Inefficacy, Anxiety, and Leadership

Liberal democracies intermittently drift or plunge headlong into protracted periods of anxiety, and with cause. Systematic disenfranchisement, the debasement of moral and civic obligations, and the pervasive threat of waste and corruption all have the potential to stoke fear—not to mention resentment, disillusionment, and rage. But there is another—and, in my view, more foundational—cause of anxiety that thrives today: namely, the incapacity of not just a democracy, but of our democracy, to solve social problems.

If September 11, 2001 ushered in the new era of anxiety, and there are lots of reasons to believe that it did, it did not do so instantaneously. Anxiety did not immediately surface when the Twin Towers came crashing down. What was felt that morning was grief and horror. Anxiety crept in later when citizens began to worry whether their government was up to the task of keeping Americans safe in their homes and jobs, and when they learned about the many ways their government had failed to protect them, just as it would likely do so again.

September 11 exacerbated our anxiety not so much for the destruction witnessed and endured that day, but for the realizations that came after. For the nation, the terrorist attacks peeled back a security threat long obstructed from view, while launching all sorts of queries and investigations into why the government had failed to protect its citizenry. Partisan and ideological debates ensued about what kind of a response should follow—debates, to be sure, that featured plenty of rancor and distrust. But anxiety made its appearance in the background, nurtured not so much by the possibility that the government would do something that the people did not want, but by the lingering and uneasy feeling that the government would fail to do anything meaningful at all. Anxiety finds its fuel not so much in error as in impotence.

This sort of anxiety is not new. It animated numerous strands of the Progressive Movement. During the inter-war period, it seized the attention of some of the nation’s most prominent journalists and intellectuals. And it jolted our sensibilities during such Cold War flashpoints as the 1957 launching of Sputnik and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

If not novel, though, our contemporary anxiety is noteworthy for its reach. It contributes to the persistent influence of the latest populist movements on both the left and the right. It helps explain why our two major parties, which are now more polarized than ever, find it so difficult to negotiate with one another. It finds expression in public polls showing historically low levels of trust in government. And it finds justifications in an increasingly precarious and fast-moving international environment as well as in a mounting array of domestic policy challenges over which the government exercises little mastery.

In this short essay, I do not want to just raise questions about the sources of contemporary anxiety. I also want to try my hand at answering them, or, more exactly, at identifying the target of institutional reforms that will offer not a palliative but a cure. For like the anxiety that gripped previous ages, ours is verifiable and well-founded, based on nagging facts about the material world and our government. It will not do to simply ask the anxious to just calm down. Soothsaying, of which there is plenty in our politics, may temper the expression of anxiety at any one moment, but over the longer haul it causes the anxiety itself to take deeper root.

We must take the object of our anxiety seriously, and to do that we must consider genuine institutional reform. On this score, I suspect I share company. But, where I may differ from others is in the kind of institutional reform I have in mind. Rather than rehabilitate and reenergize our collective decision-making body, Congress, I want to make a case for the kind of executive leadership that only an invigorated presidency can provide.


Every generation faces its share of problems. But those that spur anxiety, at least when unaddressed, have particular qualities: they exhibit a greater resilience than most; they require the mobilization of numerous competing and often conflicting constituencies, always domestically, sometimes internationally; they require solutions that are neither obvious nor free; and left unaddressed, they worsen over time.

Lest we drift too far into abstraction, let me an offer a particular example, and one that has little to do with the events of September 11: the halting and episodic inter-branch struggles over the national debt, which now hovers around $16 trillion, roughly three times what it was in 2000, an amount represented as a percentage of GDP that is higher than any point in American history except during World War II. It was just a couple of years ago, in the summer of 2011, that Congress and the president attempted to negotiate a comprehensive solution to the twin challenges posed by mounting debt and a frustratingly slow economic recovery. With just hours left before the federal government would default on its loan commitments, a deal was brokered that charged a bipartisan committee of legislators with developing a long-term plan to curb the nation’s debt. And then, to improve its chances of success, Congress required that the committee’s recommendations be voted on an up or down basis. Going one step further, Congress mandated across-the-board cuts should its members fail to enact the recommendations of the so-called “Super Committee.”

What followed? The answer we know only too well. After meeting just a handful of times during the early fall, members of the not-so-super committee disbanded without so much as even offering the beginnings of a recommendation. Standard and Poor promptly downgraded the U.S. credit rating, which, according to the Government Accountability Office,1 subsequently increased the government’s borrowing costs to the tune of billions of dollars. Congress proved utterly incapable of making any headway on the debt problem. Indeed, to the extent that it showed any penchant for addressing the issue, it was by selectively backtracking on the across-the-board cuts. But even these efforts failed, and sequester has entered our political nomenclature. Meanwhile, significant portions of the federal bureaucracy have been unable to do any serious budget forecasting. And for the foreseeable future, the budgetary process—once streamlined and routinized—now lurches from one partisan showdown to the next.

