There's nothing in his hand. Photographer: Andrew Burton/Getty Images
There's nothing in his hand. Photographer: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Ezra Klein has a wonderful explainer out today about the presidency, and specifically about the “Green Lantern” idea that the main constraint on presidential power is a personal failure of "leadership" or insufficient desire to achieve a particular result. The piece is very good, and I highly recommend it – especially to journalists who find themselves buying into Green Lanternism.

That said, I have to quibble just a bit. Ezra uses examples of presidents failing to persuade Congress. Everything he says about that -- including, for example, debunking the notion that a current president would just have to act like Lyndon Johnson to get whatever he wanted from Capitol Hill -- is absolutely correct. However, his analysis shouldn't end with Congress.

First, (as noted by Robert Farley), the presidency’s constitutional weakness extends deep into the executive branch. I blame high school civics classes (and, alas, plenty of college-level Introduction to American Politics classes), which typically introduce students to an organizational chart featuring the president atop lots of little boxes. For each cabinet box -- Defense, State, Justice, etc. -- lines of authority run directly to the president.

Those charts are plain wrong. Executive branch departments and agencies report to Congress just as much as they report to the president. Yes, the president has some useful weapons for getting the bureaucracy to do what he wants (appointments, budgets), but so do the House and Senate. (Hello, Benghazi!)

That’s not all. Executive branch departments and agencies are also responsible to the courts. Civil service laws and, in some cases, statutory language ensure considerable independence to many agencies. So does the very nature of bureaucracy. That doesn’t mean presidents can't influence agencies, but it’s best to think about the relationship as a contest for influence, not a process of giving and receiving orders. And, yes, that’s even true for the military, where a president’s direct constitutional authority is strongest.

Second, for recent presidents, constraints from political parties have become especially significant. Parties have infiltrated the “Presidential Branch," including the White House staff. John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter typically staffed the White House and key presidential branch agencies with personal loyalists whose political identities were defined by their relationship to the respective president. Even then, presidential orders were not always followed (Nixon’s people never did break into the Brookings Institution despite his repeated orders).

Beginning in the Carter years, then increasing in the 1980s and 1990s, party loyalists began supplanting personal loyalists in roles from Chief of Staff down through the ranks. At the same time, partisan campaign professionals and party-aligned activists moved into dominant roles in presidential campaigns, rendering personal loyalists less prevalent and less important there, too. Parties, which had seen their influence wane in the 1960s and 1970s, learned again to control presidential nominations, applying pressure internally (through campaign staff and consultants in the party network) and externally (through party actors such as activists, elected officials and donors who became more powerful in determining nominations).

As a result, presidential candidates aren’t fully in charge of their candidacies, and presidents aren’t fully in charge of their presidencies. Robust political parties also get a say. That’s not unprecedented; during previous eras marked by strong parties, presidents were similarly constrained by the deals they made to win nominations. But the conditions of the modern presidency in some ways make it new. And political scientists are just beginning to study the implications.

Bottom line: The president remains the single most influential individual in the U.S. political system, and a skilled president can still do a fair amount to maximize his power over the political sphere and specific policy areas. But even at its height, presidential influence is still tightly constrained. An American president -- any American president -- has limited powers.

To contact the writer of this article: Jonathan Bernstein at Jbernstein62@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net.