Lessons Not Pre-Learned

Sep 7 '12

Peter Baker’s thoughtful “lessons learned” piece on the Obama first term in yesterday’s NY Times suggests that the President might have done well to add some political science classics to his pre-inaugural reading list in 2008-09. (It is, of course, never too late!)

Generally, “Mr. Obama in private sometimes expresses surprise at the constraints of the office.”  But the idea that the presidential office is hemmed in, constitutionally speaking, is a staple of the presidency subfield. “In form all Presidents are leaders nowadays,” wrote Richard Neustadt in 1960 (he was then a professor at Mr. Obama’s alma mater). “In fact this guarantees no more than that they will be clerks.”  Thirty years later,  when he wrote a new preface to Presidential Power (by then entitled Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents), Neustadt saw little reason to change his mind. “Presidential weakness was the underlying theme” of the first edition, and “weakness is still what I see: weakness in the sense of a great gap between what is expected of a man (or someday woman) and assured capacity to carry through.”  He famously quoted Harry Truman’s take on incoming President Dwight Eisenhower: “He’ll sit here, and he’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen. Poor Ike… he’ll find it very frustrating.”

In recent years “new institutionalists” have sought to dethrone Neustadt’s perspective by replacing his focus on bargaining with one on institutional control. But these scholars nonetheless start from the same foundation. That is: presidents are institutionally and constitutionally constrained. How can they nonetheless exercise power? In Terry Moe’s important 1985 article “The Politicized Presidency” – from a Brookings Institution edited volume – the answer is that they must leverage their formal powers and shape those institutions closest to them, by avoiding Congress, centralizing functions in the Executive Office of the President, and seeding appointed loyalists throughout the wider bureaucracy.  This analysis, along with a whole range of scholarship centered on what Richard Nathan dubbed The Administrative Presidency, presages Obama’s turn to the unilateral tactics Baker describes (“Once a virtual prime minister tethered to Congress, he now advances immigration, environmental and education initiatives through executive authority.”)

Baker also notes that “so, too, has [Obama’s] reliance on oratory diminished. At first, there was no problem, it seemed, that could not be solved by a presidential address. ‘Race problem? Speech,’ one former aide recalled. ‘Afghanistan? Speech.’ But speeches by themselves rarely generated the action he sought.”  Again, this is hardly a shocking discovery. These days George Edwards is a one-man industry devoted to the proposition that presidential rhetoric often — mostly — falls On Deaf Ears. In a forthcoming article on Obama’s relations with Congress during his first term, I borrow a phrase from British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli — “A majority,” he said, “is the best repartee.”

I do not intend to belittle the challenges of being president, nor the learning curve involved. This is merely a plea for those in the White House (and those who want to be there) to think about what we already know about those challenges. If they don’t believe me, perhaps they will believe Napoleon. “A leader has the right to be beaten,” he noted. “But never the right to be surprised.”