But our lingering anxiety draws sustenance from a great deal more than this single issue. Indeed, the challenges presented by the national debt pale in comparison to those of another issue: climate change. Here, the outcomes may prove nothing less than catastrophic. According to the Special Report on Emissions Scenarios by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,2 when temperatures increase by roughly 1 degree, there arise significant risks of species extinction. Increases of 2 degrees are accompanied by heightened flood and storm damages. At 3 degrees, 30 percent of species become at risk of extinction. And with each subsequent temperature jump, the consequences grow more and more dire. So what do we know about recent temperature trends? Since 1960, Alaska has warmed by fully 3 degrees. Villages in Alaska have begun sinking into the ground as permafrost in coastal regions thaws. According to the Army Corps of Engineers, relocation costs will run into the tens of millions of dollars. The Alaskan sea lion population has declined over 50 percent. Between 1980 and 2000, the Arctic Circle area warmed almost 2 degrees. Almost half of the ice thickness in the Arctic was lost between 1980 and 2008. At current rates of decline, Arctic Sea ice may disappear entirely by the 2020s. Further south, average temperatures in China have risen by more than a degree since 1980. And since 1970, average temperatures in New England have risen by 1.5 degrees.

The precise causes of these temperature changes, of course, remain the subject of some dispute. Solutions, meanwhile, are fraught with uncertainty. But what, exactly, has the federal government done to meet the basic challenges presented by these warming trends, the fact of which every reputable scientist now recognizes? The short answer is very little. Bills are introduced, hearings are held, but during the last half century no systematic, comprehensive effort to deal with climate change has gained traction within Congress. Instead, Congress has opted to support piecemeal efforts at mitigating the symptoms associated with a rapidly warming earth.3

Both the national debt and climate change exhibit all the qualities of deep, trenchant social problems that feed our anxiety. They present complex scientific and social challenges. Solutions, if they are to be reached, will require the coordination of many different political actors, interest groups, and nations. If these challenges are left unaddressed, they can be expected to metastasize. But the national debt and climate change hardly exhaust the deep, trenchant social problems that we as a country face. Energy, immigration, persistent un- and underemployment, rising inequality, the tax code, and a good deal more populate the ranks of pressing contemporary social problems. And as the federal government episodically responds with a strange mix of indifference and spastic self-righteousness, our anxiety only grows.

Anxiety’s Balm: Leadership

Where are we likely to find the leadership needed to address trenchant social problems, and to thereby ease our well-founded anxiety? Who, within our politics, is best equipped to define the problems that the country faces not merely in moments of crisis, but in the more regular struggle for peace; who can chart out meaningful, pragmatic solutions to these problems; who can call upon the American public to make smaller sacrifices today so that more substantial sacrifices are not required tomorrow; and who will take stock of the full scope, both national and international, of these problems and the solutions they require?

To set some limits on possible answers, let us assume that we are going to continue to work within our current system of separated and federated powers. Rather than dream about altogether different political systems, as previous generations of institutional reformers have done, let us stipulate that we must work with what we have. Also, before we turn to competing considerations—as eventually we must—let us first reflect on what institutions are best equipped to solve social problems. Admittedly, discussions about government efficacy rest uneasily on, and sometimes sit unabashedly opposed to, to a host of constitutional and philosophic commitments. Moreover, there are legitimate debates to be had about which problems warrant government action, and which are best left to the private sphere. But in this short essay, I cannot possibly sort through such matters, so let us agree, if only for now, that some form of government action is required to address at least some of the social problems identified above. And finally, let us set aside pragmatic concerns about the feasibility of implementing institutional reform. The preferred and the possible surely differ, but it is worth identifying the best available option before settling for some alternative.

So again, where is meaningful leadership to be found? Before responding in the affirmative, let me rule out a handful of possibilities. The first lies in the spontaneous eruptions of public sentiment—in, that is, an informed and mobilized public that will not merely work around the gridlock within Washington, DC, but will render it mute. Ah, but were the public so forceful an agent of change. Left to its own devices, the public has reliably demonstrated an extraordinary penchant for ignorance and rashness. The Founders were well aware of the public’s limitations, which goes some distance toward explaining the existence of the Electoral College, the eighteenth and nineteenth century practices of having state legislators, rather than the broader public, select senators, and the numerous checks and balances that define our system of governance. And since the Michigan School of Political Science cast forth a half-century ago, a cottage industry of social scientists has devoted itself to documenting the shallow, unstructured character of political beliefs. To put your stock in an unfettered and undisciplined public is to deny the very need for leadership. And such a denial, in my view, offers no remedy to the kinds of trenchant social problems that we as a country face.

