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How Much Power Does The President Really Have?


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Three weeks from tomorrow, we elect a new president, or re-elect the incumbent. His job is routinely described as the most powerful office in the world, and both campaigns frame the decision as a vital choice between two very different visions for America's future.

But the election will not change America's interests overseas, and when it comes to domestic policy, the man who takes the oath of office next January will find himself hamstrung by debt and a prisoner of Congress. So how much difference does the chief executive actually make?

We want to hear from you: Does who is president matter as much as we tell ourselves it does? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, the playboy prince whose country burned in the fires of war and genocide. We remember Cambodia's Norodom Sihanou. But first the role and limits of presidential power. Ted Koppel's a commentator for NPR News and also special correspondent for NBC's "Rock Center with Brian Williams" and joins us now from his home in Maryland. Ted, always good to have you on the program.

TED KOPPEL, BYLINE: And always good to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: And we hear from time to time that the big issue in this campaign is jobs, jobs, jobs. Can the president create jobs?

KOPPEL: I think in the final analysis, Neal, we have to concede that what we're talking about is power that can be but is not necessarily. In other words, obviously there have been enormously powerful and influential presidents over the years, you think about FDR, you think about Lyndon Johnson, but does a pres necessarily, is it necessarily going to make a huge difference as to which of these two men, Barack Obama or Mitt Romney, is going to be elected, in terms of jobs I'm not at all sure it does.

CONAN: Mitt Romney says he promises 12 million new jobs by the time he's finished his first term.

KOPPEL: Yes, he does, and I've always thought: Wouldn't it be a wonderful thing if we could have a truth-in-advertising law that would be passed in this country so that politicians who make reckless promises during a campaign can in some small fashion be held to it after the election? But we don't have such a law.

CONAN: The economy in general is again another way of maybe saying the same thing, but the economy overall is another major issue, that and the deficit.

KOPPEL: Well, it is a huge issue, but remember, Neal, and I know you're acutely conscious of it, it's not just what's going on here in the United States that's going to have an impact on American jobs, it's what's happening in China, it's what's happening in the Middle East, it's what happening in Spain and Greece and Italy and Ireland and all those economies that seem to be on the verge of collapse in Europe.

All of those have an impact on jobs in the United States because all of those countries that I've mentioned are in fact clients of the United States. They buy our products. When they don't buy, we have fewer jobs.

CONAN: Or in the case of China, we buy theirs.

KOPPEL: Or we buy theirs. Well, it's working both ways, although we buy a lot more of theirs than they buy of ours. But since you mentioned China, Neal, it's fascinating to me, politicians, almost always those who are out of office and trying to get in office, do a lot of chest-thumping about China in particular and talking about how tough they're going to get on China.

And of course once they get into office, they are reminded of the fact that we owe the Chinese somewhere between one and two trillion dollars. And it's very, very tough to get tough with your banker when you owe them that much money.

CONAN: We want to hear from you, as well. Does it really make all that much difference, or at least as much difference as we sometimes tell ourselves, who gets elected president on November 6? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Danielle(ph) is with us calling from Rochester, New York.

DANIELLE: Hi, thanks, Neal. I think it makes a significant difference who's elected in November, maybe not so much on the economy and jobs as we'd like to think, since the president or the office doesn't have as much influence on that as we would hope. But just think about where we were four years ago in regards to the way Americans and America was regarded internationally.

We had really bad standing throughout the Bush years, and the election of Barack Obama singlehandedly, in many ways, improved that with the giving of him the Nobel Peace Prize. I mean, I think we would be in bad straits, let's say, if we had Mitt Romney in the office, judging by his inability to not insult foreign visitors when he's there.

But I think it has a big influence, and Barack Obama's election and the Nobel Peace Prize demonstrate that pretty clearly.

CONAN: And Ted Koppel, the president certainly less trammeled by Congress on foreign policy than he is on domestic policy.

KOPPEL: Well, he is, but I must say I disagree with our caller. I think that Nobel Peace Prize was about as premature an honor as you could possibly give, and indeed the president was honest enough to admit it at the time. The fact of the matter is I'm not at all sure that the world is better off today or that the United States is in a better position with regard to the rest of the world than it was four years ago.

Yes, we're out of Iraq, but the fact of the matter is because we got out of Iraq as precipitously as we did, Iran today has more influence in Iraq than we do. The fact of the matter is we have a looming, an existing but - an existing crisis that's going to get far, far worse in Syria. The situation in Libya, as we just saw, is not as happy a one as perhaps we'd like to believe.

