Who is the more powerful –
America’s president or Britain’s Prime Minister?


Political instinct alone seems to dictate to many that the American president – ‘the world’s most powerful man’ – is the most powerful politician in any of the world’s democratic nations. He is at the head of the world’s most modern military force and the world’s largest economy. What the president says is reported around the world and world share markets can fall or rise on any public statement by him. But is he the western world’s most powerful politician?

In America, the president is the best known of many politicians. This alone gives him a great deal of authority as many people within their own states cannot name their own representatives in the House, Senate or governor. The simple fact, that the president has the title of president gives him enormous authority and power in that he is the main figurehead within the whole of the massive American political structure. To take on the president is seen as almost taking on America and all that the nation stands for. When Clinton moved towards the impeachment process during the Lewinsky scandal, he was paying the price for what he had done as a person not as a politician who happened to be president. Even so, the fact that the Senate failed to go all the way down the road to impeachment was probably because they did not want to see the title of president sullied in such a manner. The same is probably true of Nixon during the Watergate crisis. Here was a man who was allowed to resign rather than face the ignominy of impeachment and possibly a full trial in the full glare of the public at both domestic and international level. Protecting the name of the president and all he stands for does give the post-holder a great deal of authority and, in this sense, power.

The British Prime Minister does have the same international standing as the president. In the crisis involving Iraq, the driving force behind any move against the leadership in Baghdad has been the American president, G W Bush, while Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister, has been referred to as clinging onto the coat tails of Bush. Britain simply does not have the international standing to overtly influence policies – her military is weak compared to America and though a member of G7, our economic standing in the world is dwarfed by America’s. Such a position does not allow the Prime Minister to drive an international agenda whereas the US president can. In this sense, the power of the US president abroad is far greater than that of the British Prime Minister.

In domestic politics that same power is more open to question. The president can select his own cabinet with which he can work, but it has to be ratified by the Senate. Whilst this is usually a formality – as the Senate would usually want to be seen as giving a new president a sound start to his four years – it does in theory mean that the president might have to work with people he did not initially select for his cabinet. The Prime Minister has no such restrictions. He selects all those people he wants for his cabinet and can remove them if they fail to make the grade. He does not have to consult anybody over this though he might discuss it with an inner circle of very close colleagues. Least of all does the Prime Minister have to have his cabinet agreed to be the House of Commons or Lords.

The president is not head of his party. Bush may be a Republican but he does not head the party. Though to many people he does ‘hold’ this title, the chairman and committee members of the Republican Party Central Committee hold great sway in the actual party itself and the 50 Republican Parties at state level also do a great deal to defend their political independence coming together in a needed act of loyalty every four years at election time. The British Prime Minister is not only prime minister, he is also a serving Member of Parliament and head of his party. As such, he commands huge respect within that party and does a great deal to drive the policies of that party in power. With a large parliamentary majority, it is almost certain that prime ministerial policies will become actual policy and law. If things go wrong, then the Prime Minister will be held responsible but if they succeed he will get the spoils of this.

It is more difficult for the president to drive domestic policy in America. He announces his platform at his national convention but is not bound by it. Whilst this may give him more freedom to adapt his stated policies throughout his term in office, he cannot guarantee getting them through Congress. As an example, in Britain the main annual budget speech in made in the early Spring. This is publicly stated in the House of Commons by the Chancellor, though with the support of his Prime Minister, and it is then enacted. The only problem in recent years was when Nigel Lawson’s speech was interrupted by outraged Opposition politicians and there were short breaks in the delivery of that budget. But the budget still went through as all do. In America, the president prepares his budget for Congress to scrutinise. But it is Congress that essentially has the final say in that it can reject the president’s budget proposals. In reality, much is done behind closed doors to ensure that a very public bill – America’s budget for that year – goes through with little apparent public rancour. However, the potential is there for embarrassment for the president.

The political set-up in both countries also gives the Prime Minister the edge over the president. If the Prime Minister has a sound parliamentary majority (or a record large one as Tony Blair does have), it is very probable that the policies that he wants will become law. A simple Parliamentary vote on this almost certainly means that the Prime Minister will have his way. With the House of Lords currently under review and its power likely to be severely clipped, it falls to the European Union to deem certain British laws valid or not. In fact, in recent years the European Union has done little if anything to impact on important British legislation. It has intervened on issues that involve a few such as the sentencing of the Jamie Bulger murderers. But with the fear of encroaching federalism seemingly strong throughout Europe, it seems highly unlikely that the European Courts would involve itself in wholesale British domestic policies that have come from a democratically elected government. If this remains true, and the current government maintains its current huge parliamentary majority, the Prime Minister will be able to push through reform after reform (though the result of a referendum on the Euro might prove an interesting issue for him).

The president does not have such domestic power. He is hamstrung by the powers given to others by the Constitution. This document is very clear about the powers he has. But it is also very clear about the powers given to Congress and to the Supreme Court. In recent years, the Supreme Court has been more involved in assessing states rights rather than presidential powers and in the aftermath of September 11th 2001, G W Bush has seemingly been able to do anything by flying the patriot’s flag. However, the Constitution and its makers, do state the powers of Congress first in Article 1 and then the powers of the president in Article 2. Was this their way of putting an individual in his place after the experience of one man’s power in Britain during the independence crisis? Again, compromise appears to ensure that most presidential recommendations get through Congress as this approach alone ensures that the system is not embarrassed in the nation’s eyes. However, the president still has the power of veto over Congressional legislation by the simple fact that he must sign all legislation before it becomes law. The use of the pocket veto does extend the president’s authority at a domestic level but its overuse might lead to cries of one man ridding rough over one of the main bastions of America’s democracy – Congress. Also, if both sides – president and Congress – are satisfied that they have both had an input into proposed legislation, why would a veto be needed?

The input both president and Prime Minister have in the judiciary is about equal. Within the Supreme Court, the president can only appoint a Supreme Court judge if a sitting one has retired or has died. His appointed successor must then be ratified by the Senate, and this has not always happened in the past as Ronald Reagan found. The Prime Minister can influence the appointed of senior figures in the judiciary as he appoints the Lord Chancellor who then has great power in selecting circuit judges etc.

In foreign policy, the president exerts far greater power than the Prime Minister. Britain simply does not have the status that America does at an international level. It seems hard to believe that Colin Powell as Secretary of State, would have received the same treatment in Israel as Britain’s then Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, did when he received a less than polite welcome on a visit to that country. Only America has the necessary power and influence to gather together the necessary support in the United Nations for her foreign policy.

However, in domestic issues, the Prime Minister has the advantages in that he as an individual can push through domestic legislation as he is not only Prime Minister but also party leader. The constitutional restraints that are on the president simply do not exist in Britain. The president can veto a bill from Congress but an overuse of this will devalue not only his position but also that of the political structure in America. In Britain, the only thing that can stop a bill becoming law under the current political set-up, is if the Queen refused to give the Royal Assent to a bill that had gone all through the democratic procedures of Parliament. Such an incident is inconceivable. If the Prime Minister has a large parliamentary majority, then he has very extensive powers at a domestic level with probably far fewer restrictions placed on him than a president.