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Rethinking The U.S. Presidency: 3 Alternative Realities

President Woodrow Wilson meets with his first Cabinet, circa 1912. Should Cabinets have a more central role in a president's decision making?
Hulton Archive
Getty Images
President Woodrow Wilson meets with his first Cabinet, circa 1912. Should Cabinets have a more central role in a president's decision making?

Did you pay attention to the State of the Union Address? Were you struck by the countless complexities President Obama has to deal with? The economy. The national budget and deficit. Health care. Tax reform. Education. Jobs. Energy. Climate change. The national infrastructure. Immigration. Gun violence and on and on and on.

It's all too much. "The job of the presidency has grown so large, so overwhelming in its power and responsibility, no one human being can excel in all its many dimensions, from the ceremonial to the political, from making policy to managing a vast bureaucracy," Raymond A. Smith, a senior fellow at the Democratic centrist Progressive Policy Institute, wrote in an essay last spring.

As we pause Monday to celebrate our exceptional leaders on Presidents Day federal holiday, perhaps it's time we start contemplating a new kind of presidency — a presidency that befits these fitful times. The Next Presidency. Presidency 2.0.

After all, the office has not changed substantially since it was created more than 200 years ago. Many of the dilemmas faced by George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were quite different from those faced by presidents of today.

To kick-start the re-thinking, we offer three alternatives to the presidency as we know it:

1) The Two-Headed President. "It makes most sense for the United States to have two presidents from different parties who serve as true equals," says David Orentlicher, a professor at Indiana University's School of Law. Orentlicher is also the author of Two Presidents Are Better Than One: The Case for a Bipartisan Executive Branch, slated to be published in mid-March. "Two people can make decisions more easily than larger groups, and two presidents from different parties would represent almost all voters."

He says, "As the founding fathers recognized and decision-making research confirms, policy is better made when people with different views work things out together."

With shared power, Orentlicher continues, "we would give both sides of the political aisle a voice in the executive branch. That would defuse partisan conflict. We also would ensure that policy is made by people with different perspectives." A George Bush-Al Gore presidency would not have taken us into Iraq, Orentlicher argues. While a Thomas Jefferson-John Adams presidency would still have secured the Louisiana Purchase. "Two heads really are better than one."

2) President By Committee. The Progressive Policy Institute's Smith believes that the president and the nation could benefit from strengthening the role played by the president's executive committee — the Cabinet. "Generally speaking," Smith says, "I think that presidents have not made good use of the Cabinet."

In the past 50 years, Smith argues in his 2012 essay The Fine Art of Cabinet-Making: Five Ways to Build a Stronger Executive Team, the power of the presidential Cabinet has waned while the power of professional White House staffers has waxed, narrowing the breadth of opinions and views.

These days, Smith writes, Cabinet "meetings are often little more than occasional photo ops to bring together POTUS, the VP, the heads of the 15 executive departments and a few other 'cabinet-rank' officials such as the heads of the Office of Management and Budget and the Environmental Protection Agency, the Ambassador for the United Nations, and the U.S. Trade Representative."

Meanwhile, many of America's democratic allies — such as the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and Germany — profit by having their Cabinets play a more central role in decision-making, Smith points out. "In an atmosphere of bitter partisan division and a 24-hour news environment," he writes, "presidents more than ever need help at the highest levels possible."

3) The Video Gamer Presidency. You could argue that the new digital technology driving so many facets of contemporary life should also play a greater role in the presidency. As we re-imagine the role of the president, is there a case to be made for a direct, open-source presidency that we might all participate in? Using creative technology, could we all somehow help guide the president in decision making the way we help navigate a character through a treacherous video-game landscape? Maybe the American presidency could become a multiuser experience incorporating crowdsourced decision-making and crowd-determined executive action-taking.

Such a radical reboot could be an outgrowth of Obama's Open Government Initiative.

To CEO Justin Corcoran of Phosphor Game Studios, a Chicago-based video game development company, the U.S. presidency is already a cooperative undertaking, a venture run by a lot of people.

There is an entire staff working with the president, Corcoran says, "to understand issues and make decisions both domestic and foreign. That larger body that is 'the presidency' is already well influenced by the 24-hour multichannel information flow in our modern day, and no doubt makes some decisions based on that, so in an indirect way there is already a crowdsourced influence on the presidency."

But, says Corcoran, even in a crowdsourced situation, the crowd must be informed and ultimately pledge its support and put its confidence in a single leader. The leader makes the decisions and takes the actions.

Joe Houston, a developer of the action game Dishonored and founder of Texas-based Roxlou Games, voices a similar opinion about the feasibility of a video-gamer presidency. "Mass crowdsourcing," Houston says, "has a high probability of producing a fondness for funny cat videos and the shrieking of Internet memes."

A crowdsourced president, says Houston — lapsing into the realm of the absurd — "would most likely appoint Maru, the Japanese box-loving cat as its chief of staff, promptly before doing the Harlem Shake in the oval office. However, this will stop the moment CNN reports on the activity because at that point it will no longer be cool."

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Linton Weeks joined NPR in the summer of 2008, as its national correspondent for Digital News. He immediately hit the campaign trail, covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; fact-checking the debates; and exploring the candidates, the issues and the electorate.