What’s Wrong with “What’s Wrong with Obama?”

Sep 19 '13

(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.

We might, for instance, want to give presidents who think before they act some credit; the presidential advising literature is rife with decisions moving ahead without due consideration of complicated alternatives, spinning off unintended consequences. We don’t have to concede Obama’s claim that he got the substance right to admit that “style points” are not the main aim of the policymaking process. Further, we might even think that not acting – if that act is illegal, or even just a bad idea – is a good thing. (See, on this point, the collected works of Lou Fisher.)  As I wrote a few years ago, “Presidential ‘leadership’ is not by definition virtuous, if it does violence to Constitutional tenets.”

It should be added that neither Syria nor the not-quite-extant Larry Summers nomination, the key exhibits in evidence here, necessarily lend themselves to the thesis of the article. “The common theme in both episodes is” supposed to be “that they were about projecting power, not summoning sweet reason.” But projecting power in Syria in this case – whatever the merits – apparently meant acting without legal authority to do so; polls suggest the current track (which I’m not sure represents “sweet reason”) is actually a plus for perceptions of presidential leadership.

The Summers nomination would have been (indeed, in practical terms already was) well within the purview of the Senate; presidents at present have few means of “projecting power” or fomenting fear at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Along those same lines, Politico criticizes Obama yet again for failing to persuade lawmakers to support gun control after Newtown, etc.  This site (e.g., here, here, here, and here) and others toiling in the vineyard of presidential realism (e.g. Jonathan Bernstein, Brendan Nyhan) have tried hard to make clear that presidential persuasion of Congress takes place in a complex contextual framework that makes it very unlikely that Obama’s policy preferences will become law. (And as for the idea that “The more he talked about Syria, the less support his arguments for intervention had in polls”? This is precisely the usual fate of the bullied pulpit!)

As Purdum and Harris to their credit themselves concede, albeit in a companion piece… “the president’s biggest structural political problems are not of his making.”

Now… none of this is to argue that these issues were particularly well-handled by the President. Richard Neustadt’s take on Presidential Power, fifty years ago, concluded that the default position of presidents – hemmed in as they are by others who do not owe their own position to presidential grace or gift – is weakness rather than strength.  However, he notes that presidents extend their influence by always seeking, as they act, to enhance their “future power stakes.” If they can rarely cleanly command a given outcome, they must at least create a favorable architecture within which to conduct their future bargaining. President Obama’s 2012 discussion of “red lines” created a bargaining marketplace that confined his options rather than expanding them, in his dealings with Syria itself, with Russia, and with Congress. Likewise the trial balloon that the potential Summers nomination became floated by too many of Summers’ adversaries, who had plenty of time to sharpen their sticks.

When Richard Neustadt and Will Howell come to the same conclusion… well, there is something wrong with Obama! But it’s not something that can be fixed by gauging presidential “strength” against mythical standards.