Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Back to Presidential Power

Glenn Greenwald has responded to my earlier reply to his comments surrounding the Blanche Lincoln runoff, in some detail, and with plenty of strong language, twice.  Fair enough.  I'll leave the snark to Jonathan Chait -- as John Sides said recently, he has the comparative advantage on that.  And I'm afraid I'm boring everyone with this, since I've written a half a dozen times or so on the topic lately (for those new to it, I suppose I'll put the links below).  However, I suppose I should go through this one more time. I'm just going to discus the general point, not the specifics about Blanch Lincoln and the public option; I and others have covered that ground enough, I think.

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.

28 comments:

  1. 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.

    That's true as far as it goes, and nothing Glenn Greenwald has said contradicts that. Glenn's point, as I see it (and I agree with him), is that there are any number of issues where President Obama has engaged in (or refrained from) Presidential actions in ways that go against what he promised he would do as President. You seem overly quick to point the finger at his "administration," not the man himself; when in fact the man himself is at least nominally in charge of his administration, is he not? Yes, bureaucracies can be contrary and resist change; but is there any evidence that that is in fact what has happened on these issues?

    And if there are "executive branch actions" that are in direct contravention of "presidential actions" or even Presidential preferences, would you not expect there to be at some point some consequences within the executive branch? Would you not expect to see some resignations or even firings of these loose cannons who are acting in opposition to the President's stated positions and presumably without his advice and consent? Yet I can't recall seeing any mention of such consequences occurring. All the evidence I have seen points toward an executive branch that is doing exactly what the President wants it to do.

    The President is in charge of the Executive Branch. He is the CEO of it. Except for Civil Service positions, he can fire anyone he wants to. To absolve him of responsibility because the "administration, not the president" is enacting policy is to absolve him of responsibility for leadership of his own administration, and that just doesn't make any sense. We elect Presidents to be strong leaders. If he is not able to lead his own administration, then he is surely incapable of leading the nation.

    Your Clinton/DADT example is interesting but in fact it goes to prove what Glenn Greenwald has said, not contradict it. DADT was a result of gays in the military not being a high priority for the Clinton Administration. The elimination of the public option was a result of it not being a high priority of the Obama Administration. The difference is that (in my recollection) Clinton did not promise during his campaign to force the military to allow gays to serve openly in the military, while Obama did explicitly campaign on the public option and many people supported him based at least in part on that position. His reneging on that campaign pledge (and many others) is why progressives like myself are deeply disappointed in him.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I've read all your posts and I am confused about what your position really is. You wrote a series of three posts claiming that the president was weak without once really describing what your point of comparision was. Finally, you defined what is the ultimate straw man, an omnipotence that goes beyond anything that even Glenn Greenwald claims the president has. There are a whole lot of gradations of power between "weak" and omnipotent. At one point, you used the fact that there are other countries in the world besides the U.S. as evidence that the president is weak. That makes no sense to me. Not every constraint on one's actions indicates weakness. No one is arguing that the president has no restraint on his ability to accomplish his goals.

    I'll make my position clear. It is extremely unhelpful to claim that presidents are weak. Not only are they the most powerful people on the planet (if the president is weak, what the hell am I?), they are more powerful than is healthy for our political system. That's not to say that there aren't areas where I would like to see presidents exercise more power, but, in the main, presidents have far too much power. As it stands today, a president can unilaterally decide that you are a threat and have you killed or secretly imprisoned and tortured. A president can do that without any fear of retribution or even political blowback. You may not believe that, but it is quite obviously true. Just ask Anwar Al Awalki, a U.S. citizen that Obama has ordered to be killed. Nothing separates you or I from him. And what happened when Obama had it leaked that Al Awalki was on the hit list? Nothing. Not a peep from anyone of consequence. All those vaunted checks on presidential power that you go on and on about, which of those are stopping him? Congress? No, they are all good with it (except for some fringe folks like maybe Ron Paul or Dennis Kucinich). Our allies? Not a peep. The press? Hah! They loved it. The bureacracy? Nope, they don't have a problem with it. The courts? No, they won't be able to stop it and going by the Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project decision, I'm guessing they'll be cheering him on.

