Thursday, November 10, 2011

Our attachment to an "imperial presidency"

Ezra Klein has been on a tear lately writing about the fact that we need to break ourselves from the trap of thinking in terms of an imperial presidency. The most recent round started when he wrote a review of Ron Suskind's book Confidence Men. I highly recommend the whole article as he does an amazing job of taking on Suskind's agenda - which seemed to echo what we hear from the poutragers: its all about Summers and Geithner as the bad guys of the administration.

It’s not about heroes and villains, or dramatic meetings and angry confrontations. It’s about tough tradeoffs between what was politically possible, operationally plausible, and substantively wise. It is about whether more stimulus could have passed Congress or a different chairman of the Federal Reserve would have unleashed more effective monetary policy. And it’s much more about the collision of America’s political and economic institutions than the collision of particular personalities...

The truth of the matter is this: every member of the White House’s economic and political team was closer to every other member than any of them were to the swing votes in the Senate. Tim Geithner and Christina Romer have their differences, but they’re mostly talking the same language. Put them in a room with Senators Ben Nelson, Scott Brown, and Susan Collins—all of whom would have rejected a strong new stimulus—and they may as well be Martians.

Klein is basically saying that we miss the crux of the battle when we focus on the disagreements or personalities in the White House. His next article on this topic takes a look at that reality in historical context as he makes the argument about Why Obama is no FDR. He says the difference has much less to do with the two presidents and is really more about timing and Congress.

Franklin D. Roosevelt won the presidency in 1932, three years into the Great Depression. The unemployment rate that year was 23.6 percent. Obama won the presidency in 2008, mere months into the financial crisis; unemployment was at 6.8 percent. Consequently, the two presidents faced political systems prepared to do very different things...

By the time Roosevelt took the presidency, the Great Depression had done so much damage that Congress was ready to do something, anything, to end it. At times, FDR harnessed that energy in service of his agenda. At other times, Congress forced him to go further than he had intended.

For better or worse, that is a very different dynamic than the one that has prevailed during Obama’s presidency. It is hard to come up with even one example of Congress forcing Obama to go further than he wished, and easy to come up with many in which they forced the president to trim his sails.

Then yesterday, Klein wrote about this topic again, this time answering critics who said that he was simply trying to provide a defense of President Obama.

My retrospective on the Obama administration’s economic policy, my review of Ron Suskind’s “Confidence Men,” and even my column yesterday on FDR are all efforts to make the same point: The president is not as powerful as we think. If you believe that the state of the economy drives the electorate’s evaluations of our political leaders — and you should believe that — then you have to grapple with the fact that the president is primarily responsible for economic conditions and needs either Congress or the Federal Reserve to join him in making economic policy.

To demonstrate, Klein quotes from an article he wrote back in October 2008, before Obama's election, making the same point about the presidency.

But the “great man” theory of the presidency is not convenient when it comes to actually creating change. Again and again, presidents disappoint. They fail to pass health-care reform or Social Security privatization. They don’t ease partisanship or break through gridlock. They prove impotent in the face of immediate crises and leave long-term challenges to fester. And so we tire of them, resolving to replace them with more presidents. Better presidents. Presidents of the other party, or of the same party, or of no party at all...

Executive leadership is important, of course, but the continual failure of our presidents should be lesson enough that it is not sufficient. The executive is but one actor in a sprawling drama...]And] so long as the public understanding of American politics is so resolutely focused on the president, change will be a heavy lift, because the public will continually apply pressure to only that one point in the system -- and often, it won’t be the chokepoint.

If I could pinpoint one reason the poutragers fail again and again, that last sentence would pretty much sum it up...they miss the chokepoint. I'd love them to think about what Klein said in that article about FDR. As they make their comparisons and find President Obama coming up short - when has a majority in Congress EVER tried to force him to go farther? The pressure has always had to come from him.

I think Klein is hammering home a critical issue that plagues our politics these days. We can analyze why Americans have come to the place where the only narrative that seems to matter is what a president does/doesn't do. But the reality is...that's a good read of the situation. And its what Sen. McConnell has been banking on with his strategy of total obstruction. He knows that a good majority of the voting public won't pay attention to who is obstructing...they'll simply respond with "a pox on both your houses" to the inactivity (a "win" for Republicans). Beyond that, he knows that those who might be aware of this Republican tactic will simply blame President Obama for not being a strong enough leader to get around it. A little Civics 101 would certainly help.


  1. People consistently over-estimate the importance of the President and under-estimate the importance of Congress. As Orwell observed, strong personal emotions like love, hate, loyalty, and resentment are much more easily felt toward an individual than toward an institution.

    The Republicans probably understand this -- their strategy of sabotaging the economy via Congress and hoping Obama gets the blame depends on it.

  2. I have said it before and I will say it again: There should be a required Civics course for folks. I have never seen such willful ignorance about the three branches of government, check and balances in my life. It is all about "where is my sparkle pony? Why isn't Obama changing water to wine? WAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!"

  3. I've had my poutrager moments, but I also recently had an epiphany that Obama is unlike anyone we've ever seen before. Therefore, he wields what power he has in an entirely different way. I expound on this in my blog, "What if Obama Knows What He's Doing?"

  4. Haven't we apologized enough for the limited power of the Presidency? When are progressive voters going to finally take the other step in this logic, and begin working on taking back Congress? There doesn't seem to be anyone as smart as Grover Norquist in Democratic politics. Do we really think it will be a "victory" for Obama to be re-elected with the status quo in Congress? Nobody since Howard Dean has seemed interested in doing the hard work to create and sustain a Democratic Congressional majority.

  5. Deborah - great article!

    For awhile now I have been writing about "the Obama method" or what Jonathan Chait called "conciliatory rhetoric as ruthless strategy."

    It is very "zen-like," as you say. But that should come as no surprise given that Obama spent most of his childhood in cultures more attuned to eastern thinking.

    One of the best examples of that came from a writer at daily kos back in 2009 talking about Obama's soft power and the Aikido Way.