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essays

1978

The Pragmatic Presidency

The President’s power is beyond the human scale, so policy is crafted by corporations and implemented by an army of bureaucrats.

“Reassessing the Modern Presidency.” Chapter 7 in Pragmatic Illusions: The Presidential Politics of John F. Kennedy. New York: David McKay & Co., 1976: 271–327.

John Kennedy’s presidency exposes the myth that the modern presidency can serve as a progressive instrument of change if only the right liberal or reformer occupies the White House. Predictably, no liberal will use his office to create a thorough transformation of American politics. Only those who have a real interest in change can create such a transformation. In contrast, modern presidents will tend to impede progressive changes since they are products of the status quo order and subject to that order’s strong institutional, ideological, and power pressures.

Kennedy’s foreign and domestic politics deflate the illusions of the modern “pragmatic” presidency. Behind the apparent pragmatism we see the actual pursuit of power. In foreign affairs power appears in the guise of an interventionist imperial presidency pursuing American liberal-corporate interests. Kennedy’s domestic politics revealed a willing partnership between government and business to make the American economy prosperous. His Keynesian program of the “New Economics” sought primarily to benefit—in wealth and power—the corporate community.

Even in liberal hands, the modern presidency functions as a stabilizing force to the existing order rather than a progressive, reformist force for change. The president’s role is to maintain and expand the prevailing American domestic and foreign order. In this regard, Kennedy’s presidential record belies his reputation as a true reformer. Behind his charismatic image of popular hero lies his actual promotion of establishment power and values.

Thus, Kennedy’s foreign policy failed to be either very progressive or even pragmatic. Resurrecting a distorted notion of Soviet global aggression, Kennedy heated up the Cold War to dangerous levels. At the risk of nuclear war, he intensified the confrontations in Berlin and Cuba. Despite his test ban negotiations in 1963, he waged the Cold War in the Third World. His imperial presidency stands revealed in his policy of “democratic revolution” in Latin America and in his counterin-surgency policy in Vietnam. In sum, his foreign policy continued the nonprogressive agenda of earlier presidents: containment of communism and expansion of American power and interests. Every president since Roosevelt has followed the model of Woodrow Wilson and endeavored to bring American “order” to a changing world.

The modern presidency—regardless of officeholder—seems schizophrenic. In domestic goals it has tended to be modest; in foreign affairs it has been assertive and bellicose. This is understandable. Domestically, American political power is split up among the branches of government and various private interests through a complex bargaining system. In foreign policy, monopolized control and executive centralism are the rule.

The domestic reforms of Roosevelt, Truman, and Johnson either did not cut deep (since they sought political advantage rather than true reform) or modified existing power relationships only in order to preserve them. On their domestic agenda, presidents do not seek primarily to cure inflation or unemployment so much as to stabilize corporate capitalism. By contrast, progressivism historically sought to restrict corporate power and re-distribute wealth.

The nature and functions of the presidency sifts out any progressive candidates. All presidential candidates are minutely screened. They must pass muster and be acceptable to the established powers: corporate leaders for financial support, party leaders, and the dominant interest groups. The national media further molds candidates into conformists or else it destroys them by branding with an “extremist” label.

Once in the White House, additional forces confirm this orthdoxy and conformity. Again, Kennedy’s administration exemplifies the interaction of political demands and personal ambitions in maintaining presidents as nonprogressives. Presidents seeking global activism are willing agents to those established advocates of American economic, political, and military expansion. Presidents are also politicians who must carefully calculate and bargain with the existing corporate powers if they seek reelection.