The United States Constitution is a spare and functional document, and pretty much everything a constitution should be. It eschews the high rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence, prescribing instead how the system should work. It has been widely admired and imitated, and where it has not been imitated – as with the voluminous and ill-fated European Union constitution – it probably should have been.
As Washington correspondent, I carried a copy around with me through the high dramas of the second Clinton term – the President's impeachment over his lies about the Monica Lewinsky affair and the tied election of 2000. It stood up well under those stresses, providing a solid framework for what should happen in some of the most uncertain and extreme situations a country has to face. Ten years on, though, I wonder whether the confused and desperate aftermath of the 2000 election in Florida was not an early sign that the US Constitution, or maybe the processes that have grown out of it, need to be revisited. Is the US Constitution running out of road?
Several recent developments show that, at very least, the US system of government is not functioning particularly well. Exhibit A might be Bob Woodward's latest book, Obama's Wars, which – according to the excerpts and advance reports – shows a new President completely at sea and at loggerheads with half his staff and the top brass.
Granted that journalists tend to focus on discord (while diplomats tend to tune it out) and that spats between political leaders and military commanders have a long line of precedents, Woodward's sources still reveal a President of frightening inexperience sometimes at a loss to deal with hostile views and vested interests. This, at a time when the economy was languishing and crucial decisions had to be taken about campaign pledges on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Exhibit B might be the slew of early departures from Obama's team, the most recent being the head of the National Economic Council, Larry Summers. Again, early departures in themselves are not novel. Clinton suffered a similar haemorrhaging of his early appointees. Arguably, George Bush was unusual in the number of senior figures who served two terms. Some people fail to settle in Washington; others find the work of government, as opposed to campaigning or advising, not to their taste. Sometimes chance intervenes, as with the unexpected decision of the long-serving mayor of Chicago not to run for another term, which could deprive Obama of his White House Chief of Staff. Or it could be that a new president has a relatively limited pool to choose from and tries to play safe, while a more experienced President discovers that there are people better suited to his purpose out there.
This is not to argue that presidents require more experience before they take the job. Exhibits A and B do, however, make the case for more continuity higher up the echelons of a new administration. Would the system not benefit from something more akin to Britain's non-partisan civil service to advise and manage both the official Transition and beyond? This might be anathema in a system that deliberately relies so much on patronage. But the number of posts that have to change hands can leave a new president flailing. With Obama, many lower-level posts were still unfilled after he had been in office a year.
Worse, because it unnecessarily hobbles a new administration, is the extent to which possibly significant proposals broached by another country to the outgoing administration can go missing. While the US takes it for granted that a new administration starts with a blank page – outgoing officials take their files with them – others do not appreciate how total the disconnect is, and may feel offended when the new administration fails to follow up. All in all, the ignorance, bickering and sheer incompetence that the present system fosters in a new administration is not worthy of a world power in the modern age.
Exhibit C relates to the legislature. The functioning of government is predicated on a degree of bipartisan give and take in the two houses of Congress. Fiercely adversarial party politics was for the likes of Britain and its Parliament. What the US faces now is a Republican Party that will brook no compromise, within a system that requires members to reach across the aisle. Nor is there any immediate prospect of that changing, as the Republican mainstream feels the populist Tea Party movement pushing it further right. The long-standing US political analyst, Thomas Mann, of the Brookings Institution, describes the split between Democrats and Republicans as more absolute than it was even in 1994 when Newt Gingrich rallied Republicans with his Contract for America. Nor is he alone in seeing it as quite possibly permanent.
Mid-term Congressional elections in November will show how successful the Republicans' policy of no-holds-barred opposition to Obama and the Democrats has been. But the way Congress works – with almost all major legislation requiring a two-thirds majority in the Senate, and thus vulnerable to filibuster – means that a president in such circumstances is effectively stymied. His administration is severely circumscribed, if not paralysed; the power of the White House is compromised.
It is possible that the stalemate will turn out to be temporary; possible, too, that the Tea Party tendency will turn out to be the last gasp of a dying demographic group and that US politics will slot back to the more productive equilibrium of before. The sharp decline in social conservatism and the greater tolerance charted in surveys of younger voters – attitudes which helped Obama to the presidency – could eventually shift the centre of US politics to a different, more European, place. This, in turn, could bring all sorts of changes of its own.
But that is to jump ahead. In the meantime, the US Constitution and the way US politics functions are looking somewhat frayed around the edges. President Obama's inexperience may have made his first 18 months more difficult than they might have been, but his country's outdated institutions made things much, much worse.
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