Seven presidents are better than one: Why the Oval Office needs a round table

Quartz | January 10, 2017

While president-elect Trump fills his cabinet and top ranks, he also has an opportunity to reorganize America’s most antiquated federal office. America’s CEO president could take a big step towards evolving the executive branch if he started running the White House like a corporate board. Instead of sitting alone in the oval office, he should be sitting at a round table with a half-dozen other members of America’s federal executive council.

Interestingly, what the world’s oldest democracy (Switzerland), shiniest city-state technocracy (Singapore), and newest superpower (China) all have in common is that while they nominally have only one “head of state,” each is in fact a collective presidency, led by a committee of seven whose complementary portfolios bring them together in a joint management structure. Their cabinet members don’t act as individuals in bureaucratic silos, but as a team since they are all accountable for the success of the whole system.

The world has become so complex that no one person can juggle so many balls in the air at the same time. Seven heads are better than one, period.

Even in the world’s oldest democracy, the people don’t directly elect their president. Swiss citizens vote for the parliament, which then appoints the seven-member Federal Executive Council. While Switzerland has almost twenty political parties, the Council includes at least one member from each of the four main parties whose coalition has dominated for over fifty years. Building opposition permanently into the Council (a practice known as concordance) guarantees that all perspectives are considered but without leading to stasis. A process that ensures policy continuity among a cross-section of leaders across multiple parties is far superior to political systems that simply flip-flop among two parties in predictable cycles of voter fatigue. This is how to construct a “team of rivals.”

Since Lee Kuan Yew’s passing from the political scene nearly two decades ago, Singapore has begun to move in the Swiss direction. Despite being Lee Kuan Yew’s son, prime minister Lee Hsien Loong doesn’t rule by fiat. There are two deputy prime ministers who divide administrative oversight roughly between security and home affairs and economic and social policy, and a dozen other cabinet ministers, each of whom has done rotations across other ministries. Every two years, party members elect 12-18 members of a Central Executive Committee (CEC) that helps steer the leadership agenda. Lee himself was a deputy prime minister for 14 years, so hardly a political novice. When a fairly young cabinet member in Singapore was made foreign minister in 2015, I asked a friend who would be his mentor. After all, in the US, a new secretary of state or presidential candidate needs to be seen having lunch with Henry Kissinger for us to feel that he or she knows how to find Russia on a map. But in Singapore, the most recent foreign minister is still sitting in the cabinet, with the three before him always on call to provide insight. They don’t draw on greybeards but work in real-time with those who handled the portfolio immediately before them. Governance in smart countries is a baton pass, not a decapitation.

In China and Singapore, it would be unheard of for anyone to ascend to national leadership without having first acquired and practiced significant executive administration of a territory or state bureaucracy.

The seven members of China’s Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) are also elected based on their merit and experience. Each member serves tours in multiple provinces (some of which may have populations as large as America) covering portfolios ranging from industry to agriculture to education. They may not have experience in representative democracy, but they actually know how to govern and are judged on their performance. Zhang Weiwei, a scholar at Fudan University who was the former interpreter for Deng Xiaoping, calls the Chinese model a mix of selection and election. There are no doubt rivalries in the PSC: Xi Jinping is as mercurial as Chinese leaders come, and he has shifted influence in economic affairs from premier Li to his own special advisory committees. Having won the designation as the “core” leader of the Party, some suggest Xi will even dump Li at the halfway mark in 2017. But the PSC itself is a team—and one that has a full decade to execute policies before passing the baton. Whomever Xi chooses as his successor will have at least a half decade of full participation in governing China before becoming first among equals. Xi is dogmatic in the pursuit of national stability, but he is not a “bad emperor” that will plunge China into a megalomaniacal abyss.

Despite running the world’s largest country, Chinese leaders don’t seem to complain about being overwhelmed, distracted, or exhausted. China’s ability to get so much done during each generation’s tenure is often written off as the obvious consequence of being a single-party state. But it has as much to do with its collective leadership structure. The seven-member Central Standing Committee is backed by a 25-member politburo and a Central Committee of 350 members who appoint most key party and military figures and debate all aspects of policy. The collective approach involves all top leaders in matters of regional affairs, the economy, legislation, anti-corruption, and national security, meaning each Standing Committee member is far more involved in national governance than an American cabinet secretary who is only responsible for one portfolio. Collective leadership can also be a great asset in foreign policy. Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang traveled to a combined 50 countries in their first two years at the helm of the Party, signing hundreds of billions of dollars of trade and investment agreements while also pursuing an ambitious domestic reform agenda.

