By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum

(FORTUNE Magazine) – The presidency isn't the all-powerful institution most people think it is, and given what's happening these days, that's a good thing. A President, for instance, doesn't govern anything. The Framers of the Constitution didn't want a truly strong chief executive, and they avoided having one by creating a system of checks and balances. The debacles of Vietnam and Watergate diminished the bully pulpit even more. Today real power is also diffused among uncontrollable global forces, especially financial markets. "The Imperial President is a nice phrase, but it's a myth," says American University's James Thurber. "It's really the Pluralistic President."

This admission of weakness is strangely soothing during the latest--and probably worst--crisis of the Clinton presidency. As this story is being written, no one knows what the trophy intern scandal will ultimately mean for Bill Clinton. But at best, he stands to be paralyzed as a policymaker for a while. At worst, he could be impeached. Therefore the question looms: What would a crippled presidency mean for the nation? The answer isn't as dire as the saturation coverage suggests.

In Washington, run-of-the-mill stories become sagas, and controversies, tragedies. But beneath the hyperbole, government soldiers on--whether or not there's a functioning President. Social Security checks will be delivered, veterans hospitals will admit patients, and the Navy's nuclear submarines will continue to cruise the oceans of the world. "The government is a massive bureaucracy, only a tiny portion of which is controlled by the President," says the University of Virginia's Larry Sabato.

National emergencies also will be attended to, regardless of the President's condition. In a very red-blooded American way, hard times tend to bind people together, even in the fractious capital. Actual threats to the nation's well-being, either physical or financial, will likely be dealt with swiftly and with bipartisan backing. That's one reason the now-uphill fight to fund an international bailout of ailing Asian economies probably will succeed (see "Will Congress Bail Out Asia?"). The threat of economic chaos is too serious to be shunted aside.

The deepest part of the government's bench is in the financial realm. And that's fortunate. A steep drop in the markets would be the first and most damaging possible reaction if Clinton goes. Yet Washington insiders are resting comfortably. Why? They put their trust in Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, two veterans of Wall Street and Washington, who in fact are probably more responsible for Clinton's recent high approval ratings than anything Clinton has done himself. Both Greenspan and Rubin are placid in public but men of action behind the scenes. They are ready if the worst ever comes.

This isn't to say that a hamstrung Commander-in-Chief won't create far-reaching problems. Legislative initiatives on issues ranging from child care to health care could be put on hold. Foreign policy will be hampered. Congress will have greater power but might be forced to limit itself to mundane matters: passage of appropriations bills that do little more than keep the government going. "If you have a seriously compromised person in the Oval Office, just about every top-level issue is going to be in a state of blur and whir," says Princeton University's Fred Greenstein.

At the same time, government goes on. It did after Watergate, and it will after Whitewatergate/Donorgate/Zippergate--whatever that conclusion might be. Harry Truman once predicted that Dwight Eisenhower would be frustrated because a President, unlike a general, couldn't give orders and expect them to be followed. Now is one moment when we might be glad to have a government that's so independent-minded.

--Jeffrey H. Birnbaum