congress flapping in the air at the other. For conventional analysts, the danger of this imbalance is procedural—the office is imperial, not the substantive policies being pursued or the nation’s overarching national security strategy. So, for instance, when President Franklin Pierce instructs the navy to level the town of San Juan del Norte in Nicaragua in 1854 in response to an American official being insulted, the problem for Schlesinger is that he didn’t first get congressional authorization for the destruction, not the destruction itself as an act of revenge. Similarly with Vietnam, the struggle between the President and Congress for control of the war effort takes center stage. Two camps emerge. The more liberal “dove” analysis of the war is “good intentions gone awry,” whereas the conservative “hawk” position argues that the good intentions of the U.S. were undermined by a lack of total commitment to the war. The idea that U.S. intentions never were “good” to begin with—that both branches of government defined U.S. national security interests as unassailably just—is beyond the pale in conventional accounts. Indeed, when Martin Luther King is criticizing those intentions as imperial and militaristic in the last years of his life he is shunned in Washington as an enemy of the state.

Ultimately Schlesinger, and historians and political scientists generally, contend that the system will self-correct. Bad guys get caught—the system works!—and the presidential-congressional power struggle will be resolved in favor of balance and shared power. This political faith is institutional self-correction lies at the heart of their defense of American democracy. And it carries over into domestic policy and economic crises as well. When economic policy tilts too far toward corporate and financial interests, mainstream observers encourage our faith in the political system’s eventual ability to even out capitalist excesses via legislation. Schlesinger makes this argument, as did Harold Laski before him with an eye toward FDR. They both have faith that, as Laski put it in 1940, in times of crisis, “the hour has brought forth the man.” Presidents can transcend institutional roadblocks. Our book challenges this faith in the self-corrective capacity of the political economy. So no, we do not agree with the common perception today. The accountability and self-corrective stabilization celebrated within the mainstream is mostly blind to what the U.S. has become in an age of neoliberalism: a nation whose two major political parties both are in the thrall of corporate and military definitions of economic growth and national security—the defining issues of the modern presidency. As the political and economic system lurches toward oligarchy, we are told to have faith that the next election will bring to power a president who can handle the challenge. Such faith can only be maintained when our institutions are divorced from the larger, deeper context of political and economic power.

RJ: You state that your book is an attempt to develop a deep structural theory of the modern Presidency. What do you mean by this terminology?

WG/JP: Our call for a deep structural theory of the modern presidency—a deep presidency—is an attempt to change the way the office is conceptualized. The constitutional balance of power view we discuss above adopts an “institutions-as-structure” approach. “Structural reform” from this vantage point amounts to having the weaker branch of government on the institutional see-saw reassert its powers. If George W. Bush acts too unilaterally in conducting the war in Iraq, for example, Congress can shore up the “structure” of government be pushing back and challenging the President, passing reform legislation if necessary. And to be clear, presidential unilateralism is a valid concern. Accountability matters, and to ignore it would make little sense. But there is a shared consensus between the two political parties about the ends of US economic and military power, while tactical differences over means capture almost all the media attention. Former director of the National Security Agency, Gen. Keith Alexander, nicely illustrated the policy continuity between Bush and Obama in the spring of 2014, arguing that although they come from different political parties, both presidents adhere to essentially the same view of national security. “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.” On economic policy, former Fed Chair Alan Greenspan displayed similar elite candor in 2007. His words are worth quoting at length:

“We are fortunate that, thanks to globalization, policy decisions in the US have been largely replaced by global market forces. National security aside, it hardly makes any difference who will be the next president. The world is governed by market forces.”

Mainstream theories of the presidency often emphasize presidential differences in terms of party, personality and management style. These differences serve to amplify the importance of voter choice, of control of the House and Senate. By contrast, a deeper structural view of the presidency focuses on these policy continuities, these shared ends, the political-economic context within which the institutions function. The current debate over House Speaker John Boehner’s snub of President Obama—inviting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress without coordinating with the White House—illustrates this point. The White House does differ with majorities in Congress over the geopolitical maneuvering between Israel and Saudi Arabia as they position themselves to oppose Shiite rule in Iran and Iranian allies in Syria, Iraq and southern Lebanon. Still all presidents and members of both parties in the House and Senate fall over themselves to loudly assert U.S. loyalty to Israel while voicing, at the very most, tepid, muted criticism of Israeli treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

