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Obama Shows Why India Must Adopt the Presidential System

20/10/2016 2:11 AM IST | Updated 21/10/2016 8:20 AM IST
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Obama will likely not go down in history as a great President. He failed to unite Americans behind a bold and visionary new endeavour. His deeds didn't quite match the lofty words that brought him to power. But this doesn't mean that America languished during his two terms in office. In fact, it accomplished a great deal. This shows that it is America's system of government that is behind her great successes. It behooves India to learn more about America's strengths, and to see how a good system can deliver even as the country's main leader falters.

Obama supporters can take heart from his many achievements. For a Black man to rise to the highest office in a racially divided land is definitely a personal triumph. He has brought his nation many laurels, including his own Nobel Peace Prize. There are also significant gains in various affairs of the country. Obama has recounted them himself in this recent article in The Economist—mainly, creating a strong economy, and providing health insurance. Similarly, he touted his foreign policy successes at the UN: stabilizing the global economy, resolving Iran, and establishing protections against climate change.

It behooves India to learn more about America's strengths, and to see how a good system can deliver even as the country's main leader falters.

These are all great successes, but there are equally impressive failures. On the domestic front there is an unprecedented rise in inequality, racial tensions and political polarization. In foreign affairs the letdowns are glaring: lost control over Iraq, worsened relations with Russia and China, mishandled wars in Afghanistan and Syria that allowed the rise of ISIS, and failed to limit Islamic jihad.

But let's examine America's main domestic achievements during Obama's time: economy and healthcare. There is no doubt that gains made in these areas are due in a large part to Obama's leadership. Like any President, he provided ideas, moved people to action, negotiated with Congress, and led the administration. However, these successes were shaped in equal measure by America's system of government.

The country's economy recovered from the Great Recession, which began in December 2007, due to a huge and timely stimulus. "Swift action by the Federal Reserve and the Treasury in the fall of 2008 had helped to avert an all-out panic," said the Chairwoman of Obama's own Council of Economic Advisers in 2010. She was referring to the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) created by the Bush administration, and to the massive dosage of liquidity provided by the Fed. According to Time magazine, it was "effective and necessary" for Obama after he took office in January 2009 to "continue along much the same course." He did indeed follow suit, creating the biggest stimulus program in American history with $787 billion in tax cuts and spending. As for the Fed's role, Time's analysis concluded that "if any entity deserves the biggest share of credit for avoiding another Great Depression, it's the Fed."

The point is not to argue who gets the credit, but to show that under the American system a government can act quickly and decisively when warranted. This is in keeping with its design. America's founders created a single-person executive so that it could act with "decision, activity, secrecy, and dispatch," in the words of Alexander Hamilton. Both Bush and Obama were able to react immediately as the financial crisis grew because the presidency wasn't a committee or a political coalition.

A President was able to fulfill his main campaign promise, but when he overreached, midterm elections set the country on the right course.

But how in the middle of elections did such enormous bailout programs pass the US Congress so quickly? Here again, the design of the system helped. Bush's stimulus program, twice rejected by the House, was passed by the Senate. The House was designed to represent people's passions, while the Senate's purpose was to be more mature—"to cool legislation," as explained by George Washington. This is why the entire House gets refreshed every two years, but only one-third of the Senate does. The Senators have longer terms (six years vs. two), and they have to be older to run for office (30 years vs. 25). Similarly, the Fed was so effective in handling the financial crisis because it is designed to be apolitical. Its chairman is appointed by the president, but approved by the Senate. He has a fixed term, which provided Obama the much needed continuity in monetary policy.

Obama's healthcare program is another example of the US government taking bold initiatives, albeit partisan at times. In his first two years in office, Obama led the passage of a health insurance program promised in his campaign, because both houses of Congress were controlled by his Democratic Party. The opposition took a principled stand against government mandating citizens must buy insurance. Obama chose to push his plan through Congress based entirely on partisan support.

This derailed Obama's presidency. In the next three elections people turned increasingly against his party. The House went from 257-178 Democrat-Republican in 2009, to 193-242 in 2011, and then to 188-247 two years later. Similarly, the Senate flipped from 57-41 to 44-54. As a result, Obama was unable to fulfill the rest of his leftist economic agenda: repealing tax cuts for the wealthy, providing homeowners protection from foreclosures, giving illegal immigrants pathways to citizenship, and making it easier for workers to unionize.

The legislative agenda is controlled by Congress... a genuine check on the presidency. This makes that system work for the benefit of the nation instead of a political party.

Here again, the system ensured that America came out ahead. A President was able to fulfill his main campaign promise, but when he overreached, midterm elections set the country on the right course. When a radical agenda was getting rammed through Congress on a partisan basis, the system gave people the power to stop it.

India's leaders and thinkers must learn more about the US system. When in 2013 a leading Indian columnist, Swaminathan Aiyar wrote "Obama Shows Why India Must Not Seek a Presidential System", all it showed was the author's poor understanding. He was critical of the US system's lack of decisiveness because Obama was facing severe opposition. But, by design, that system has no "ruler" akin to an Indian PM, nor does it "concentrate all power in a President," as Aiyar inaccurately thought. A President has only executive authority. The legislative agenda is controlled by Congress, which has proven to be a genuine check on the presidency. This makes that system work for the benefit of the nation instead of a political party.

This is the type of system India must adopt. It unites the nation behind good policies, but prevents a majority from running amok.

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