Two Presidents Are Better Than One

—David Orentlicher

Much attention has been paid to Hillary Clinton’s unfortunate reference to a “basket of deplorables,” but considerably less to her mention of people who feel that the “government has let them down,” and that “nobody cares about them.” The feelings of these voters are critical and by no means temporary. Their disaffection is baked into our political system—their interests are neglected because we have winner-take-all presidential elections in which only one side of the political aisle is represented in the Oval Office.

Presidents are supposed to represent all Americans, and at one time, they did, especially when George Washington was our commander-in-chief. But contemporary presidents act as the leaders of their political parties and represent the interests of their political bases. And when presidents champion only their party’s interests, they leave half of the public feeling unrepresented in the most important policy-making office in the world. It’s no surprise that the unrepresented half responds by trying to demonize the president and regain the presidential power for its side of the aisle.

If giving all of the executive power to a single president leads to disaffection and demonization, we should follow the example of other countries that allocate the executive power across party lines. If we had a bipartisan executive, with a Democrat and Republican sharing the presidential power as equals, we could ensure that all Americans feel represented in the White House. Americans across the political spectrum would have their voices heard in the Oval Office.

A bipartisan executive not only would be more representative of the public than a single executive, it also would be more productive and more effective. Here’s why:

When it comes to making policy, there is much truth to the maxim that two heads are better than one. Studies by economists, psychologists, and other researchers demonstrate that shared decision making works better than unilateral decision making, especially when the decision makers bring different perspectives to the table. We are better off when public policy blends Republican promotion of the free market with Democratic advocacy for government regulation than when we pursue one of the two philosophies alone.

Why wouldn’t co-presidents become mired in their own political conflict? Presidential partners would have a powerful incentive to find common ground. Once candidates reach the White House, there are no other positions to which they might aspire. They no longer need to lay the groundwork for a run at higher office. Having reached the pinnacle of political life, presidents care most about establishing their legacies, about achieving historical greatness. If co-presidents spent their terms locking horns, they would not be able to implement major policy initiatives that could enhance their record of accomplishment. In other words, presidential partners would tend toward cooperation not simply out of devotion to the public good but also out of self-interest. Just as the conservative Senator Orrin Hatch and the liberal Senator Ted Kennedy overcame their philosophical differences to fashion landmark legislation, so would Republican and Democratic co-presidents do the same.

And there is ample common ground even between liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans. Indeed, it is often said that people agree 80 percent of the time and disagree 20 percent of the time. Our current winner-take-all system encourages candidates to emphasize the 20 percent of disagreement; a bipartisan executive would govern on the 80 percent of agreement.

Members of Congress would reinforce presidential cooperation. Currently, Republican senators and representatives can exploit Republican voters’ dislike of Barack Obama by a policy of obstruction. Similarly, during the George W. Bush administration, Democratic senators and representatives could exploit the disaffection of Democratic voters by a policy of obstruction. But with a bipartisan executive, neither party’s voters will be disaffected and receptive to a policy of obstruction. Many of Senator Ted Cruz’s constituents have applauded his efforts to frustrate President Obama. They would not have been so happy if he were trying to frustrate an Obama-Romney administration.

Not only would incentives to obstruct dissipate, the party out of power also would have strong incentives to cooperate. For example, the party’s members of Congress could share credit for presidential achievements. If Republicans had voted for the economic stimulus in 2009 or health care reform in 2010, they would not have gotten any credit for their votes. Both statutes were seen as Democratic initiatives. Hence, Republicans could earn political credit only by voting against the bills and hoping they went down to defeat or were unsuccessful. In contrast, both parties could receive credit for legislative initiatives that emerged from a bipartisan executive.

No matter what happens in this year’s election, half of the public will feel that the president does not represent their interests. That’s no way to run a democracy of the people, and no way to defuse our political polarization. We should follow the example of Switzerland. After that country’s 19th Century civil war, the Swiss constitutional framers successfully bridged their nation’s bitter social divides by ensuring that power is shared across partisan lines and that all citizens have a voice in their government.

David Orentlicher is Samuel R. Rosen Professor at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law. A scholar of constitutional law and a former state representative, David also has taught at Princeton University and the University of Chicago Law School. He earned degrees in law and medicine at Harvard and specializes as well in health care law and ethics. He is the author of Two Presidents Are Better Than One: The Case for a Bipartisan Executive Branch (NYU Press, 2013).

Feature image illustration by Anthony Jenkins.