December 26, 2012

How should a president deal with the new ground rules of Cabinet nominations?

Reid Wilson of National Journal argued yesterday that Congress now has too much influence over a president’s choices, noting how frequently nominations have been derailed over the last 20 years. Indeed, the real change dates a little further back than that, to the successful Democratic opposition to George H.W. Bush’s nomination of John Tower as defense secretary. With Chuck Hagel’s possible nomination for the Defense Department now up in the air and Susan Rice already withdrawn from consideration for the State Department, some are arguing that Barack Obama must make a stand if he is to negotiate successfully for anything. Ed Kilgore, meanwhile, takes a different position, arguing that Obama may be getting otherwise controversial nominees through by first floating someone who gets knocked down.

You can see the problem: it’s possible that the strategy to get what you actually want might conflict with the goal of looking good while doing it. For presidents, that’s a real problem because (as Kevin Drum points out) they must negotiate with everyone all the time, so creating the perception of weakness really does matter — even if it buys them something real.

As far as executive-branch nominations are concerned, clearly things have changed. Not only is there a much higher chance of out-party partisan opposition to selections, but (new to the Mitch McConnell Senate) there are also automatic filibusters of everyone, so that 60 votes are needed instead of the simple majority that Tower needed in 1989 and John Ashcroft needed in 2001. That, of course, is one of the reasons that reform of Senate rules is desperately needed.

But I suspect there’s something more going on as well. Before Politico, before the blogs and before the 24-hour cable news networks, a president could probably more easily float and then withdraw a trial balloon with very little record of it. Now that’s impossible; or if it is possible, Barack Obama is really bad at it.

The thing is: Presidents should be listening to Congress. Not allowing Congress, and especially the minority party, to dictate their choices — but listening nonetheless. Obama’s instincts are correct about that. But how to do that in a nonstop news cycle without constantly giving the impression that the president is getting rolled? To tell the truth, I’m not sure of the answer to that question.