The Contradictory American Presidency: Why An Elected Executive Head of State Can Only Be a Divider, Not a Uniter

Authority Makes the Presidency Unifying as Head of State; Power Renders Him Divisive as Head of Government

When campaigning for the presidency, George W. Bush, then Governor of Texas, famously proclaimed, “I’m uniter, not a divider.” I aim to show that no elected executive head of state (in other words, no head of state in a presidential or semi-presidential system) could possibly fulfill this function. The American Presidency has evolved into a contradictory office: as the head of state, the President represents the country and attempts to act as a unifying figure; as the head of government, the President acts as a divisive figure by representing his party and supporters and implementing his policies. This contradiction has arisen because the Framers who wrote the Constitution of 1787 designed the American Presidency as a republican version of the British Sovereign under the British Balanced Constitution of the 18th century. While Westminster parliamentarism evolved into Responsible Government in the 19th century, thus separating the head of state from the head of government, the American Presidency remains locked into the Balanced Constitution, which Americans now call “the separation of powers”, or “checks and balances.” Under this balanced constitution, the Framers intended that the House of Representatives represent the American people as a whole as the democratic element (which came from the House of Commons), that the Senate represent the States as the federal element (which derived from the aristocratic element of the House of Lords), and that the President represent the American State as the executive element (a republican adaptation of the British Sovereign). The only President whose contemporaries could plausibly have described him as a unifying figure was George Washington.

The inherent tension within the Presidency, between head of state and head of government, makes the office contradictory because two distinct, and sometimes contradictory, functions have become bound up in the same person. Even when the President emphasizes one role over the other, he still embodies both and must always bear both in mind. The American President is an “executive head of state” because he possesses both power and authority.[1] In terms of power, he determines government policy, plays an active role in promoting particular legislation in Congress, and runs the political executive. In terms of authority, he carries out ceremonial functions and leads national commemorations and celebrations. As head of state, the President possesses both official and personal authority; as head of government, he possesses real political power.[2] In contrast, a non-executive head of state possesses authority, but the Prime Minister and Cabinet exercise power.

The Political Forces of Power and Authority

Most political scientists do not properly articulate the differences between power, authority, and coercion, and influence as persuasion. However, Dr. Paul Benoit made these essential distinctions in “State Ceremonial: The Constitutional Monarch’s Liturgical Authority”. Though he wrote about the differences between the role of a constitutional monarch within the State and within civil society, the concepts still apply to republican presidencies. In general, authority refers to the “unquestioning recognition that some person or office is superior in some way and therefore worthy of respect and deference.”[3] In this case, the Constitution of the United States vests the Office of the Presidency with official authority, and the individual’s charisma, popular support, and personal conduct determine his personal authority. His personal authority can reinforce his power. “Power comes from a consent that is freely given in an explicit or tacit manner; it increases as the will of more and more people is united through agreement, cooperation, and organization.”[4] In constitutional monarchies like the United Kingdom, the Sovereign embodies authority (both within the State and government, and within civil society), while the Prime Minister and his government wield power, which they obtain by commanding the confidence of the House of Commons. Coercion refers to forcing someone to do something against his or her will through intimidation or threat.[5] Authority and power may manifest themselves as persuasion. Democratic political systems thereby operate primarily upon power, while dictatorships rely on coercion (the threat of force and retribution) in order to keep populations in line. This political force certainly does not apply to the American presidency, but several presidential republics in Latin America suffered from leaders who took power and subsequently resorted to coercion in order to solidify their grip on the office. Hugo Chavez comes to mind.

Juan Linz has argued that parliamentary systems (which includes both parliamentary republics and constitutional monarchies) lend themselves to long-term democratic stability more effectively than presidential republics and that they can secure the transition from authoritarian regime to a democratic institution more effectively than presidential republics.[6] The former allow for loyal opposition and separate the head of state from the head of government. The separation of the head of state from the head of government separates authority from power, and thus limits the capacity of each figure to become a despot or a demogogue. It is precisely this confluence of authority and power that could lead to despotism and demagoguery in countries that lack liberal democratic political cultures.

