A Tale of Two Presidents

Posted in The Gnovis Blog

At this point in the supercharged run for primary Presidential candidates, we’ve probably all paused to consider what the future may bring if Senator Clinton succeeds at attaining the White House next year.

For some, Hillary is a welcome moderate counterweight to the current administration. For others, the thought of completing the Bush- Clinton dynasty tradeoff is less than appealing. And for others still, envisioning the supremely political, seemingly impersonal Ms. Clinton as commander in chief is slightly terrifying.

But for many, there is a certain comfort in the prospect of having Hil-Bill at America’s helm for another round. Their familiarity may seem particularly favorable given the Republican party’s unpopularity and thus far flaccid showing, and the relatively alien newcomer Barack Obama, who is Hillary’s main Democratic competition.

But political journalist Sally Bedell Smith suggests a different take on inaugurating half of the world’s most famous political couple to the American presidency. Bedell Smith posits that if Hillary is elected, we will effectively place "two presidents" in office. Smith outlines her views on the possibility of a sequel Clinton presidency in her recent book about Bill and Hillary, For Love of Politics (new window). According to Smith, like most sequels, Hillary’s presidency would be worse than its predecessor and defined by its pressures.

But Smith goes beyond the notion that Hillary has big shoes to fill, which is true considering Bill’s popularity. Smith insists that if Hillary is elected, our government will suffer a highly destructive fissure under the rule of "two presidents," causing confusion and major disruptions of executive authority. Smith maintains that although Hillary would be the elected official President, returning Bill to the White House as first gentleman is tantamount to violating the 22nd Amendment (new window).

Smith has raised this issue repeatedly in television and radio appearances, as well as in print media, all while promoting her book. On NBC’s Meet the Press, Smith asked, "If we’re going to have two presidents in the White House, who’s going to be in charge?"

Smith- Bedell’s media tour tribunal of a Hillary Clinton White House strikes me as an obviously contrived grab for publicity. Redressing the familiar story of the Clinton’s legacy with an alluring angle, especially one that tears them down, serves Smith well. And apparently the media industry is very complicit (new window)in her project.

Although Smith’s thesis may be somewhat provocative, her assertions seem pretty baseless and extremely speculative. Simply because Bill is a former president and he is well- liked, does not mean the executive branch would have two distinct and diabolically conflicting heads if Senator Clinton earns her way into the West Wing.

Hillary may depend on her husband for many aspects of campaigning, and "so many other things" as Smith intimates, but I’m not so sure that Hillary’s reliance on Bill or her willingness to submit to him goes as far as Smith claims. I don’t pretend to know Senator Clinton personally, but she hardly seems like the type to acquiesce her hard- won authority simply due to her husband’s political legacy. Indeed, no individual running for President should exhibit such a pliable sense of purpose.

If anything, I imagine Bill’s presence would only affirm Hillary’s power, knowing that he is likely a close confidante of hers. Americans seem to agree (new window). I think there is an inherent faith in the cooperation between married individuals which allows Hillary to claim that she has sufficient seasoning to serve as President given her two terms as first lady. That sense of marital complicity also gives voters a sense of ease regarding team Hil-Bill, which is no less Hillary than it is Bill.

Furthermore, it seems that Smith does not sufficiently acknowledge the Lose Weight Exercise of presidential authority. The office bears the greatest concentration of power any one person in this country can hold. And s/he sits atop a government apparatus guided by a strictly hierarchical power structure. Clearly, that structure and its inherent checks and balances are vulnerable to failure.

But if anything, these stumblings stem from exagerrated deference (new window) to presidential authority, not fumbling over whether she said to push the button or he said not to. There have certainly been former presidents who defer power to other members of their administrations, but a White House staff or high-level military personnel that would allow half-step floundering to "intimidation" from unelected personalities such as the president’s spouse, seems unlikely.

And there are many procedural rules that would clearly delineate Hillary’s elevated power, like her exclusive rights to high level, classified intelligence information. Smith’s musings on whether Bill would be privy to the daily intelligence briefing are just silly. It’s not as if the man won’t have a job to do aside from peering over Hillary’s shoulder.

The climate of this election cycle is particularly volatile, and the media bears a principle role in rousing this intensifying atmosphere. Highly reactive political pundits and especially attentive audiences readily pounce on any fresh story concerning the electoral frontrunners. Even the non-frontrunners are enjoying a good deal of press as the caucuses draw near. The media are certainly stoking the competition.

Given this charged landscape, it’s fairly easy to dismiss Smith’s prognostic musings as election year press fodder, particularly since she is promoting her book about the family in question. Her doomsday tone painting Bill as a supremely intimidating White House boogeyman further supports such an assumption.

But I also wonder if Smith’s "fresh spin" on a potential Clintonian presidency may not be so fresh at all.

Intimating that the first female American president could not effectively rule the country in light of her husband’s inherent, unofficial authority sounds a lot like the dusty old, false adage that a woman should not be sent to do a "man’s job," or the consequences would be disastrous.

She is asserting that Hillary would not fill the presidential position adequately, which obviously isn’t problematic in and of itself. Active criticism of potential presidents is quite necessary. But the underlying implications of her analysis is what I find unsettling.

Smith insists there would be a great deal of conflict in the White House even though we would not be reinaugurating Bill, and Hillary would clearly be the official President. It’s as if Hillary would either be unable to come out of Bill’s historic shadow, and/or that he would not allow Hillary to ascertain the control to which she would be entitled. Another potentially worse implication is that surrounding staff simply would not acknowledge Hillary as the leader of the country and defer to Bill.

I think Smith’s reasoning goes beyond the simple explanation that Bill’s experience as former commander in chief would influence his role in the White House. Undoubtedly, it would. And I’m sure Bill would have a stronger influence on presidential decision making than most first spouses have in the past.

But to surmise that this would be a huge problem requires at least the partial assumption that Hillary would be an insufficient leader on her own, and that her inadequacy would require undermining the power that is so central to the presidency.

We need to be very careful when making such assertions and we must interrogate if they may be rooted, ironically enough, in the good old fashioned gender bias which electing a female President would serve to destabilize.