September 16, 2013

Some of the reaction to Larry Summers dropping out of the running for Fed chair after an extended trial balloon shows a misunderstanding of the job of the presidency.

Here’s Politico’s Jonathan Allen:

First it was Susan Rice, [President Obama's] choice for secretary of state. Now, Larry Summers has withdrawn from consideration to become the next chairman of the Federal Reserve. Their candidacies were so poorly handled that neither ever made it to the stage of being nominated, much less getting blocked — or voted down — by the Senate. … A larger question is of the president’s toughness.

The model that Allen and others who look at the presidency that way have is the George W. Bush model: The president is “the decider,” and the big question is whether he is “tough” enough to enforce his decisions.

That’s the wrong way to look at the presidency. Sure, presidents need to make decisions. But a president who knows what he’s doing will make those decisions using all the information available, which often means sharing those decisions with others. That’s the whole point of trial balloons: Floating a proposed decision is often the best way of finding out just how serious support or opposition for that decision really is.

Allen has it exactly backward: It’s much, much better for a president to withdraw a name before nomination than to face a Senate floor defeat. It doesn’t show presidential weakness; it shows a president who is good at reading the situation. Certainly, it’s best for a president to figure that out before going public at all, but sometimes it takes publicity to generate information.

That said, what seemed mishandled about the Summers story is that the White House wouldn’t take no for an answer. Trial balloons are intended to generate information, and this one certainly achieved that goal rather quickly; there seemed no point in pressing on after that, as the White House did for more than a month. That’s sloppy and, as far as I can tell, served no positive purpose. Basically, if Obama was absolutely dedicated to having Summers at the Fed no matter what, he should have just nominated him at the start. If Summers was his preference but only if there were no strong opposition, then the initial reaction should have been sufficient to persuade him to move on.

But putting aside the clumsy way this particular episode was handled (and see Sarah Binder for more), there’s nothing wrong at all with a president floating a trial balloon and then using the information generated to formulate his best course. Even, that is, if it’s different than his original impulse. That’s true of nominations; it’s even true with regard to Syria or other policy choices. In fact, it’s usually good for a president. What’s bad isn’t when presidents adjust course because they find resistance; what’s bad is when presidents are determined to stick to their initial impulses no matter what anyone else thinks.

So, yeah, by all means rip into the Obama White House for letting this balloon stay in play after it was shot at for far too long. Rip into the president for taking forever to digest the results. But the impulse to seek information about a nominee before sending up a name, even if it means that sometimes a first choice won’t be nominated? That should be applauded and encouraged.