Head of State vs. Head of Government

President Obama and Queen Elizabeth II both wear formal, state dress and stand respectably apart.

President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron are far more relaxed and familiar with one another.

The President acts unambiguously as head of state when he accepts the letters of credence of ambassadors and when he holds audiences or events with foreign non-executive heads of state (from republican or monarchical parliamentary systems), because these do not involve serious discussions on government policy. They could act as a prelude for subsequent meetings with that country’s head of government or other members of the political executive. However, the President emphasizes his role as head of government whenever he meets foreign executive heads of state and government and discusses real policy and political questions. For instance, the President acts differently when he hosts or visits the Queen of the United Kingdom versus the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. When the President of the United States meets the Queen of the United Kingdom, he wears full State dress (normally white ties and long jackets), and the meetings focus on maintaining good diplomatic relations. When he meets the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, he wears a normal business suit (or even less formal attire) and the two engage in substantive policy discussions and hold joint press conferences. President Obama endured an awkward official dinner — including a diplomatic faux pas of toasting the Queen during the playing of “God Save the Queen” — but he attended a basketball game and acted all chumy with Prime Minister Cameron.

The President’s Role in Civil Ceremony

President Obama fulfills his liturgical role by commemorating Memorial Day.

The President’s role of head of state and representative of the country can sometimes extend beyond the State and touch civil society, in the same way that a constitutional monarch fulfills a “liturgical role”[7] of a civic or quasi-religious ceremony. During times of national tragedy, the President must emphasize his role as head of state and articulate the country’s grief with dignified solemnity. President Reagan exemplified the role when he addressed the nation in the aftermath of the destruction of the Shuttle Challenger; President Bush fulfilled the function in response to a much larger event, after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Presidents even tend to evoke religious scripture and imagery in carrying out their liturgical function.  The President also fulfills his liturgical function on the annual commemorations for Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day and on the annual celebration of Independence Day. The President’s political opponents normally refrain from criticizing him on these occasions, because they would seem petty by putting partisanship above patriotism.

Criticizing the President’s Policies

That latter point raises some interesting implications and questions: namely, it is unpatriotic to criticize the President when he acts as head of state and fulfills the liturgical function of articulating the country’s grief. It may also be unpatriotic to criticize the President when he expresses clear statements on the national interests of the United States, particularly during times of war. In contrast, it is rarely if ever unpatriotic to criticize the Prime Minister in a Westminster system, and I would argue that such criticism should never be considered unpatriotic. In the absence of a non-executive head of state, bipartisanship serves as the closest American equivalent to the political neutrality of the Sovereign. Americans thus expect their President to be bipartisan (acknowledging both the Democrats and Republicans) during these solemn occasions, or with respect to important political questions that affect American interests and values. But bipartisanship – a temporary mutual truce against uni-partisanship – does not constitute neutrality, because each side retains its vested partisan political interests and ambitions throughout. Whoever first resumes partisan hostilities faces the consequences of appearing petty. The art and essence of being “presidential” lies in the mastery of this civic liturgy.

Presidentialism vs. Parliamentarism: Fusion of Power and Authority vs. the Separation of Power and Authority

In the Commonwealth realms, which operate under Responsible Government, the Queen or Governor General represents the country or the State, the Prime Minister represents the government, and the lower house represents the people.[8] The Queen or Governor General possesses authority, while the Prime Minister and Cabinet exercise power. The Westminster system of responsible government separates the head of state from the head of government and thus institutionalizes political dissent and allows the Sovereign to become a unifying, non-partisan figure precisely because he or she does not determine the government’s policies. Responsible Government thus reinforces the old “doctrine of royal infallibility” by transferring the powers of the Sovereign to the Prime Minister and Cabinet and leaving the Sovereign with authority.[9] Ministers of the Crown (the Prime Minister and Cabinet) take responsibility for all acts of the Crown (its policies and expenditures) – whether they be good or bad, successful or unsuccessful – and remain accountable and answerable to the House of Commons by commanding its confidence in order to govern. Liberated from the constraints and responsibilities of exercising political power, the Queen or Governor General rises above partisan politics and becomes a politically neutral figure. The Government must take responsibility and accept criticism for all its decisions,. which the Queen or Governor General merely carries out in accordance with its advice. In an interview with Brian Lamb on CSPAN, Margaret Thatcher explained this system to an American audience (at 9 minutes, 35 seconds):