Perhaps what we need, then, is simply a better, more committed batch of politicians. The problem, by this formulation, lies with the individuals currently in office and not the large political framework in which they operate. So say the “I voted for the other guy” bumper stickers that adorn the cars driven by the smug and indignant. But this argument is much too flippant, too vacuous, and too ahistorical to help at all. There are reasons why our elected officials so reliably equivocate, diminish, and deny. They face powerful incentives to behave the way they do, and these incentives have deep institutional origins. Until we attend to the institutional impediments to change, we cannot hope to make substantive headway on the challenges we face.

So what, then, of Congress? Through careful deliberation and a recommitment to basic norms of reciprocity, we tell ourselves, Congress may pave a way forward. But here again, there are ample reasons for skepticism. Truth be told, Congress is unlikely to provide the leadership needed to identify and design solutions for the nation’s most trenchant social problems. Its very character as a collective decision-making body nearly guarantees that it won’t. Leadership is a scarce commodity among the 535 independently elected members who make up Congress, each with radically different views about what good policy looks like. Moreover, the overarching objective of each member is to get reelected, and the way you do this is to stand up for the parochial interests of your constituents. It comes as no surprise, then, that the recent history of legislative activity is littered with bills that, in name, promise to confront challenges of national importance, but that in fact constitute little more than disfigured conglomerations of sectional initiatives.4

Congress is not especially adept at solving problems. Rather, it holds two comparative advantages: first, in offering (and sometime delivering) voice to the diverse and parochial concerns of the American public; and second, in qualifying, checking, and amending the policy positions of others. The first comparative advantage helps explain why Maine’s fishing industries and Kansas wheat farmers make deeper inroads in Congress than any other branch of government. It is only in Congress, after all, that one finds a population of elected officials whose job security rides nearly exclusively on their ability to represent such local interests. Meanwhile, because of its second comparative advantage, Congress most naturally assumes a reactive posture. When it must define and advance a national policy agenda, Congress predictably flails and founders. But when asked to deliberate, amend, and curtail policies that have been developed elsewhere, its members find their form. As a result, Congress plays a hugely important role in maintaining the health of a liberal democracy. It just cannot be counted on to provide the leadership needed to allay our anxiety.

Where, then, might we look for the leadership needed to address and solve trenchant social problems? By now, my answer should not surprise: in the president. Contemporary arguments for a stronger presidency have not exactly resonated politically, in large part because they have been tied to concerns about the waging of a largely clandestine war against terrorists, both suspected and confirmed. These concerns are legitimate, and in no way do I want to soft-pedal them. But they are not the whole story.

What do we know about the American presidency? Here are some stylized facts—ones, to be sure, that are highly reductionist, but ones that bear recognition when we think about the possibility, if not always the realization, of presidential leadership:

1)      More than any other elected official, presidents represent the country as a whole. While we, as a nation, elect hundreds of thousands of people to local, state, and federal offices, we elect only one ticket (a president and vice president) that serves a distinctly national constituency.

2)      Again more than any other elected official, presidents care about their legacies—and legacies are ultimately defined not by today's public opinion, the results of the latest congressional elections, or the clattering ephemera that preoccupy our fragmented and hyperventilating news sources, but rather by a demonstrated ability to craft lasting policy solutions to genuine problems.

3)      As a unitary actor, the president can deliver a certain clarity of leadership not to be found elsewhere in our system of government. Compare an executive order and an enacted law; or, for that matter, the content of a presidential proposal and a final law. Do so, and one cannot help but be impressed by the number of add-ons, conflicting imperatives, deliberately vague language, and compromises expressly designed to build the supermajorities needed to navigate the treachery that is our legislative process. The result is a corpus of law that is replete with ambiguities, tensions, and inefficiencies; and a profoundly overwrought and utterly confused bureaucracy that is asked to implement it.

I am hardly the first to make these points. Recall the Progressives of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who worried a great deal about the capacity of the federal government to respond to the profound challenges of industrialization, the influx of new immigrants from Europe, and the emergence of the United States onto the world stage. The answer, for them, lay not in constraining presidents who made the most of their Article II powers. Rather, as Henry Jones Ford put it, it lay in “breaking through the constitutional form,” 5 which does so much to undermine efforts at coordinated government action, and then in rebuilding the larger political apparatus around an exalted presidency. As Woodrow Wilson wrote in the 1908 Blumenthal Lectures that he delivered at Columbia University, it is the president who “is the only national voice in affairs . . . He is the representative of no constituency, but of the whole people.”6 And so when looking for leadership, one must turn to the president.

