First, of course, no one ever said that presidents were impotent. I've said repeatedly that the president is the single most influential person within the government; in fact, I said yesterday that the president's chief-of-staff was likely to try to stick around because only a couple positions are more influential. At a basic level, this isn't that complicated; the president cannot get whatever he wants, but does have plenty of influence. And, yes, I suppose I have to say, I would have been (and was) saying the same things during the Bush presidency.
Second, there's a big conceptual issue here, which is that the president, the presidency, and the executive branch of the government are three very different things. The president is a single human being. That's who I'm talking about when I talk about the president: Barack Obama, or George W. Bush, or Bill Clinton. Then there's what I generally call, following John Hart, the presidential branch of government: the White House, or the Executive Office of the President. It consists of the White House staff, and various agencies -- OMB, the Council of Economic Advisers -- housed within the EOP. The president has direct control of the presidential branch on paper, and in fact has quite a bit of ability to influence , although in reality the president's ability to influence all of what happens in his name is limited by his own time and energy, as well as the bureaucratic skills of those who may have their own agendas. I'm not going to be too upset about anyone who treats the White House as an extension of the president, although I'd caution them that it's not always quite that way. And then, third, is the executive branch of the government -- the various departments and agencies that actually carry out policy. The president can influence that branch, but he's constantly competing with Congress, with interest groups, with courts, potentially with his political party, with state and local governments, and perhaps most of all with the civil servants who work in those agencies. And as Robert Farley says here:
Bureaucracies, especially large ones associated with the state, are deeply resistant to change, and manifest that resistance in any number of ways. This is not a phenomenon that is limited to the Obama administration, or to the United States government. In every state (and, indeed, in every corporation) the power of the executive is limited in ways that aren’t obvious from a surface legal analysis. Observing this hardly constitutes an apology for the executive. At risk of Godwin, Hitler and Stalin were unable to coerce their bureaucracies into doing precisely what they wanted, in spite of minimal legal obstacles to executive power.And the American president has all sort of major legal obstacles to executive power. Does that mean he has no influence at all? Of course not! He has, as I've said, more weapons at his command than anyone else in the political system. But he wants lots of things; those competing for him for influence often have a narrow agenda (and with bureaucrats, it's often to be left alone). He often wants change, and the Madisonian system is biased in favor of the status quo. The result? Sometimes the president gets his way, sometimes he doesn't. When he doesn't, it's always possible that it's because he "really" wanted the other result and was dissembling if he said otherwise -- but it's just as possible it's because he lost. And it's even more complex than that; he may have lost because the item was something he wanted, but a fairly low priority. Or it could be a fairly high priority, but one he was willing to trade for other things. The truth is that it's often very hard for outsiders to know, partially because presidents don't like to get a reputation for losing so they often adopt the policy that resulted from their defeat, and partially because the reporting on lots of this stuff is very limited.
A good example, and one I've used before, is Bill Clinton and the ban on gays in the military. As best as I can tell, the story goes like this: he supported an end to the ban. It was, however, not a high priority. The policy was opposed by much of the military leadership; by the out party; and by crucial Democratic Senators, most of all Sam Nunn. Clinton was defeated on this one, partially because it was a low priority for him, and partially because he played the game rather badly, allowing (by foolishly answering a question at an early press conference) the issue to become high-visibility, which worked against reform. He then embraced the "compromise" DADT policy as if it had been his from the beginning, not wanting to fight on in a losing cause when he had other priorities.
This, of course, is all over the newspapers today (to use a quaint, dated, phrase), because of the flap with General McChrystal, which reminds us again that even where his formal Constitutional powers are strongest, the president still isn't all-powerful. The thing to remember here is that there are multiple battles going on, and the president needs to keep his eye on all of them: strategies within Afghanistan; troops levels and funding; the Iraq withdrawal; military and procurement reform; DADT; and who knows what other issues. Not to mention that with the public criticisms, Obama's reputation is on the line, and as Neustadt told us everyone is watching, not just those concerned with Afghanistan. All of which is only to say that whatever happens isn't always the president's first choice, or even second or third choice -- although it could be -- and that one can't simply assume that executive branch actions are the same thing as presidential actions. (In this case, his first choice would pretty much have been that his generals kept their mouths shut around reporters Didn't happen). Nor can one assume that because the executive branch (or "the government") becomes more powerful that the president is necessarily the beneficiary, as a quick tour through the career of J. Edgar Hoover will show.
I could go on, but that's enough for one post. Two more to come: one is a real follow-up to this about analysts and advocates, and then a second one (really, in the works. I promise!) about the imperial presidency.