Let me put it this way: the president is a combination of the monarch and the prime minister. […] Whatever happens, all the loyalty, the patriotism, and the affection go to the monarch […]. All the flack comes politically to the prime minister. [10]

This system also institutionalizes political dissent in the form of responsible loyal opposition, which opposes and criticizes the government’s policies but remains loyal to the Crown (and therefore to the country) and acts as the alternative government. Thus in Westminster systems, loyal opposition puts the country first by being partisan. On loyal opposition, Thatcher added (21 minutes, 20 seconds):

Once the president is the president, there is no leader of the opposition. There is no kind of  ‘president-in-waiting’. We have an opposition which is always an alternative government.

This is why, in the United Kingdom, Britons who disagree with the policy decision to invade Iraq in 2003 can casually refer to former Prime Minister Anthony Blair as a “war criminal,” or such such pejorative political epithets, without raising much controversy. (Such remarks feature prominently on British comedies such as Have I Got News For You and QI). If anything, most Britons treat such statements as a joke. But they would never think of calling Queen Elizabeth II a war criminal because Her Majesty’s Government, not Her Majesty, determines government policy. A notable exception to this general principle of Responsible Government and the Doctrine of Royal Infallibility occurred following the hysteria over Princess Diana’s death in August 1997: a majority of Britons felt (because they certainly were not thinking) that the Queen had not acknowledged their “grief”, and a curious inversion of roles took place. Prime Minister Anthony Blair gladly assumed the liturgical role through his “People’s Princess” speech.[11]

However, if an American were to refer to former to President Bush or former Vice-President Cheney as a war criminal (or even something as relatively innocous as the Dixie Chicks’ comment in 2003), he may well meet with strenuous opposition and provoke a backlash – perhaps even that most severe civic insult that one American can level against his fellow citizen: “you’re un-American.” [12] As Peter Hitchens observed on criticizing the foolish war in Iraq and President Bush:

There is nothing axiomatically wonderful about republics or presidents. And I often made this point during the Iraq War to those in [the United Kingdom] who protested against it, like me. I used a considerable amount of mockery and disrespect to the prime minister at the time, Mr. Blair. If you did that to President Bush in the United States, you’d be in serious trouble, because in the United States the head of government is also the head of state, [which] therefore demand[s] loyalty and patriotism from everybody. And to criticize him personally is viewed by many people as a form of lese-majeste.

Peter Hitchens also noted the same problem with respect to President Clinton and his perjury relating to his extra-marital affair with Monica Lewinsky:

Most British people don’t really under the office of the president; they confuse it with the prime minister and a politician and don’t realise than an American can simultaneously despise Bill Clinton but hold a strong respect the office of president, which makes them hold back from the sort of calls for instant resignation and dismissal which would certainly fall on the head of a British cabinet minister who had behaved like this. […] I think you have an elected king here, and what we need to understand more in England is that  respect that Americans have for the office — that is another thing that may well save Mr. Clinton from a fate that he would no doubt have suffered in England. [13]

Normally, an American citizen may criticize the President’s policies, but ironically, ad hominem commentary almost becomes seditious — as if lese-majeste laws still applied to this republican figure. Indeed, the Office of President commands a certain respect, or even reverence, that a patriotic American would rarely breach. I recall another such incident from my years in the United States, which also occurred in 2003 at the beginning of the war in Iraq: the Secret Service treated cartoonist Michael Ramirez’s political satire of President Bush as a death threat. [14]