There are lots of examples we could cite, and our three case study chapters do that. Does that mean it makes no difference who wins the White House? No, on some issues the differences are significant. Surely LGBT rights are much better served with a Democrat serving as chief executive. President Obama has made it a point to highlight the importance of LGBT issues in several of his speeches. And on other issues policy differences can be substantial. But on the two core issues that defined the modern presidency in the wake of the Great Depression and W.W. II, the underlying continuity dwarfs the differences. The modern presidency is a creature of FDR’s long tenure and the rise of what has been called the welfare-warfare state. Public expectations of the modern presidency were built on the twin pillars of endless economic growth (defined as rising GDP—always more production and consumption tomorrow than today) and national security in pursuit of U.S. hegemony (always tougher with each iteration of the enemy, be they the Soviets or ISIS). Each goal is bipartisan and defined in ways that simply are not sustainable in light of twenty-first century challenges from climate change and the waning of American empire. In short, the deep structural roots of the modern presidency need to be challenged and substantially rethought.

RJ: Every US student learns by high school that there are supposedly three branches of the US government–executive, judicial, and legislative. They are told that these branches exist to provide checks and balances and maintain a sort of adversarial relationship. Your analysis challenges this dictum, claiming instead that the three branches work in tandem, even when they appear to be at odds. Can you explain this a bit?

WG/JP: It’s true. That’s what is taught. Separation of power, checks and balances—it’s all part of our civic religion. And those concepts are important. There is something of a rivalry for power within these institutions. But when you broaden the scope to include theories of the state, you see that such rivalries occur with a framework of shared, bipartisan, and cross-institutional interests. Theodore Lowi has argued that the post-New Deal American president amounts to “the state personified.” If that’s the case, then it makes sense to ask what the state is and what it does in a capitalist democracy like the U.S. Without going into great detail here (Ch. 2 of our book explores this), critical theories of the state on which we draw generally view state policy as an outgrowth of two key imperatives: the promotion of business profitability (sometimes termed “capital accumulation”) and the maintenance of democratic legitimacy—in short, capitalism and democracy. Business profitability can be pursued via corporate-friendly domestic growth policies and national security policy that complements that growth agenda around the world. Theories of the state explore the reasons why the state must attend to these sometimes conflicting imperatives. Three categories of focus dominant such theories: class dominance theories (what types of people occupy leadership positions within the state—their subjective class interests), capital dominance theories (the objective pressure to promote profitability and business confidence regardless of the class background of those leader), and social struggle theories (tangible gains that social movements can extract from the state so the state can preserve the appearance of fairness and democratic accountability).

From a class dominance view of the state, it is deeply telling that Democratic presidents like Clinton and Obama selected the likes of Tim Geithner and Robert Rubin to key cabinet posts. From a capital dominance view of the state you would get essentially the same type of economic priorities even if you appointed single working mothers and progressive professors to those posts. And from the perspective of social struggle view of the state, from time to time the state must enact policies that temporarily favor the interests of ordinary non-elite citizens over the interests of the wealthy—think of New Deal programs enacted in the wake of massive social upheaval. When viewed through the lens of theories of the state, the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case is more revealing about the nature of the power structure than Brown v. Board of Education. But for certain, social movements matter. For example, you’d have to lack basic human empathy for your heart not to swell with a measure of pride as the protestors finally march over the Edmund Pettius Bridge in a heroic scene from the film Selma. The government can be pressed to respond to the needs of organized democratic pressure, sometimes to pursue ends that strengthen the democratic elements of our system. The trick is for social movements to keep continuous, focused pressure on the state to pursue policies that challenge corporate and military definitions of “growth’ and “security.” Traditional political analysis, though, largely ignores the state as a category of analysis. One of us was at a conference in Boston this past fall, presenting some ideas from our book, and the panel chair said theories of the state simply don’t apply to the U.S.—we are exceptional because of our fragmented social and political climate. For that political scientist, wed to a pluralist view, the state favors no particular set of interests. What Charles Lindblom once called the “privileged position of business” simply does not exist for some analysts, although Political Science has become more open to theories of the state in recent years. We are trying to encourage such openness by marrying theories of the presidency with theories of the state.

RJ: This text seems to challenge the idea that capitalism and democracy can exist together. One mechanism discussed in this regard is what are termed resource and demand constraints. Can you elaborate on these and how they work?