Or recall the ruminations of people like Walter Lippmann, who felt an acute anxiety over the “enfeeblement, verging on paralysis, of the capacity to govern” in Western liberal democracies. Lippmann vested little faith in either average citizens working alone or legislative majorities working directly on their behalf to solve the social problems of the first half of the twentieth century. For Lippmann, the executive alone could rise above the sectionalism, self-interest, and parochialism that corroded the possibility of government action. Whereas the legislator keeps “close to the interest and sentiments of his constituents,” for the executive, “fealty to the public interest is his virtue. And he must, at the very least, pay it the homage of hypocrisy.”7 Though legislators may occasionally perform like statesmen, “in the general run of mundane business,” they vacillate between tasks of “defending local and personal rights” and promulgating “boss-ridden oligarchies.” And indeed, Lippmann intoned, even when legislators performed their duties with aplomb, “representation must not be confused with governing.” Governing, rightly understood, was the executive’s province.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, Theodore Roosevelt offered the most full-throated defense of a more expansive presidency. For Roosevelt, the president was uniquely equipped to articulate and advance the national interest—as embodied by his “New Nationalism”—and so it was he (eventually she) who stood the only real chance of solving social problems. As Richard Hofstadter observed, Roosevelt “stood above the contending classes, an impartial arbiter devoted to the national good, and a custodian of stern virtues without which the United States could not play its destined role of mastery in the world theater.”8 While in office, to be sure, presidents can demonstrate faults of character and conscience. And as a result, meaningful checks—legislative, judicial, and electoral—must be preserved. But when looking for leadership on distinctly national social problems, Roosevelt insisted, the president is the only game in town.

To Facilitate or Impede Institutional Change?

It is no accident that the powers of the presidency over the last century have undergone such significant transformation. Since 1921, the president has had the responsibility of proposing a budget, which formally initiates the appropriations process. We have witnessed an extraordinary rise of executive agreements, which now outnumber treaties by an order of more than ten to one. Breaking from nineteenth century precedence, modern presidents regularly rely upon executive orders, proclamations, and national security directives to advance substantive policy change. Nearly all major policy initiatives come at the behest of presidential—not congressional—initiative. Presidents regularly enter into and exit war not with Congress’s formal consent, but rather through a series of unilateral directives. Congress has willingly delegated broad emergency powers to the president through statutory delegation. And on and on.

We should conceive of the presidency, then, very much as a work in progress. The presidency we have today is a far cry from the one that the Founders created, wherein few formal powers were granted (commander in chief, veto power, responsibility to receive ambassadors, etc.), and those that were (e.g., the vesting and take care clauses) were fraught with ambiguity. In a continual struggle to solve social problems, ours is a presidency made and remade.

Should we now seek to curb these developments or build upon them? Given the challenges before us, I side with those who would build upon them—albeit purposefully, incrementally, and cautiously. Let me say that again: purposefully, incrementally, and cautiously. Power should not be granted on a whim, motivated by some vague sense that the president can deliver where Congress and the courts cannot; hence, the kinds of new authority granted should match the president’s specific comparative advantages. Change must not proceed from the fanciful imaginations of a cloistered institutional designer; hence, changes to the presidency must recognize the many interdependencies of successive generations of reformers. And finally, we must not lose sight of the manifest ways in which presidents can make mistakes all of their own; hence, future grants of executive authority should be provisional, just as the exercise of future power remains contested.

That we should proceed purposefully, incrementally, and cautiously, however, is no excuse for not proceeding at all. Indeed, if we take the objects of our anxiety seriously, and we must, then we need to reflect on who stands the best chance of offering the leadership needed to address trenchant social problems. For only then will we alleviate the anxiety that right now justifiably pervades our polity.

  1. Government Accountability Office. “Analysis of 2011-2012 Actions Taken and Effect of Delayed Increase on Borrowing Costs.” GAO-12-701. July 2012.
  2. IPCC Working Group III, 2000. Emissions Scenarios: A Summary for Policymakers. Available online at:
  3. For a survey of existing climate change laws, see Robert Meltz, “Climate Change and Existing Law: A survey of Legal Issues Past, Present, and Future.” Congress Research Service Report 7-5700, May 25, 2013.
  4. For a small subsample a recent lamentations on Congress, see: Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, 2008. The Broken Branch: How Congress is Failing America and How To Get It Back. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, 2012. It’s Even Worse than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism. New York, NY: Basic Books; Robert Draper, 2012. Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the U.S. House of Representatives. New York, NY: Free Press; Robert Kaiser, 2013. Act of Congress: How America’s Essential Institution Works, and How It Doesn’t. New York, NY: Knopf.
  5. Henry Jones Ford, 1898. The Rise and Growth of American Politics. New York, NY: Macmillan. Pp. 292–93.
  6. Woodrow Wilson, 2002 (1908). Constitutional Government in the United States. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.
  7. Walter Lippmann, 1956. The Public Philosophy. New York, NY: The New American Library. P. 48.
  8. Richard Hofstadter, 1989(1948). The American Political Tradition: And the Men Who Made It. New York, NY: Random House. P. 285.
About the Author
William Howell is the Sydney Stein Professor in American Politics at the University of Chicago.