Politics by nature is and should be divisive. Without the disagreement and dissent that comes from persons who sincerely hold opposing views and beliefs, politics would cease to exist altogether.[15] The exercise of political power is therefore also inherently divisive. Executive power entails decision-making: implementing one option to the exclusion of all others. Within any political system, each possible option, course of action, and set of policies retains the support of various competing interests; within a democratic political system, these competing interests – whether political parties, citizens, or other groups – may legitimately oppose one another and the executive’s decisions. With popular election comes what Przeworski famously dubbed the “institutionalized uncertainty” in which legitimate political opposition must oppose and offer an alternative to the government of the day. The inherently divisive nature of political and executive power means that no elective, executive head of state in a democratic country can act as a unifying national figure and command the loyalty and devotion of all citizens in the manner that absolute monarchs once sought (or coerced) from their subjects.[16]

In conclusion, I can think of only two possible scenarios in which the American Presidency could dispense with divisiveness — and neither, of course, is realistic or attainable. First, the President could only become a unifying national figure if all Americans voted for him and if democratic politics — divisiviness, dissent, and debate — ceased to exist. Alternatively, he could become a “uniter, not a divider” if the United States decided to become a parliamentary republic and render him a ceremonial head of state by transferring executive functions to a Prime Minister and Cabinet! Heads of government can only be divisive (sometimes despite their best efforts) because of the inherent divisive nature of power and the arrangement of parliamentary system. Only a non-partisan, neutral ceremonial head of state in a parliamentary republic or a constitutional monarchy can transcends the divisiveness of politics can hope to fulfill George W. Bush’s goal of being a “uniter, not a divider.”

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[1] Paul Benoit. “State Ceremonial: The Constitutional Monarch’s Liturgical Authority,” in The Evolving Canadian Crown, edited by Jennifer Smith and D. Michael Jackson, 119-137. (Kingston: Institute of Intergovernmental Relations, School of Policy Studies, Queen’s University, 2012).
Benoit, “State Ceremonial: The Constitutional Monarch’s Liturgical Authority,” 120.
Paul Benoit, conversation with author, January 2012.
Juan Linz, “The Perils of Presidentialism,” Journal of Democracy 1, no. 1 (January 1990): 51-69.
Benoit. “State Ceremonial: The Constitutional Monarch’s Liturgical Authority,” 119-137.
I suppose that in Australia, both the House and Senate represent the people because they are both elective chambers.
Paul Benoit, “Parliament and Democracy in the 21st Century: The Crown and the Constitution,” Canadian Parliamentary Review 25, no. 2 (Summer 2002): 2-3.
[10] Margaret Thatcher, interview by Brian Lamb, CSPAN, 9 March 1991.
[11] Sarah Hagen, conversation with author, 2 June 2012.
[12] CNN, “Dixie Chicks Pulled From Air After Bashing Bush,” 14 March 2003; Peter Hitchens, presentation to the Orwell Prize Shortlist Debate, 27 April 2011.
[13] Peter Hitchens, interview with Brian Lamb, CSPAN, 30 January 1998.
[14] LA Times Cartoonist Investigated by Secret Service
[15] Christopher Hitchens, interview by Jeremy Paxman, Newsnight, BBC, 26 November 2010.  [accessed 1 June 2012].
[16] Peter Hitchens, The Abolition of Britain, interview by Brian Lamb, Booknotes, CSPAN, 20 October 2000.  [accessed 1 June 2012].


About J.W.J. Bowden

My area of academic expertise lies in Canadian political institutions, especially the Crown, political executive, and conventions of Responsible Government; since 2011, I have made a valuable contribution to the scholarship by having been published and cited extensively. I’m also a contributing editor to the Dorchester Review and a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law.
This entry was posted in Loyal Opposition, Parliamentarism v Presidentialism, Reaffirmation of, Separation of Powers and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Contradictory American Presidency: Why An Elected Executive Head of State Can Only Be a Divider, Not a Uniter

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