WG/JP: We borrow the terms resource constraints and demand constraints from other scholars. These concepts indeed point to essential conflicts between capitalism and democracy, rather than to their compatibility. “Resource constraints” refer to the serious limits ordinary citizens face in having their interests represented in the public policy bargaining process, compared to the resource advantages (money, organization, ability to hire lobbyists) possessed by the wealthy and the business community. A great deal of recent research by Larry Bartels, Martin Gilens, Benjamin Page and others supports the observation of the political scientist E.E. Schattschneider, made over 50 years ago, that “the flaw in the pluralist heaven is that the chorus sings with a strong upper class accent.”

A “demand constraint” is a more “structural” argument about the dependence of the state on private business firms in a capitalist economy. Since economic growth and employment depend to a large extent on the investment decisions of capitalists, the political process tends to filter out demands that are seen as incompatible with the interests of capital and with the maintenance of “business confidence.” This demand constraint is sometimes characterized as “the privileged position of business” in capitalist democracy argument, as we noted in response to your previous question. The effect of this constraint can be seen when President Obama, on a number of occasions, has used quasi-populist rhetoric in speeches, followed the next day by reassurances that he reveres the free enterprise system and does not resent the good fortune of the wealthy.

While of course there are many other pressures and constraints on the presidency, we think these two concepts explain a great deal about how the U.S. presidency, and American politics in general, actually functions. We think Political Science would do well to take seriously these ideas and others from the broad tradition of critical political economy.

RJ: In the book’s discussion of Presidents Clinton, G W Bush, and Obama, there appear to be some differences in each President’s approach to economic and social issues. However, when it comes to the projection of US military force, all three administrations tend to consider Congressional approval of such force unnecessary. This has led, most recently, to the reinstating of at least 3000 US troops back into Iraq, the continuation of the US military presence in Afghanistan for an indeterminate length, and the stationing of US forces in dozens of countries around the world. In addition, under Obama, the use of targeted killings by drones have killed over 2500 people.

WG/JP: You are correct. We do not regard George W. Bush’s assertion that he is the “decider” to be an aberration. Modern presidents make expansive claims for their national security powers. Presidential dominance of use-of-force decisions cuts across party lines and presidents guard this prerogative jealously. That this represents a danger to American democracy in terms of the Constitutional balance-of-power was recognized by Schlesinger after he turned against the Vietnam War, and is emphasized by Louis Fisher, probably the preeminent scholar of the war power today.

While we share this concern we try to situate the so-called imperial presidency in the ends or goals that the U.S. state pursues. Our analysis of this trend rests of our view of the hegemonic role of the U.S. globally. In a nutshell we have an imperial presidency because the U.S. is an imperial power. American strategy has been one of expansion since World War II, and perhaps even longer, and there is a bipartisan elite consensus that U.S. dominance is necessary to maintain the world order as we know it. Historian Andrew Bacevich defines the “bedrock assumption” as holding that “the United States itself constitutes the axis around which history turns.” Simply put use of military force is a tool of empire management. Of course there are disagreements within elite circles about which policies are best suited for the larger goal, as we saw with the Iraq War (though recall many members of the Democratic establishment supported the attack on Iraq). But there is no doubt that militarism is an essential accompaniment of the American presidency, a point that unfortunately is likely to be confirmed by the campaign for president in 2016, given the current crop of possible candidates.

RJ: In your discussion of the Bush Doctrine on foreign policy, you quote Michael Klare: “The Bush-Cheney team could draw only one conclusion: that, on their own, the Persian Gulf countries had neither the will nor the capacity to increase their petroleum output and protect its outward flow. If the administration’s energy plan was to succeed, the United States would have to become the dominant power in the region, assuming responsibility for overseeing the politics, the security, and the oil output key producing countries.” In light of the current and incredibly quick downturn in the price of oil due to overproduction by Saudi Arabia (probably in coordination with Washington), what would you say about this current trend in relation to the Bush-Cheney conclusion?

WG/JP: Our answer to this question must be somewhat speculative, but the oil price decline, driven by the Saudis, has effects that serve U.S. interests. The drop in prices weakens both Iran and Russia, which are key allies of the Syrian regime. Regime change in Syria has been a U.S. objective in recent years, though one complicated by the rise of Islamic State.

