(With apologies to Larry Bartels…)
Yesterday’s Politico story trumpeting (despite the question mark) “What’s Wrong with Obama?” is a great endorsement of William Howell’s recent book with David Brent, which argues that presidents seeking power should – to put it bluntly – shoot first and ask questions later. Obama is portrayed by Politico’s John Harris and Todd Purdum as far too attached to nuance, complexity, and deliberation (read: dithering) when “this president lately has faced situations that cried out for a black-and-white sense of purpose, and unquestioned public command.” As a result “his presidency is in a parlous state….”
The Politico take is certainly consonant with the various accusations of presidential weakness that have accompanied Obama’s policy maneuverings with regard to Syria. The pundits (some examples are here), plus politicians from left to right— Sen. Bernie Sanders to a collection of former Bush staffers —have certainly made their feelings clear on this point.
All this suggests Howell has a solid point when he argues that “in every policy domain, presidents must not only demonstrate involvement, they must act – and they must do so for all to see, visibly, forthrightly, and expediently. Deliberation must not substitute for action” (p. 6)….”Presidents who fail to act, even when the statutory or constitutional basis for action is dubious, face the prospect of a substantial political backlash…” (p. 105). (It’s worth noting that Philip Heymann’s experimental work on foreign policy decisionmaking had similar findings, showing “the powerful tendency” – even among experts – “to follow an individual who is more certain rather than more deliberative” (Living the Policy Process, p. 141)).
Note that Howell’s book does not take a position on whether this is a good thing. I will: it’s not. Continue Reading →