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Shrinking the presidency back down to size

at 09:17 AM ET, 11/09/2011


(Andrew Harrer - Bloomberg)
In his response to my recent New York Review of Books essay, Conor Friedersdorf laments what he sees as a defense of President Obama’s record that ignores his intervention in Libya, or his record on civil liberties. Well, I plead guilty to ignoring Libya and civil liberties in an article entitled “Obama’s Flunking Economy: The Real Cause.” But not to defending Obama’s record.

My retrospective on the Obama administration’s economic policy, my review of Ron Suskind’s “Confidence Men,” and even my column yesterday on FDR are all efforts to make the same point: The president is not as powerful as we think. If you believe that the state of the economy drives the electorate’s evaluations of our political leaders — and you should believe that — then you have to grapple with the fact that the president is primarily responsible for economic conditions and needs either Congress or the Federal Reserve to join him in making economic policy.

To some, this reads like a subtler defense of Barack Obama. An attempt not so much to defend his record but to distract from it, to offer an explanation for low approval numbers and high unemployment that doesn’t impinge on the president’s decision making. So perhaps it would help to start by stating my opinion on Obama’s presidency more clearly.

I think, from 2009 to 2010, the Obama administration operated on the frontier of the policy possible. They did about as much, and perhaps a bit more, than they could reasonably have been expected to do. The stimulus, health-care reform, financial regulation, the end of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the passage of the START treaty, the expansion of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, the imposition of new regulations on tobacco, the stress tests, the SERVE America Act ... that’s quite a lot for a two-year period. That’s not to say there weren’t mistakes, of course. Their housing policies were insufficient, and they were absurdly slow with nominations. But I would grade their first two years fairly highly given my estimation of what was achievable.

Since the 2010 election, however, they have made one mistake after another. They whiffed on the 2011 budget and let the State of the Union pass without saying anything of substance. The Simpson-Bowles report was a huge opportunity to, at the least, firmly set the terms of the budget debate, and they ignored it completely. They permitted and even abetted the unwise focus on medium-term deficit reduction and, until the recent introduction of the American Jobs Act, were disastrously passive in the face of the unemployment crisis. The debt-ceiling debate was a catastrophe, and though they hate hearing this, they should have insisted on including it in the 2010 tax deal.

The Obama administration, in other words, was fairly good at dealing with Democrats. They never figured out how to deal with Republicans. I take Bill Daley’s demotion as evidence that they realize that.

But that’s not been the point of these pieces. The point of these pieces has been that we systematically overrate the power of the presidency and underrate the importance and autonomy of Congress and the Federal Reserve. And this is not an argument I’ve developed special for the Obama administration. In October 2008, before Obama won the election, I wrote a cover story on this subject for the American Prospect. Title? “The President Doesn’t Matter.” An excerpt:

Forget the president. Not totally, of course. The president matters. But not as much as you think. Not as much as you’ve been led to believe. The centrality of the executive is something of a convenient fiction in American politics. Convenient for the media, which can tell the story of national affairs by following a single character. Convenient for the party that holds the White House, which can outsource the messy work of constructing an agenda to one actor. Convenient for the party that does not hold the White House, which can create an agenda out of simple opposition. And convenient for voters, who can understand politics through the actions of a discrete player and offload their dissatisfaction onto the failures of a hapless individual.
But the “great man” theory of the presidency is not convenient when it comes to actually creating change. Again and again, presidents disappoint. They fail to pass health-care reform or Social Security privatization. They don’t ease partisanship or break through gridlock. They prove impotent in the face of immediate crises and leave long-term challenges to fester. And so we tire of them, resolving to replace them with more presidents. Better presidents. Presidents of the other party, or of the same party, or of no party at all. Businessmen like Mike Bloomberg, insurgents like Ralph Nader, charismatic leaders like Barack Obama, self-professed mavericks like John McCain.
Executive leadership is important, of course, but the continual failure of our presidents should be lesson enough that it is not sufficient. The executive is but one actor in a sprawling drama...]And] so long as the public understanding of American politics is so resolutely focused on the president, change will be a heavy lift, because the public will continually apply pressure to only that one point in the system -- and often, it won’t be the chokepoint.

My reporting on the economy, health-care reform and the workings of the federal government has convinced me, if nothing else, that these are complicated issues and complex systems. For that reason, I try to resist the urge to comment on issues I know little about. Civil liberties and Libya fall under that umbrella. But the fact is, they’re largely irrelevant to the case I’m making. Leave Obama’s record on civil liberties unchanged, hold his decisions on Libya constant, but raise growth to 5 percent and drop unemployment to 6 percent and Obama’s poll numbers would be in the 60s and his presidency proclaimed a historic success.

That may not, in some sense, be fair. Obama made promises on civil liberties and presidential power, and he may well have broken them. But I don’t think voters are fair, or comprehensive. I think they’re mostly making judgments based off the state of the economy. But insofar as they are trying to make judgments about how various political actors are contributing to the economy, I fear the constant, overwhelming focus on the presidency misleads them quite badly. And that matters.

Politics is all about accountability. If voters don’t know why Washington is working the way it is, they won’t know how to go about changing it. And though the president is clearly a crucial, agenda-setting actor in Washington, the constant, obsessive focus on the presidency often obscures the power and agency of Congress, the Federal Reserve, and other actors. Pointing that out isn’t a defense of the president, nor an attack on him. It’s just the truth.

 
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