Not to move off topic, but the recent death of King Abdullah, and the fawning reaction to it by U.S., British, and other leaders show how the Saudi-U.S. alliance has been central to U.S. strategy in the Middle East. The close collaboration with this reactionary regime certainly refutes the view that American Middle East policy is driven by democracy promotion. It also challenges the view that the U.S. is at war with “Islam.” Saudi Arabia is an Islamic fundamentalist state and also a key U.S. ally. Of course this relationship sometimes produces “blowback” for the U.S., with Osama bin Laden only the most spectacular example.

RJ: Finally, towards the end of your book, you present a scenario where the social democrat Bernie Sanders becomes president. I wrote a piece published in May 2014 that ended with this statement: “So, even if the reader might believe President Bernie Sanders could bring us back from the precipice we find ourselves on the edge of, the very nature of the US economic and political system ensures that he cannot.” Could you comment on this in light of the questions and conclusions raised in The Unsustainable Presidency?

WG/JP: The title of your article is “Bernie Sanders Cannot Save Us.” And it’s true. He would be among the first to admit that. Indeed, in an interview last week he did just that: “We can elect the best in the world to be president, but that person will get swallowed up unless there is an unprecedented level of activism at the grassroots level.” He is not naïve. In the final chapter we discuss the financial panic and elite fear-mongering that would follow a hypothetical Sanders victory in the 2016 presidential election. His transition period between November 2016 and January 2017 would be a wild ride. A sustained social movement is the only antidote to corporate pressures to swallow up his ideas and the passion they might arouse among ordinary people. We need a presidential candidate willing to actually challenge corporate economic priorities and the definition of national security that defends them.

It has been argued that presidents do have some room for “authentic political education,” if emboldened by an engaged public. But the engagement can’t be transitory, and even if sustained over time, state repression can play a role in undermining it, as we learned from Occupy Wall Street. And time is critical—a troubling point within a system whose normal operating mode is on a perpetual slow setting. Take climate change, which, as Naomi Klein reminds us, “is not an issue for you to add to the list of things to worry about. It is a civilizational wake up call.” Late last fall when he announced he was stepping down as Chair of the Board of, Bill McKibben acknowledged the need to act now on climate change given the frenetic pace at which fossil fuels are warming the atmosphere with carbon dioxide and, increasingly, methane. The urgency is unprecedented if the planet is to avoid being overwhelmed by climate damage. The timeframe is stark with climate change, a fight wherein, as McKibben put it “Winning too slowly is the same as losing.” President Obama may yet stop the Keystone XL pipeline in what would be a great victory for the climate change movement. But it would amount to a slow, partial win, with much more to be done, and quickly. In our book we are suggesting nothing less than a fundamental rethinking of how we define “economic growth” and “national security” if the modern presidency is to be sustainable as something more than spectacle, empty gestures, charade and disillusionment. To help move us in that direction—and to avoid having to add “catastrophe-in-chief” to the list of presidential duties—we argue that we all need to be less concerned with the important but relatively comfortable question of what kind of president our society needs, and more attuned to the unsettling yet urgent question of what kind of society we want to be. Authentic political education is a tall order. So are vibrant social movements trumpeting a civilizational wake up call. But in the end, we know that structures can change.

William F. Groveris Professor of Political Science at Saint Michael’s College in Vermont. His new book (with Joseph G. Peschek) is The Unsustainable Presidency: Clinton, Bush, Obama and Beyond (Palgrave, 2014). His previous work includes The President as Prisoner: A Structural Critique of the Carter and Reagan Years and nine editions of Voices of Dissent: Critical Readings in American Politics (co-edited with Peschek). He is a former American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow. He can be reached at

Joseph G. Peschek is Professor of Political Science at Hamline University in Minnesota. His new book (with William F. Grover) is The Unsustainable Presidency: Clinton, Bush, Obama and Beyond (Palgrave, 2014). His previous work includes Policy-Planning Organizations: Elite Agendas and America Rightward Turn and nine editions of Voices of Dissent: Critical Readings in American Politics (co-edited with Grover). He is a former editor of the journal New Political Science. He can be reached at

Ron Jacobs is the author of a series of crime novels called The Seventies Series.  All the Sinners, Saints, is the third novel in the series. He is also the author of  The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground . Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden.    He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. His book Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies will be published by Counterpunch. He can be reached at:

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: