Two presidents better than one? Idea no more radical these days than cooperation

By John Krull


Former Indiana Rep. David Orentlicher, D-Indianapolis, has a bold idea about how we can remove much of the vitriol and dysfunction from our political culture.

He says having two presidents, one from each political party, would serve us better.

Orentlicher and I talk over the air about this idea, which is at the heart of his book, “Two Presidents Are Better Than One: The Case For a Bipartisan Executive.”

Orentlicher — a constitutional law professor (as well as a medical doctor) in his real life — says our government would function better if we had two chief executives with equal power, rather than one. No policy could move forward unless both agreed.

In effect, each side would have a veto.

I ask Orentlicher how, in such a scenario, anything ever would get done. Each side could block the other to the end of time.

He says that is the point. Because each side could stop the other at any point, both sides would be forced to work through their differences to get anything done.

“They would have to work it out,” Orentlicher says.

The problem with our current system, he says, is that it is winner-take-all. The victor in these battles, even if he or she prevails with by a slim or non-existent margin, presumes that she or he can remake government without consideration for the needs, desires or interests of the Americans who voted for the other side.

Having two presidents, each with a veto, would force government to hear the voices of more Americans, Orentlicher says — and not just those of the people who cast their ballots for the top vote-getter.

A few listeners react with hostility to the idea.

Perhaps the sourest response comes in an email from a guy who says that Orentlicher and I should leave the country — him for having such un-American notions and me for listening to them.

Others hear Orentlicher’s idea as a rebuke to Donald Trump’s presidency.

It isn’t — at least not exclusively.

Orentlicher published his book in 2013, during the heart of Barack Obama’s time in the White House.

The fact that we now have had at least four presidencies in a row — Bill Clinton’s, George W. Bush’s, Barack Obama’s and now Trump’s — in which widespread rage has stalked the land gives support to Orentlicher’s hidden thesis.

And that is that the federal government, as currently constituted, can produce little other than anger.

That is what most of the listeners who join the conversation respond to. They’re skeptical that the idea could be implemented, but they’re eager to find a way past the impasse in our political culture. They want to find a way to make our political system one in which less shouting and more listening occurs.

That, Orentlicher says — putting on his constitutional law professor hat — is what the founders envisioned. The founders did not see the presidency as the magisterial office it has become, but as a means simply of implementing policies established by the deliberative bodies that are supposed to be the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives.

The legislative branch was supposed to be the dominant force in the American political system. The creation of a nearly all-powerful chief executive was what the founders had a fought a revolution to escape and were determined to avoid.

As Orentlicher and I talk, it becomes clear that what ails this country is not complex.

What we need to do is devise a system — whether it involves a co-presidency or something else — that encourages our leaders to solve problems rather than exacerbating them. We need to have a government that treats all citizens as important, that rewards listening, that fosters sharing power.

Once upon a time, these are things — consideration, listening to others, sharing — that we used to teach in kindergarten.

Now, in this poisoned political climate, those are things that qualify as a radical idea.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students. Send comments to [email protected].