    The only thing that's keeping Al Awalki alive is our inability to find him. If they don't want to kill him (or you or me or whomever), all they have to do is kidnap us off the streets and send us to Afghanistan and "Poof", no habeas corpus.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I think the argument between yourself, Chait, et. al. and Greenwald is a bit silly, to be frank. While you no doubt have disagreements, you really are not disagreeing all that much in this particular instance, you are largely talking past one another (I've read all the exchanges).

    I don't think Greenwald would really disagree with what you said above--indeed he has said quite directly that presidents are limited in what they can do. However Greenwald has been seizing on the notion that the presidency is "weak" (which was something you perhaps worded too strongly) and reading that formulation in an extreme manner. As you note above, you do not in fact think the presidency (or the president) is weak. I'm sure you would agree that this is particularly true (and this has been Greenwald's point) when it comes to issues like torture, state secretes, Guantanamo, etc. which have been at the center of left criticisms of Obama.

    What Greenwald is saying beyond that also seems non-controversial to me: presidents have a certain amount of power and political capital and choose to deploy it in certain instances and not others. It seems obvious that Obama did not deploy much capital to push for a public option, and indeed there is some evidence that he abandoned this early on while still paying lip service to it (anyone who says this is clear-cut either way is deluding themselves). The politics of health care were INCREDIBLY complex, and no one can really say whether or not some kind of public option was impossible from the jump. There are any number of different approaches to HCR the administration could have taken rather than the one they did, and in some of those the public option might--might--have gotten through. Greenwald and others who agree with him are just saying they wish Obama and his folks would have TRIED to push things in that direction, though of course it's quite likely they would have failed.

    Anyhow, I think you, Greenwald, and Chait all need to step back and realize that this escalated into a brouhaha in part because you were misreading one another to at least some degree, perhaps reading the worst into what the other was saying. You all think the presidency is an extremely powerful position--especially in foreign affairs, though in domestic ones as well--but you also all think it has severe limitations. You might argue that there was no way Obama could have pushed a public option through so there was no sense in trying, whereas Greenwald would argue it was possible and it's unfortunate he did not try harder. That's a perfectly legitimate disagreement (which will never be resolved since it invloves a counter-factual), but it's different from the dispute y'all are currently blogging about.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Rob,

    No, he's not "in charge of the executive branch." He's co-in-charge, with Congress, and the Courts. And, really, the bureaucracy itself; when we set up civil service jobs, we're removing some measure of control away from the pols and to the bureaucrats.

    As for the DADT example...look, Greenwald isn't saying that Obama placed a low priority on the public option; he's saying that Obama actively opposed it. In my opinion, that's a very different accusation. I fully agree that Obama placed a relatively low priority on the public option -- which I think is consistent with his campaign promises, in which the public option was not his (or anyone else's, really) main emphasis.

    And that was really the problem for the public option. It was a very new policy idea, and practically no one had run on it.

    Which is where I think that Greenwald's rhetoric is dangerous for liberals. In my view, it's quite likely that the public option will be passed sometime in the next, say, five years -- if Dems keep unified control of government. Which requires that everyone who worked so hard in 2006 and 2008 accept that the American system is biased to the status quo, and that things don't always pass the first time around -- and that they'll have to work just as hard in 2010, and then 2012. It's hard to do that if you're being told that the pols deliberately sold you out, when in fact they're winning some, losing some.

    (None of which is to say that liberals should never object to things that Obama does -- of course they should! But more on this in the post I'll get up tomorrow AM, with any luck).

    ReplyDelete
  5. Just one other point Jonathan regarding the public option, it's hardly crazy to think that Obama intentionally decided to ditch the public option (and one can argue, legitimately, that it was a good choice). Greenwald is pointing to the story at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/miles-mogulescu/ny-times-reporter-confirm_b_500999.html which notes, quoting NYT reporter David Kirkpatrick:

    "That's a lobbyist for the hospital industry and he's talking about the hospital industry's specific deal with the White House and the Senate Finance Committee and, yeah, I think the hospital industry's got a deal here. There really were only two deals, meaning quid pro quo handshake deals on both sides, one with the hospitals and the other with the drug industry. And I think what you're interested in is that in the background of these deals was the presumption, shared on behalf of the lobbyists on the one side and the White House on the other, that the public option was not going to be in the final product."

    Is that definitive proof? Of course not. As a history doctoral student who has done research in presidential archives I'm well aware that what actually went down is often quite different from the best info available in public at the time. But this is obviously plausible, and of course people like Greenwald and others who viewed a public option as a "BFD" are justified in being upset about the possibility. At the same time Greenwald is far too confident in his assertion that the administration sold out the PO in a quid pro quo with industry. Maybe he did (and personally I tend to buy it for various reasons), but we need more info and less certitude from the bloggy folks on either side of this question.

    ReplyDelete
  6. A couple more points I wanted to cover:
    First, of course, no one ever said that presidents were impotent.

    Well, you may not have, but one of the primary defenses of the President made by others has been "he couldn't get X done because he couldn't get 60 votes for it in the Senate." Glenn Greenwald isn't necessarily speaking directly to you, except to the extent you are enabling and defending that excuse.

    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.

    OK. Not sure I agree that these are all separate entities, when push comes to shove.

    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.

    Which is why we judge Presidents not only on their own personal actions but on the actions of their administration: because while the President is indeed "limited by his own time and energy" he is directly responsible for hiring the people he delegates authority to (Chief of Staff, various Special Advisors, Czars, etc.) and therefore also indirectly responsible for the people THOSE people hire, and so on. If his subordinates are acting contrary to his wishes, he has a duty to hold them accountable. If he cannot do that, then he is not a strong leader.

    ReplyDelete
  7. No, he's not "in charge of the executive branch." He's co-in-charge, with Congress, and the Courts. And, really, the bureaucracy itself; when we set up civil service jobs, we're removing some measure of control away from the pols and to the bureaucrats.

    This will be news to Article II Section 2 of the Constitution, that the President is not in charge of the Executive Branch. The Congress' control is limited to the enabling legislation, budget authority, and confirmation process; after those are passed, it's in the President's hands. And I can't believe you would argue that the President would appoint people who were likely to act contrary to his wishes, or long tolerate their remaining in those positions if they did so act.

    I mentioned the Civil Service jobs not being subject to as close control. (That's why the US Attorney scandal was such a big deal.) But even there, I'm sure there are ways of dealing with intransigent people who don't toe the line.

    And that was really the problem for the public option. It was a very new policy idea, and practically no one had run on it.

    President Obama did. And come on, "a new policy idea?" Really?

    Which is where I think that Greenwald's rhetoric is dangerous for liberals. In my view, it's quite likely that the public option will be passed sometime in the next, say, five years -- if Dems keep unified control of government.

    I do not share your optimism. But thank you for your concern about what is dangerous for liberals. I take it that means you aren't one?

    ReplyDelete
  8. I'll chime in on Jon's side here.

    I think that pushback against the popular perception that we elect a omnipotent tyrant every four years is valuable. First, the perception is clearly out there, even if its subconscious. Evaluations of presidents and their parties flow from the state of the economy, something which individual presidents have little if any direct control over. Second, while we don't have the Congress-centric government we once did, Congress is still a real and important branch in policymaking, and to pretend like it isn't doesn't do us any good. Third, the weakness of American political parties make the distinction between president and Congress even more important.

    All of this is, of course, in the abstract. I think part of the talking past each other might be a difference between the abstract and the concrete. Greenwald, it seems to me, is arguing that Obama hasn't used what resources he has either effectively, or in line with how Greenwald would like, or both. I think that the Jonathans have a valuable corrective, though: to what extent can we say that? Reasoning back from the outcome is troublesome because that link between what Obama (or any president) wants and what becomes policy is tenuous. In some circumstances, the link is clear and solid. I think that, in most cases, it is much tougher to assign responsibility. This doesn't mean that Obama doesn't share in some responsibility for a failure of the public option. I tend to think that Obama let Congress be Congress all throughout summer and early fall of 2009 and could have sped up the process by calling for summits and such. If he had done so, I think the environment for passing a public option would have been more favorable. I think that Obama let his foot off the gas for the public option once it became clear that it wasn't going to get 60. It had a chance at 60 in summer 2009, and Obama let that slip away. Once fall rolled around, I think 60 votes was impossible, so he chose not to push for it, and I think rightly so. But he missed out by not pushing for it earlier. All of this, however, is speaking to his abilities in selling the product, not in commanding. To say that Obama "chose no public option" is disingenuous. To say that Obama "didn't make the most of his opportunities and ended up having to back off the public option" is fair.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Perhaps we just need some basic definition here. I believe the word "weak" implies a deficiency. To the extent that I remember Neustadt, I understood what he meant by weak. I don't agree with him, but I understood him. I don't get what our host means by weak. For all I can tell, Bernstein has no setting between weak and omnipotent.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Geoff,

    I do think that there are real disagreements, although I didn't play them up in this post. In "weak, helpless, impotent presidency", he says, "the reality is that the President has vast and unfettered control over a sprawling Executive Branch." That's not just wrong; it's far, far, off the mark. No one who studies this stuff believes that. It's fair to say, I think, that I take a position that not every political scientist would take concerning this stuff, but as far as I know there is no one who seriously thinks that the president has "unfettered" control of the exec branch.

    Rob,

    Yes, it's fair to hold the president responsible for presidential branch actions (although, as I said, worth noting that it's not always totally clear-cut). Not, however, for executive branch actions. There, one always has to be very careful about who is doing the acting. You say you're not sure you agree: why? All I can tell you is this is hardly my idea; it's standard PoliSci 101. There are plenty of arguments about exactly how much control the president has over the executive branch, but no one thinks he can always get what he wants just by giving orders.

    As far as "that would be news" to the Constitution...well, I don't agree, at all. Yes, the first clause says he has the executive power, but the reality is that Congress (as you say) has a lot of ways to influence those agencies. As do interest groups, and the courts, and, the others, especially the bureaucrats.

    Yes, presidents try to appoint people who want to carry out the president's policies. But bureaucratic "capture" of those appointees is common, as is resistance from the bureaucracy in other forms. And yes, when the president really has something as a high priority he'll be able to overcome that most of the time, and a very skilled president will get more of what he wants. That's just a far cry from "unfettered control."

    ReplyDelete
  11. On the public option (part one)

    First, I think on this (and, really , on other things), I've found Greenwald eager to pounce on slim shreds of evidence supporting his view, while ignoring mountains of evidence the other way. This fits the pattern, to me. The item Geoff cited has to compete with Obama's frequent (fairly lukewarm, to be sure) public statements of support for the public option, and other behind-the-scenes reporting that indicated the same attitude in private. Certainly, Obama did not push hard for the public option; I don't know of anyone who believes that. To me, however, there's a real big difference between saying that he supported it but was willing to lose on that one, and saying that he actively opposed it -- that he, in Greenwald's words (in bold), "never wanted it from the start." Now, he did (by all accounts) actively oppose reimportation (which was, in fact, breaking a campaign promise); the reporting on that *and the obvious actions* were far more definitive than the single item Greenwald treats as a smoking gun.

    Now, as for the public option battle. Here's what we know. First, yes, the public option is really new (see below for a link to a good history). it basically dates to the 2008 election cycle. Second, I agree with Matt Jarvis above that the public option was touch-and-go for a long time (I think well into fall and perhaps winter). But the version that had a chance at 60 votes was, in policy terms, practically meaningless. Even the "robust" public option, the Schumer amendment in the Finance Committee, was limited to the exchanges (so only a small minority of Americans would have been eligible). But that version didn't have 50 votes in the Senate, let alone 60. The (even) weaker version had maybe 55 votes. Could Obama, had he thrown everything behind it, have reached 60? Maybe. On the other hand, maybe Ben Nelson just wouldn't have gone for it, and gets so pissed that he flips parties. Same with Holy Joe.

    So: in Greenwald's world, Obama threatens Lincoln that he'll take her down if she doesn't support the public option. Maybe she says yes, and he squeaks out the very, very, weak public option. Maybe she says no -- and since he's already thrown the book at her, exactly what leverage does he have remaining to get her to vote for passage? Oops. Suddenly, no public option, and no bill at all. And no leverage on Lincoln (and presumably the rest of the marginal gang, who in this telling Obama is punishing for bailing on the public option) on banking, climate/energy, the budget, etc.

    ReplyDelete
  12. On the public option (part two)

    Look, Greenwald's list of eight weapons the president had is on the right track; I'd argue the details on some of them, but there's no question that the president has more weapons than any other single player. But the president has, as I said, many goals, and he's rarely gong to throw everything he has at a problem; he can't, at every problem. He has to make choices. Sometimes, he's going to make suboptimal choices, because people do that. Obama's strategy for health care entailed (1) making deals with as many of the stakeholders as possible, and (2) putting his strongest priority on getting the basic framework enacted within a plan that scored out as reducing the deficit. And he barely, barely, skin of his teeth got it done. Now, had he cut one fewer deal, would he have still made it? Maybe. Had he included the public option within his "strongest priority" group, as part of the basic structure, would he have made it? Maybe. If you think those were wrong calls, it's legit to blame the president for them -- but with open eyes, knowing the real situation -- where the votes were, what "public option" we're talking about anyway. To me, it hardly seems like a crazy choice to place a lower priority on the public option, nor does doing so equal selling out anyone (since the public option was not the centerpiece of his plan during the campaign). But it wouldn't have been a crazy choice to push harder for it, either. On balance, I think he did pretty well, but no question that's a tentative call, pending further evidence (I haven't even read Jon Cohn's big wrapup article, let alone the studies that will show up years from now).



    For a brief history of the public option:

    http://www.prospect.org/csnc/blogs/tapped_archive?month=08&year=2009&base_name=the_history_of_the_public_opti

    ReplyDelete
  13. You say you're not sure you agree: why? All I can tell you is this is hardly my idea; it's standard PoliSci 101.

    Your PoliSci 101 course must have been different from mine then, because I don't recall the structure of government being explained that way where I studied Political Science. We also weren't taught that there was a Presidential Branch in addition to the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial Branches of government laid out by the Constitution. I suppose you would further subdivide the Executive Branch into the Military, Financial, Business, Trade, Diplomatic, Intelligence, and other "branches" roughly along the lines of the various cabinet-level departments. (Vice President Cheney famously contended that the office of Vice President was also effectively a unique "branch" of government, straddling Executive and Legislative but not subject to the rules constraining either. His arguments are not convincing.) However, at that point you have wandered far afield from my main point, which is that the heads of all these "branches" all serve at the pleasure of the President and therefore reflect his policy preferences or face removal from office, as do their subordinates down to the Civil Service level. If you are trying to argue that a low-level Civil Service bureaucrat is capable of not only derailing a Presidential initiative but implementing a policy diametrically opposed to what the President wanted, without facing sanction of any kind...I find that a very very difficult premise to accept. And if you are trying to further argue that this low-level bureaucrat is capable of altering legislation in order to thwart the President's will, I find that even more difficult to accept. Not that people so inclined couldn't exist; but that such people would be permitted to exercise such power. Those policy decisions are above their pay grade, as the saying goes.

    If your premise is correct, then it doesn't matter who is elected President; it only matters who hires and is hired for these Civil Service positions. In that case, Monica Goodling was the most powerful person in the Bush 43 administration. Additionally, our whole system of government is irretrievably compromised, as the ideologues she hired will remain in the Civil Service bureaucracy for years to come.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Rob,

    When Jonathan talks about the President being co-in-charge, it's not all that out there of an idea. Your argument about Congress "only" being given the power over enabling legislation, financing, and appointments actually goes to just the point that Jonathan is making, because Congress is, at all times, able to go back and make corrective legislation to either take away what they've enabled, to enable further things, or to de-fund something. This gives the President the option of vetoing it, of course, but that leaves several problems:

    (1) If the legislation passed with a strong enough vote, then the veto won't matter.

    (2) If the President vetoes something that Congress doesn't have enough votes to overturn, the President runs the risk of creating blowback from Congress on other priorities.

    Now, what Jonathan is saying is that the President has priorities, and so maybe the President is willing to deal with the risks of the above (risks, not a sure thing that either will happen) because something is just that important, but maybe not. It's not such an easy reasoning as "Article II Section 2 says X, so the President has total control over what happens in the Executive branch." In reality, all actions by the President are subject to risks that he has to take into account, such as push-back from Congress clawing back powers they've granted to the Executive branch, or de-funding things. This is not to say that the President doesn't also have tools at his disposal, but that's what the rest of Jonathan's post is about.

    ReplyDelete
  15. By the way, in case this seems too theoretical, let's take a look at a concrete way in which this occurs. Remember that the Obama administration wanted to hold the trial of Khaleid Sheik Mohammed in NYC. However, because the public reacted against it so strongly, many in Congress threatened to withdraw any funding for holding the trial there, obstructing the President from being "in charge" of the process. This also happened with the funding for closing Guantanamo Bay and moving it to the facility in Illinois, as Congress stripped funding for the move.

    The power of the purse means that the President is, at any point in time, only co-in-charge, as Jonathan notes, because many of his decisions can effectively be changed by Congress given enough will.

    ReplyDelete
  16. The best example in the Obama administration for me is the closure of GTMO / the lack thereof, as well as civilian trials of certain accused terrorists and trials in NY Federal Court. This is an extremely important issue for me; my views are exactly in line with Greenwald's. But I saw with the initial Guantanamo closure debate in the Senate early in Obama's term that there was absolutely no way that Congress wouldn't step in and halt Obama's progress legislatively if he came close to closing the prison. Why people don't have a problem when Congress oversteps its bounds and takes power back that it's ceded by refusing funding is beyond me.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Just one final comment on the public option question here, and also thanks to Jonathan for his replies with which I largely agree.

    Let me give a purely hypothetical (but plausible) example of how complicated the politics around this can be and how little we know. Let's assume (and obviously it's a big assumption) that Obama decided last summer that in order to make a deal with industry--which he viewed as necessary to make health care reform happen, something which was obviously a conscious choice--he had to cut out the public option. Hardly implausible or even surprising, and it may have been smart politics.

    At the same time, because the public option was seen by his progressive base as critical (rightly or wrongly), he could not just abandon it--indeed in order to keep his supporters fired up about reform (which was also important) he probably needed to keep it in play for awhile. Obama would not want to be the one to shoot it down, but there would be some moderate Democrats in Congress who would have been happy to do so, particularly after August. Under this scenario, moderate (and conservative) Dems who were speaking out against the PO might actually have been helping Obama and indeed perhaps working with him directly on this particular issue. It would have been a win-win for both groups (Obama gets to nominally support the PO while it dies a slow and inevitable death, moderate legislators get to rail against government overreach), even as it played out as a conflict on progressive blogs and the like.

    That may sound conspiratorial (and I cheerfully admit it's pure speculation that could very easily be wrong), but in fact such a situation would be normal, behind-the-scenes maneuvering that the key players kept close to their chests. As I said one could argue it was very smart politics that allowed reform to pass, or that it was a disappointing sellout by Obama--the question there is highly subjective. If this scenario is not all that close to reality, something similarly unlike the current conventional wisdom about reform and the public option very well might be.

    My overall point is that, years after the fact when historians get to look in archives and follow the paper (or electronic) trail, the reality of these legislative imbroglios often turns out to be quite a bit different than our best guesses at the time events were unfolding. And of course even historical accounts can never capture the entire story. To infer from the limited information that we have right now that Obama definitely did this or did not do that with respect to the public option is ill advised in my view--he may have never wanted to do it at all and sold it down the river at the first opportunity, or he may have been incredibly frustrated that a "robust" public option was becoming increasingly difficult yet still exerting pressure to make it happen, or he may have fallen somewhere in between those extremes. The extent to which Obama made any effort to exercise his power (and the extent to which he was successful) to make his preferred outcome happen is also very much an open question.

    All of these caveats are extremely important when discussing these matters yet generally go unmentioned: instead we often get heated debates based on very little verifiable information and giant helpings of speculation/personal opinion.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Geoff's scenario is pretty good, but I would actually simplify it a bit. I imagine that early in the bargaining process, Obama and company made a calculation that the public option wasn't that important to HCR, and that it didn't have the votes to pass anyway. In that situation, why not bargain it away at the beginning for something substantive in return?

    It seems to me that Greenwald and other liberals' problem with Obama is that they feel he was lying to them: i.e. supporting the public option in public, while knowing he had already given it away. On this point, I'll say two things.