I'm not at all sure that we are doing that much better in foreign policy than we were four years ago.

CONAN: But Ted, you mentioned Iraq as to argue that it doesn't make much difference who gets elected this time, doesn't that argue - wouldn't the same arguments apply to saying it wouldn't have made much difference as to whether George W. Bush or Vice President Gore got elected back in 2000?

KOPPEL: No, no, no, I think you make an excellent point. The fact of the matter is that presidents can, in fact, make huge mistakes, and there's no question that George Bush made an enormous mistake in invading Iraq in the first place. And I think the argument can be made, and I just made a little bit of it, that President Obama has made a fairly huge mistake in pulling out of Iraq as quickly as he did.

No, you're right, it can make a huge difference, but in the final analysis, foreign policy is almost guided - almost always guided by what is in America's best national interest. And when people get into the oval office, all of the sudden they discover that their predecessors tended to operate under that same imperative, and they usually find themselves guided by the same instincts as to what does operate in America's best national interest.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is - excuse me, this is Jim(ph), and Jim's on the line from Cleveland.

JIM: Yes, thank you very much for taking my call, I appreciate this.

CONAN: Go ahead.

JIM: I think it matters an awful lot, especially with the Supreme Court justices. I mean, we have a Supreme Court right now that may roll back 50 years of legislation that protected the American worker, Voting Rights Act, Roe v. Wade, and I think that that's very, very important as to who proposes, picks, chooses or nominates or puts up for nomination the justices of the Supreme Court.

CONAN: And Ted Koppel, there's some suggestions that perhaps two justices, Scalia perhaps and Justice Ginsberg, one of the staunchest conservatives and one of the staunchest liberals, may be leaving the court over the next four years. And boy, that would make a big change as to who gets to make the...

KOPPEL: I totally agree, and I think our caller is exactly right that the power that a president has to appoint a Supreme Court justice does have a huge and will continue to have an enormous impact on the social and every other aspect of life in the United States.

I'm just responding to what I think is sometimes the impression that a president has almost unlimited power. The fact of the matter is that what is one of the aspects of greatness of the American Constitution and of the American system is precisely that it is designed to prevent any one man or woman from having exclusive power.

So the presidency is inhibited by the Congress; the Senate, which operates on a six-year cycle, is a lot more lethargic in terms of the way it gets things done than the house is, and part of the greatness, as my former colleague from ABC George Will likes to say all the time, part of the greatness of the United States is precisely the fact that no one has either exclusive or total power, and that includes the president.

CONAN: Jim, thanks very much for the call.

JIM: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Adrian(ph), Adrian with us from Kansas City.

ADRIAN: Hey, how's it going?

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

ADRIAN: I think the biggest thing was that I told the screen caller is going to be the Congress and Senate. I know that the president, you know, we've seen that they (unintelligible), but really the way this economy's going and a lot of the things that - a lot of the legislation that is being passed in states, it's really going to be a difference in how the Congress and Senate are working because that's really how, that's how things really get done.

I know the president has power, but really you see a lot of the legislation that's being passed by the United States Congress and Senate, that's where the real work and power is going to be as far as getting our economy back together. And I'll listen to your call off the air.

CONAN: Thank you for the call, Adrian. And Ted Koppel, some have suggested that if Mitt Romney is elected president on November 6, the way it's likely to be is he would carry a Republican House and a Republican Senate into power with him.

KOPPEL: And if he does, then he's going to have the ability to make far more changes and to be far more influential than if we find ourselves with divided powers in Washington. But remember, and you reminded me before we went on the air, that the president was able to pass what is now generally known and what he has now accepted as Obamacare during the first two years of his presidency when he had a Democratic majority in the House and in the Senate.

But boy, it's still tough. Even with absolute control of both houses and the White House, it's still awfully tough to drive legislation through.

CONAN: And a stimulus passage - package, rather - that he argues saved or created well over a million jobs.

KOPPEL: Well, and as you know, there is tremendous argument over how effective that stimulus package was. I'm inclined to believe that it was more effective than some think, and no doubt he did save thousands of jobs in the automobile industry and I think deserves credit for that.

But again this notion of - you know, and we constantly refer to the president as the most powerful office, the presidency, the most powerful office in the world. It's good to remember that it is limited by some of the other powers in Washington.

