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A Platinum Jubilee and a Tarnished Resignation

Brits may call upon God to save the Queen, but they are clear-eyed in recognizing prime ministers to be mere mortals. Looking at executive roles in the UK can help Americans to think differently about our presidency.

By Raymond A. Smith, Ph.D., LL.M., Adjunct Associate Professor

This summer, the UK witnessed both the lavish, celebratory 70th anniversary jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign and the surly, perfunctory announcement by Prime Minister Boris Johnson that he would be resigning from office.

The two events, so different in both style and substance, were an expression of the stark difference between a head of state and a head of government. They also can serve as a reminder that Americans would do well to untangle these roles in our minds as we think about the U.S. presidency.

Parliamentary systems around the world — with the UK as the world’s earliest and best-known example — separate the different dimensions of executive authority in ways that are healthy for their politics and government. The head of state plays a symbolic role, embodying the dignity and continuity of the nation, with little or no actual power and no governing role. Elected prime ministers act as heads of government, with practical duties to carry out and hard choices to make.

And there’s no really confusing the two. Monarchs live in palaces and castles, appear on paper and coin currency, and are the subject of the national anthem, often reigning for decades. Prime Ministers live in an unassuming townhouse on Downing Street…and often not for very long.

This division of the executive roles into the head of government and head of state deftly separates the often-sordid realities of day-to-day governing from the transcendent and enduring values of the nation. It relieves the head of government from the burden of having to represent the state itself. And the distinction makes it easier for voters to accept that flawed politicians will rise and fall within individual governments without challenging the essence of the state and its traditions.

In some ways, of course, the American presidency is a type of successor to the British monarchy, albeit one born out of a revolution against monarchical tyranny. After the Revolutionary War, such was the suspicion about executive power that America’s first governing document, the Articles of Confederation, lacked any chief executive. This, however, proved to be one of its fatal flaws.

When the time came to write the Constitution, the Founders moved towards a stronger executive. Yet the actual text of Article II is notably vague about presidential power, especially in peacetime. The text is clear that the new president was to be elected, to be bound by four-year terms, and to wield a veto that, unlike the British king’s, could be overridden by the legislature. Even the title itself was a weak one — a “president” at the time was just a presiding officer entrusted with pounding gavels and other mundane procedural tasks.

Article II of the Constitution makes clear that the new president was to be head of government, but nowhere does it mention the head of state role. Indeed, this position is less a matter of domestic constitutional law than it is a product of an international system composed of sovereign states, with each one needing someone to be its head. (The logic of this terminology can perhaps more clearly seen in the title of “secretary of state” for the new Republic’s foreign minister.)

Empowered by Article II to appoint US ambassadors and receive envoys from other states, as well as to negotiate international treaties, the president is the only real constitutional contender to be America’s head of state. Still, it is wholly outside the Constitution itself for the president to be held up as the embodiment of the nation or its moral leader, even if in practice Washington, Lincoln, and a few other great presidents may have reached such a status.

Across the Atlantic, British prime ministers steadily grew in real power relative to their monarchs across the 19th century. Yet they have remained ordinary politicians who come and go and who are, throughout their tenure at the top, resolutely subordinate to parliament, to their parties, and to the electorate. Even Winston Churchill was voted out of office in 1945.

Boris Johnson’s recent resignation made him the third consecutive prime minister, within a span of just eight years, to more or less be forced from office, following David Cameron in 2016 and Theresa May in 2019. The formidable Margaret Thatcher was abruptly evicted from Number 10 Downing Street in 1990, while the reformist Tony Blair wisely jumped just before being pushed in 2007. The ignoble finales to their time on stage made it clear that these heads of government were all just politicians — highly skilled to be sure, immensely powerful for a time, but still ordinary citizens in the end.

In contrast, the American presidency jumbles together the roles of head of state and head of government. This makes it hard for us to clearly distinguish between the symbolic and the substantive, or what British constitutional theory calls “the dignified and the efficient.”

Yet not since FDR has a president really succeeded in fusing the two roles. Ronald Reagan may still retain a place in the public’s imagination, but that is largely for his theatrical execution of the head of state role. His successors George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton were skilled heads of government but were fairly perfunctory as heads of state.

More recent presidents, governing in times of intensifying polarization, have alienated, demoralized, or enraged either one half of the country or the other. Unable to distinguish between the president as head of government and head of state, far too many Americans have come to interpret their opposition to any particular president as a verdict about the condition of the country itself, or what Joe Biden has termed “the soul of the nation.”

U.S. presidencies have thus become over-invested with significance as harbingers of the state of the union itself. Hope soars among many and fear proliferate among many others, and each new president is heralded as the steward of some great new era. In the end, though, Clinton’s election never did cement a durable centrist governing coalition (nor it seems clear will Biden’s). The Bush presidents did not herald peace in the Middle East or the achievement of a New World Order. Obama’s tenure certainly did not signal an era of post-racial harmony. And Trump’s did not bring about the collapse of the Republic.

There is fair reason for Americans to be concerned today that seemingly no public figure can bring the country together. And little comfort can be derived from the record of the many unstable Latin American presidencies that also fuse together the head of state and head of government roles and devolved into authoritarianism.

Still, a look across the Atlantic can perhaps reassure us that no single person should realistically be expected to helm both the government and the state. Brits may call upon God to save the Queen, but they are clear-eyed in recognizing prime ministers to be mere mortals.


Raymond A. Smith, Ph.D., LLM, is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University (NYU). He is the author of books including “The American Anomaly” and “Importing Democracy,” which both focus on U.S. politics and government in a comparative perspective.

This article was originally published on August 4, 2022, on: https://medium.com/@raysmith33/a-diamond-jubilee-and-a-tarnished-resignation-385a3794e24d



The Center for Global Affairs (CGA) prepares global citizens through rigorous graduate and continuing education programs and public events. Visit: sps.nyu.edu/cga

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The Center for Global Affairs (CGA) prepares global citizens through rigorous graduate and continuing education programs and public events. sps.nyu.edu/cga