Now more than ever, America too needs more presidents—a collective leadership system that embodies institutional memory, consensus-oriented decision-making, and shared responsibility.

Only one American president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, has led the country for more than a decade—the timeframe so many agree is necessary to enact and see through major policy changes. In a tenure spanning the Great Depression through World War II, Roosevelt, through his New Deal policies, initiated massive employment generating schemes such as the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Works Progress Administration and created Social Security, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC).

By contrast, Obama’s eight years in the White House have been a continuous exercise in damage control from the financial crisis and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, interrupted by his own reelection campaign and mid-term Congressional elections in which the Democrats lost ground. In America, there is a clear trade-off between action and elections, between policy and politics.

Obama and his predecessors in the Oval Office have also been known to remark how glad they are to not have to run for re-election once into their second term so that they can finally focus on policy. But should focusing on policy rather being distracted by politics really have to wait four years? Would it not be better for the president to serve just one single term of six or eight years, as numerous experts have recommended?

In his first term, Obama constructed a “team of rivals,” but abandoned the egotistical cacophony in his second term in favor of a loyal echo chamber. Obama’s centralizing approach may have been unintentional, but it repeats a pattern of past presidents that reveals a deep disjunction between the ideal and reality of America’s executive leadership: The American president winds up acting like an imperious executive, but without acknowledging it. It does not help that America’s cabinet members serve at the pleasure of the president—but also to the extent that it pleases them until they rush off after a few years to Wall Street, memoir writing, and the speaker’s circuit. It is difficult to know who is serving in the public interest if government service is a personal privilege rather than a professional vocation.

By contrast, in parliamentary systems such as in Britain and its former colony Singapore, the cabinet is comprised entirely of elected members of parliament, and committee processes select the most qualified to rise into the cabinet. These systems are therefore more democratic (and also more meritocratic) than America’s cabinet, to which any friend of the president can be appointed. Rarely does one have the kind of amateur hour that has been witnessed in Obama’s cabinet with underwhelming secretaries handling key portfolios such as labor, education, and transportation. (No doubt this will be prove to be the case as well under Trump.) Furthermore, with the inherently siloed nature of today’s cabinet, the president is virtually alone in “connecting the dots,” despite the growing complexity of challenges, with little high-level support to consider scenarios and calculate trade-offs.

America could take a big step towards a smarter executive branch if the cabinet were a true collective presidency with more consultative decision-making and fewer silos of authority. Since there is no mention of the cabinet in the Constitution, the president can construct it any way he chooses. In fact, he should include senior members of Congress elected by their peers, as well as selected governors with deep experience. Congressmen are not prohibited from advising the president by serving as auxiliary or rotating cabinet members, much as they might accept a committee appointment. Such a cabinet would be doubly democratic since it would contain not only an elected president but also elected legislators. Furthermore, it would be a legitimate “team of rivals” with far more bipartisan credibility—as well as greater leverage over Congress—than the president has. Importantly, the cabinet in a such a collective presidency would be made of individuals who have real skin in the game, deeply vested in results and outcomes rather than brinksmanship.

To be more effective, the number of cabinet portfolios should also be reduced to create functional coordination rather than wasteful duplication of activities and agencies working at cross purposes. Some obvious examples: The Department of Transportation and Department of Housing and Urban Development could be combined into an Infrastructure Department; the departments of Energy, Agriculture and Interior, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), should be fused into a Department of Energy and Environment; the Department of Commerce with the US Trade Representative; Defense with Homeland Security; Education with Labor; and so on.

Irrespective of the cabinet’s size, an executive committee within the cabinet would be the central decision-making body, comprised of the president, vice president, and five to seven other key portfolios such as defense, treasury, justice, and infrastructure. In all, about half the cabinet would be made up of individuals who have been directly elected to their simultaneous positions, a quarter made up of experienced civil servants, and a quarter personally invited by the president.

Now that the Republicans control the White House, Congress, and Supreme Court, only a collective presidency approach featuring a diversity of views can both compensate for Trump’s lack of experience and check his whims. Rather than shooting from the hip, he would have to spend all day with and win over a half-dozen other senior executive figures (almost all of whom would be more experienced in government than himself). And given Trump’s age—similar to Ronald Reagan’s at inauguration—a collective presidency could better manage the scheduling rigors of domestic political consultations and international diplomatic forays than any single leader. Is that not a superior model than one man making ultimate decisions alone, backed by a vice president whose role most people don’t even understand?

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