CONAN: How much difference does the president make? That's the question we're asking today. NPR commentator Ted Koppel argues, well, maybe not as much as we might think. In just a moment, Douglas Brinkley, the presidential historian, joins us with a difference view, 800-989-8255 is the phone number. Email us talk@npr.org. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan. Article II of the United States Constitution sets out the powers of the president. The president shall be commander in chief, it says, shall have power by and with the advice and consent of the Senate to make treaties. He shall nominate and, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, shall appoint ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, judges of the Supreme Court and all other officers of the United States whose appointments are not herein otherwise provided for.

It goes on to detail a handful of other powers, but Article II is remarkably short. Whether that restricts presidential power or expands it is up for debate. Today we're asking the question how much difference does the chief executive actually make. Does who is president matter as much as we sometimes tell ourselves it does? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guest is NPR commentator Ted Koppel. These days you can also see him on NBC's "Rock Center with Brian Williams," where he's a special correspondent. Joining us now is presidential historian Douglas Brinkley, professor of history at Rice University, author of many books, most recently "Cronkite," and nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION today.

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY: Well, thank you for having me.

CONAN: And I wonder, would you agree with Ted Koppel, who says the powers of the president are more limited than we might think they are, less, for example, than a prime minister in a British system?

BRINKLEY: Well, it's wonderful to be on with Ted Koppel. He's a broadcast hero to me, and it's great to be on with him. I think that the original view of the Constitution was a much limited chief executive, but something happened in 1800 called an ugly election, and you had John Adams and Thomas Jefferson just beating each other up.

And some people, including Charles Thompson, who had been our secretary of the Continental Congress, actually burned his diaries of all the famous Independence Hall meetings and wrote Jefferson and John Jay a missive saying we must have a strong chief executive. If we don't pull together around a president, this party system as it's developing by 1800 won't survive.

And you started at that point getting a cult of Washington, Washington, D.C., Washington on currency, treating him in a kind of - as the great patriarch. And since then, the president has become the embodiment of the U.S. government. Try getting a publishing contract in New York for a book on a congressperson or even a Supreme Court justice, you'll get a yawn. But when you talk about a president, everybody gets excited down to the point where we save presidents' birthplaces and homes and burial sites as if they're sacred ground.

CONAN: And erect libraries to keep all those records that might otherwise have been burned.

BRINKLEY: Well, I don't know if they'd be burned, but these presidential libraries have become really monuments, a way to celebrate the presidents. If you go to Simi Valley, the Ronald Reagan one, you look out over the valley, and people come and pay respects to Reagan at his gravesite.

Or the Kennedy Library is very visited in Boston. So the American people have an infatuation with presidents. Now the debate really is whether this is healthy or not, and it's fair game to have that conversation. Some people feel we now have imperial presidents where they have too much power, and other scholars say you know what, really it's about social history, global economic trends, and presidents are way overrated. So it all depends on how you want to weigh in on that.


KOPPEL: Well, I was just reminded as we were talking, and Doug, thank you for those very kind remarks. I'm getting a little bit of feedback in my ear here, so - I was just thinking about the Supreme Court, and you and I agreed a moment ago that the ability to appoint a Supreme Court justice is one of the great powers that the president has.

But remember when Dwight Eisenhower, I think, appointed Earl Warren, and later on when Warren turned out to be a totally different justice than Eisenhower had expected, Eisenhower I think was quoted as saying worst damn mistake I ever made. So you don't necessarily know which way it's going to go.

BRINKLEY: Well, that's true, and that's a very good point, actually, and Eisenhower ended up appointing a lot of federal judges that were Republicans, in fact Martin Luther King started holding many of his actions in Alabama simply because Frank Johnson, a federal judge there, was siding with integration and pushing Brown versus Topeka and would end up being able to go from Alabama to the Supreme Court.

But the reason why I think the president really matters is because I write about them. And I've written a book on Theodore Roosevelt, and he had this great love of the outdoors. Nobody had conservation really in their vein, it was a cult. And T.R. went and used executive orders to save the Grand Canyon and Muir Woods and ended up saving 240 million acres of wild America simply because he was a birdwatcher and hunter and believed in wilderness democracy.

Or you think - I've recently - my university, Rice, we just had 50 years of when John F. Kennedy came down and announced - he first did it in Congress then came to our school and really ratcheted it up to go to the moon in a decade. And I've looked at the paper trail of all of that, and it was a - without Kennedy believing that this was going to be the big thing for our country to do in the Cold War, we couldn't have had - if you didn't have a president who was almost wildly believing in going to the moon and end up costing taxpayers $260 billion.

