Spring 2000

Fall 1999

A Message from the Dean

Cities at the Horizon
Communities at the Horizon
Eastward from Our Horizon: U.S., China & Russia
Beyond the Horizon: Innovation and Technology

ILE Lecture: Charles A. Heimbold, Jr. L'60
Profile: Richard E. Rosin L'68
Profile: Pamela Daley L'79
Profile: Professor Jason Johnston
Profile: Howard Chang
Profile: Robert A. Gorman
Oral Legal History Project

Snippets of History
Faculty Notes
Alumni Briefs
In Memoriam

Penn Law

It is not too soon to conjecture about the nature of a post-Clinton era. Indeed, the popular media would soon have the public believe that it has decided the election rather than the electorate. The most surprising news on the eve of the millennium was not that computer systems didn’t crash, but that Boris Yeltsin handed over the leadership of Russia to a former KGB head, Vladimir Putin.

The dominance of the United States cannot be contextually understood without comparison to Russia and China in the resurgent Eastern Hemisphere. We consult with three faculty experts to get a grasp on what demands and expectations will be faced by the first generation of world leaders in the 21st century. After all, much of the U.S. president’s agenda will be either determined or thwarted by world events that evolve in Eastern Europe and in Asia as democracy tries to gain ground on those continents. The United States will need leaders who can negotiate with unsteady democracies and will be able to lead the call into the future.

Dean Michael A. Fitts teaches the course Law of the Electoral Process and conducts the seminar Government Institutions, in which he examines how the U.S government should be structured, both on the federal and state level.  Part of this examination includes a look at presidential powers with readings drawn from economics, law and political science.  In 1999, his article “The Legalization of the Presidency: Watergate 25 Years After” was published in a symposium on Watergate in the St. Louis University Law Review.

The Model of a Modern Media President

A decade from now the presidency of Bill Clinton will be understood to represent the final transition to the so-called modern presidency.  Most historians believe the modern presidency originated with Roosevelt, continued to develop with Kennedy, and accelerated its formation with Reagan.  Throughout this period, public and political actors increasingly saw the president as legally, politically, and symbolically responsible for the executive branch in particular, and government in general.  Clinton exploited all of these changes to his advantage.  The singularity and visibility of his office allowed him to effectively reposition the Democratic Party symbolically and programmatically, as well as to bargain effectively with a Congress dominated by the opposition party.  Along many dimensions the modern 21st century presidency is stronger today than it has ever been, at least when it is in the hands of a politician who understands how to maneuver on the fast moving political stage.Yet the problems Clinton has faced as president also underscore the great potential weaknesses of the modern president, especially as we begin the 21st century.

First, despite the potential payoffs, there are great legal and political risks for presidents maneuvering in this highly visible and regulated environment.  Modern presidents who are forced to take positions legally and politically on every issue are necessarily caught in political and legal mistakes, and diminished in the public eye.  While some of Clinton’s legal difficulties were certainly avoidable, every recent president has faced serious legal and ethical charges, suggesting at a certain level there is something more systemic going on.  To the extent this is true, we can expect future presidents to be tap-dancing through a legal quagmire, even if the independent counsel law is not ever officially renewed. “Tricky Dick” and “Slick Willy” may be quite tame labels as compared to future presidential characterizations.
Second, presidents in the early part of the 21st century will not enjoy the automatic political support and moral authority past leaders garnered by virtue of the Cold War.  During most of the 20th century, we had an agreed upon external enemy – Communism.  Despite our internal divisions, we understood the need for a single individual, the president, to maneuver on the international stage.  Given the decline of Communism, and the proliferation of different types of potential threats, that consensus has evaporated, along with the president’s reflexive claim to moral authority both abroad and, in many cases, at home.  As we have seen with Bush and Clinton, the president is now constantly in the position of having to generate political support for each new policy and against each new enemy, internationally as well as domestically.

Finally, presidential influence has and will continue to evolve as we move from an era of deficit politics, where the presidential veto was a powerful weapon, to surplus politics.  In this new environment, the ability of the president to constrain and direct new congressional initiatives will be far more complicated.  Clinton has been successful of late, but the ability to control the agenda is far more difficult when one is pursuing an affirmative agenda than when one is merely blocking change.

Whether future presidents will be able to continue to enjoy the upper hand in the new milieu will depend on many factors, including their intelligence, political creativity, and adaptability.  On the one hand, as noted, they may lack some of the advantages on the domestic and international stage they once enjoyed, but be subject to high political and symbolic expectations regarding their performance.  At the same time, they will continue to enjoy the substantial legal and political powers of the office. These will be interesting times – whoever takes office next January.

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