Two Presidents Are Better Than One: The Case for a Bipartisan Executive Branch by David Orentlicher ’81 (New York University Press, 2013)
It’s been several incarnations (if ever) since I had intelligent thoughts about the Federalist Papers and the Founding Fathers. One gets waylaid by the starker concerns of the moment.
But I do recall one thing the Constitution put in place: a single president.
So it was intriguing to notice a donkey and an elephant, wearing wing tip shoes and sharing a single suit, on the cover of Two Presidents Are Better Than One: The Case for a Bipartisan Executive Branch, by David Orentlicher ’81. What better reason to leave prior authorizations and consent forms for a while and ponder the presidency?
Let us dig in. Orentlicher argues (and he can do it—he’s a law professor as well as a physician) that in the years since the framers conceived the position, presidential power has undergone an unanticipated and mangled expansion. Back in 1787, our forefathers envisioned “a president with limited authority, who would serve as a coequal with Congress [because] power should be contained by dividing it and requiring it to be shared.”
Then human nature intervened. It generally does. The system “worked reasonably well for the first 150 years, but since the 1930s it has collapsed.” What evolved instead of coequality was an “imperial presidency,” driven every four to eight years by one man’s perspective and ambitions. Presidents no longer executed domestic and foreign policies created by Congressional majority: Instead, like monarchs, they created policy themselves. And human nature being what it is, response from the Congressional party out of control (and luck) deteriorated into virulent partisanship.
Think of it: personal legacy, profit, aggression—all those unsightly motivations (to which, Orentlicher points out, doctors and husbands are also susceptible). Imperial presidencies led to Watergate, enhanced interrogations, and military actions without authorization.
But there is an alternative: a coalition presidency. It requires a constitutional amendment, and, given that it would have a pair of heads, might look like an alien at first glance. But in a coalition presidency, there are no shenanigans for personal gain. Nor is there partisan gridlock from the minority, since there is no party dominance. Instead, there are those two flag-waving beasts emerging from one suit, working collaboratively on all decisions from State of the Union texts to judicial nominations, supported by a Congress with unembittered bipartisan influence.
The rest of Orentlicher’s book is defense. He fends off our accusation that he’s dreaming by citing game theorists to explain how two presidents wouldn’t lock horns. He uses examples of other countries where executive power is already shared. And he even throws in a statistic to cherish from Who Wants to Be a Millionaire: use your audience lifeline; it will help you 91 percent of the time.
There are historical examples—the Roman Republic was headed by two consuls—and fantasies of how U.S. history might have been changed: a Nixon–Kennedy presidency could have prevented the Bay of Pigs invasion; an Obama–McCain presidency could have reconfigured the economic stimulus package successfully. With the internal check of a presidential partnership, there might even be an end to term limits, allowing time to chip blocks of policy into sculpture rather than bludgeoned stone.
No detail is too small to consider, and Orentlicher considers them all. Two presidents, for instance, would have to live in shared personal space in the White House. This would require some of the “guest quarters . . . to be converted to presidential space.” No problem. In his enthusiasm, he has all but taken measurements.
This intelligent and revolutionary book saved me from a long afternoon on the phone with pharmacies. But that’s nothing, considering it might save the country, too.
Elissa Ely ’87 is a psychiatrist at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center.