But it was Kennedy's inspiring speech and belief that we can do it in a post-Sputnik environment that made the difference, and in both of those cases, that power is there. All over the West the big debate is what to do with public lands, same debate - the lands that T.R. had put aside are now being fought over, over mineral rights or natural gas. And all of the technology that Kennedy and the moon shot and NASA has brought us, and in fact our iPods and our satellite cable television.

So when a president decides to do big things boldly, they have a really profound and lasting importance in our country.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in on the conversation. Let's go to John(ph), John with us from Cincinnati.

JOHN: Hello, thank you for taking my call. I just think that the question in and of itself is kind of a foolish question, and it's like a question that the people that think they might lose the election are kind of asking themselves now. I think the president is probably the most powerful person in the world most definitely, and the reason we ask these kind of silly questions is because politicians are so centrist and just trying to get elected that they're willing to appeal and say things that aren't always true to the other side to such a dramatic fashion.

And it's become kind of silly to think that, you know, who's elected president doesn't matter. If a candidate such as Ron Paul were to be elected president or were, you know, actually close to winning, I think we wouldn't be asking this kind of question.


KOPPEL: Well, I think that makes an excellent point. If Ron Paul were to be elected, I think we would be asking that question. I think you would find that both the House and the Senate would react so strenuously against what the president wanted to do under those instances that he would achieve very, very little.

JOHN: But it seems, you know, the president in and of itself can make such important decisions in the world, for example dropping drones in countries that we're not at war at, in Yemen and Pakistan. If you make these kind of decisions that can make such important changes in the world, and I think Ron Paul would be able to get done what he wanted done with the powers that were appointed to him.

And I think Obama's been able to do that. And, you know, as far as Iraq is concerned, to end a conflict, you have to just end the conflict. That's - you know very well that the Russians had to leave Afghanistan to end the conflict. That's how you do it. You have to just stop fighting and leave, and that's what we've done in Iraq. We should have never gone there, and now we're leave.

KOPPEL: No, you are right that we never should have gone there, but once we were engaged there, I think there was all kinds of - all kinds of reasons why we should have remained longer and maintained our influence over there. Remember for all the years...

JOHN: (Unintelligible).

CONAN: John, John, please give Ted a chance to answer, if you would.

KOPPEL: No, no, no, that's all right. I mean no, no, no, we were - all I was - the point I was trying to make is that during the 1980s, for example, when Iran and Iraq were fighting one another, the United States supported Iraq because it considered the danger of Iranian influence in the Persian Gulf to be that great. By leaving Iraq precipitously, we have now enhanced Iran's influence in that region. It wasn't a good idea.

CONAN: John, thanks very much.

JOHN: Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an email from Todd(ph) in Iowa City: I would say the president functions as the philosophical figurehead for our country. So in that respect alone, the position carries great significance. And I'm not sure he's making this reference, Douglas Brinkley, but you remember the president is the chief of state, as well as the chief executive.

BRINKLEY: Well, certainly nobody, and certainly Ted's not arguing that they're not the key figurehead of a country. If you have a bombing of Oklahoma City, Bill Clinton says the healing words, or the Challenger disaster, you have, you know, Ronald Reagan being so eloquent, and it helps heal the country. But a larger point is the - I think that there are moments that when the president can - has to make certain decisions that change world history.

I mean, certainly, when Harry Truman decided to drop the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it would be hard pressed to tell the people of Japan that Truman being president didn't matter or - but on the other side of the equation and more with what Ted is saying, why I think this is a very important debate to have on executive power is what - how - have we given our presidents too much power? I was on a panel recently up in University of Virginia on war powers, and when we looked back at Vietnam, for example, I mean, did we give Johnson and Nixon too much leeway and how can a president now just declare war and circumvent Congress?

All I would argue with that we're in an era where I think the president has gotten - the executive branch has more power than ever, and we're in a time of diminished returns of - at Congress. And you see it in the public's view. The - let's say President Obama right now has about a 50 percent public approval rating. Well, Congress is about 8 or 9 percent. They - it still becomes, say, we've spent two years talking about Obama and Romney where so much is happening even while we're on the phone and the rest of the country, but we're constantly focused on the president because we've just become obsessed with presidential power because it usually leads to these grand moments of if Kennedy made a different decision in the Cuban missile crisis would we have had, you know, World War III.

Why did, you know, Richard Nixon go along with the Congress in passing - create the Environmental Protection Agency? It's hard to have any debate without - today without having the fingerprints of our recent presidents involved with it.

