The Magazine

Two Heads, One Body

What could possibly go wrong in a co-presidency?

May 27, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 35 • By TEVI TROY
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There is no doubt that the American presidency is an imperfect institution and that it has been inhabited by imperfect people. Given these incontrovertible facts, political scientists have long sought ways to improve the presidency. Some want to make it more powerful, others less. Some want us to pursue a parliamentary-style system, while others have argued for allowing more to be done by executive fiat. Professor David Orentlicher of Indiana University has come up with an original but almost certainly unworkable approach: He wants to split the presidency in half.

Woodrow and Edith Wilson, 1920

Woodrow and Edith Wilson, 1920

Specifically, Orentlicher wants to create a two-person presidency, and has written this short, readable book to promote the case. The basic argument is that our current system is broken, and that presidents are more likely to be beholden to party interests than national interests. Consequently, having two presidents from different parties governing simultaneously, with any and all decisions subject to the approval of both, will force the co-chief executives to seek out compromise and govern on behalf of the national interest. It will also, he argues, rein in executive excess and lead to better decision-making. 

When I described this book’s basic premise to a friend (who may or may not be a senior editor at this magazine), he responded that it “sounds like Norman Ornstein/Thomas Mann on steroids.”

A good description, that. Orentlicher brings in game theory, foreign examples, and the psychology of group dynamics to argue his case—all of which does, indeed, make him sound like an Ornstein or Mann after having taken the academic equivalent of PEDs. 

Orentlicher is also a former Democratic member of the Indiana House of Representatives, so it is not surprising that he sees his idea as a way of limiting the expansion of executive power. The perspective he brings, however, does not mean that his assessment is incorrect. His chapter on the imperial presidency, for example, highlights expansions of executive power undertaken by recent presidents of both parties. One does not need to be an advocate of unchecked legislative power to recognize that executive branch authority has expanded far beyond the limits established in the Constitution. But recognition of the expansion of executive power does not mean that these expansions have all been problematic, or that establishing a two-president system would limit such power. 

Orentlicher also dislikes the fundamental unfairness of our winner-take-all presidency. He observes, for example, that Democrats would have been happier with a Gore-Bush presidency than a Bush one, and that Republicans would have preferred a McCain-Obama presidency to an Obama one. This is true, I suppose; but the real question is whether the country would have been better off.

Underlying Orentlicher’s concept is the myth of the perfect moderate: If only Sam Nunn and Susan Collins could make our decisions, then we would have common-sense solutions. The problem is that things don’t always work that way. Sometimes bold solutions are required. If Ronald Reagan had needed to convince a co-president about the need to stand up against the Soviet Union, or to cut taxes, or to fire the air traffic controllers, he might not have taken any of those steps. To be fair, Orentlicher anticipates this argument and avers that “arguments about visionary leadership often are misguided.” Perhaps so. But there are other times when gridlock is not such a bad thing, especially if the alternatives are costly expansions of government power and spending.   

Academic analysis, interesting though it may be, can only go so far. The reality of work and life in the White House is the biggest real obstacle to creating two presidents. Having worked in the White House, I know just how hard it is to get anything—and I mean anything—done, and that is with only one president. You would be surprised at how much time very senior people spend reading and commenting on staffing documents, which are memos or statements distributed by the staff secretary to every White House office for comment and approval. The problems would compound immeasurably with two presidents running the show.

Two presidents would be especially problematic if one of the co-presidents were a micromanager, as Jimmy Carter was. Would both presidents have to agree on who gets the use of the White House tennis court? Furthermore, the backbiting that takes place in many a unipartisan White House would be far worse in a White House divided between the parties.