CONAN: And, Ted Koppel...

KOPPEL: And...

CONAN: Oh, sorry, go ahead.

KOPPEL: You know, if I may, I'd just like to make one point. The argument really is not whether the presidency is an important office. Clearly it is. The question is whether Mitt Romney or Barack Obama, whether one or the other of those men sits in the White House is going to make an extraordinary difference. And certainly, as far as foreign policy is concerned, I'm not all that sure that it does make a difference.

BRINKLEY: Well, that's an interesting point, Ted, and, you know, there - I don't think there's too much - and in part I agree with you is that I don't think there's too much difference between a Romney or an Obama foreign policy approach, which serves the point you're making. So I'll give you that. We're - but there are these moments when emergencies, when a crisis happens and the president has to make a yes-or-no decision. We may be coming that - on that dealing with Iran, and there may be just a nuanced difference between a Romney and Obama's view, but it can change world history.

So, yes, I think the president is still the most powerful figure in our country, but do we exaggerate them, yes, particularly, I think, on the economy. I mean, we're living in a global world where if Greece and Spain tumble tomorrow, whether it's Romney or Obama in the White House, we're going to be getting the cold or worse, a recession or a depression. So it's - we do tend to overplay how much presidents matter, particularly on economic events.

CONAN: And this from Aaron(ph) in Salt Lake City by email: The president does not make water run out of your faucet nor electricity flow when you flip a switch in your home. He doesn't cause potholes to be filled in your neighborhood streets or decide what books your child will read in school. These things and other activities controlled on the local level, maybe more important to our day-to-day life than decisions made in Washington, D.C. We're talking about what difference does it really make who's president.

Our guests, NPR commentator Ted Koppel and you just heard Douglas Brinkley, professor of history at Rice University, his most recent book "Cronkite." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And Don(ph) is on the line with us from Miami.

DON: Hello. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

DON: The president of the United States, thankfully, is not the king of the United States. Neither President Obama nor Governor Romney can quickly return us to a more normal 6 percent unemployment rate. Economists say that the last economic factor to recover after a downturn is the unemployment rate. There are major negative economic factors holding back the recovery, such as the housing foreclosure crisis, which takes years to overcome. Many big companies and corporations are benefiting from high unemployment because they have exploited the fear of employees of losing their jobs, getting employees to work more hours, accept fewer benefits and getting cash rich. They are not too quick to give up that cash cow.

And world factors, the slowing of the economy in China and problems in Europe, that also holds back the United States from fully recovering. And remember, normal unemployment, again, is about 5 to 6 percent. That's what our capitalist system needs, about 10 to 12 million people unemployed, to function more efficiently. So we're really not that far off, and we're making all this big hullabaloo about it.

Yes, there are people suffering, but we are getting back. We fell off a cliff after the economic collapse. When Obama took office, we were still on the way off that cliff and in terrible situation. It took a long time for his stimulus, I think, basically, saved us from another Great Depression, like putting on the brakes.

CONAN: Don, I just wanted to give our chance - our guests a chance to respond, but thanks very much for the phone call. We appreciate it.

DON: Sure enough.

CONAN: And he's speaking to the limits of presidential power. We are by a lot of indicators, Ted Koppel, more or less, back where we were when the president took office four years ago.

KOPPEL: Well, actually, I think Don was making both points. On the one hand, he was making the same point that I was referencing a moment ago. The president is not the king. He does not have that kind of exclusive power. But on the other hand then, by the end, he was talking about some of the economic measures that the president had taken and the degree to which they've had an impact on our economy.

So, again, to repeat a point I made earlier, it's not a question of whether the presidency is powerful. Of course it's a powerful position. The question that I think we're talking about here this evening is how much of a difference it really makes whether the Republican or the Democrat comes in. I realize there's massive disagreement on that point, too, but I think that difference is less than some people may think.

CONAN: Ted Koppel, we're going to ask you to stay with us, if you would.

KOPPEL: Absolutely.

CONAN: And, Douglas Brinkley, thank you very much for your time today.

BRINKLEY: Well, thank you. It's a privilege.

CONAN: Douglas Brinkley, professor of history at Rice University and a historian whose latest book is "Cronkite," a biography, as you might suspect, of Walter Cronkite. Up next, the former Cambodian prince who saw his country transformed from colony to kingdom to warzone to killing field. We'll remember Norodom Sihanouk. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.