    First, the evidence for this position is highly questionable (Greenwald can be as emphatic in his belief that the evidence is iron-clad, but, in reality, it's not).

    Second, Obama never said he would go to the mat for a public option. He said he supported one, but he was very clear that it wasn't central to his vision for HCR. In that sense, he never even implied that he was willing to use presidential leverage to try to drum up votes for the public option. Greenwald might be mad that Obama didn't vigorously push the public option, but he can hardly accuse Obama of lying to progressives.

    The bottom line for me is that Greenwald has yet to make a compelling case that there was ever any chance of passing a public option even if Obama had put on the full-court-press. In fact, my feeling is that an all-out fight on the public option probably would have destroyed HCR. How can anyone look at that disaster of a process and not come away thinking we're lucky we got HCR at all?

    ReplyDelete
  19. First, yes, the public option is really new (see below for a link to a good history). it basically dates to the 2008 election cycle.

    In my view, the "public option" was merely the latest iteration of the campaign that has been going on at least since Theodore Roosevelt to implement a single-payer health care system. So no, as far I'm concerned the public option is not really new.

    To me, however, there's a real big difference between saying that he supported it but was willing to lose on that one, and saying that he actively opposed it -- that he, in Greenwald's words (in bold), "never wanted it from the start."

    Then how do you explain this, cited by Greenwald from the New York Times:

    "For months I've been reporting in The Huffington Post that President Obama made a backroom deal last summer with the for-profit hospital lobby that he would make sure there would be no national public option in the final health reform legislation...

    ...On Monday, Ed Shultz interviewed New York Times Washington reporter David Kirkpatrick on his MSNBC TV show, and Kirkpatrick confirmed the existence of the deal...

    ...And I think what you're interested in is that in the background of these deals was the presumption, shared on behalf of the lobbyists on the one side and the White House on the other, that the public option was not going to be in the final product."

    That seems like pretty damning evidence. You talk about a "difference between saying that he supported it but was willing to lose on that one, and saying that he actively opposed it;" well, to me as a citizen, that's a distinction without a difference. By not fighting for what he believed in (if he truly believed in it as you suggest), he showed weakness; and the end result is we get a weak tea substitute for real change. That's not what I voted for. And it appears that not only did he not fight for what he believed in (allegedly), he gave it away almost as a precondition. The difference you are asserting is razor-thin at best.

    But the president has, as I said, many goals, and he's rarely gong to throw everything he has at a problem; he can't, at every problem. He has to make choices. Sometimes, he's going to make suboptimal choices, because people do that.

    OK, but does every "suboptimal choice" have to err on the side of capitulation to conservative interests? Why vote against John McCain if his opponent is going to compromise in his direction to an almost absurd degree? This question is getting asked more and more: what is the point of participating in the political process if the best result we can hope for is a slightly less inimical government?

    So: in Greenwald's world, Obama threatens Lincoln that he'll take her down if she doesn't support the public option. Maybe she says yes, and he squeaks out the very, very, weak public option. Maybe she says no -- and since he's already thrown the book at her, exactly what leverage does he have remaining to get her to vote for passage? Oops.

    At least he will have made the attempt. Who knows, maybe she says yes and Snowe and Collins cross over. Maybe she says no and gets a primary challenge (oops, that actually did happen, and Obama still endorsed her- makes you wonder about the depth of his commitment to progressive ideals once again). And maybe there never was any leverage he could have used on her. In not even making the attempt, he guaranteed there would be no public option. That is not acceptable.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Turning briefly to Zack:
    But I saw with the initial Guantanamo closure debate in the Senate early in Obama's term that there was absolutely no way that Congress wouldn't step in and halt Obama's progress legislatively if he came close to closing the prison.

    Yes, but the point is to force Congress to take that vote. Let's get our cards on the table here; who is in favor of indefinite detentions and who isn't. I am fed up to here with compromising and triangulating and the politics of the possible. And I think I am not alone in that. Don't tell me what's possible, tell me what you are going to do! And then do it! Lead, follow, or get out of the way.

    When the President prematurely capitulates to "the possible," it not only sounds naughty but shows a dismaying lack of conviction. Why did he want to be President, if not to lead? Did he just want to be everyone's buddy? Have a seat at the big kids' table?

    ReplyDelete
  21. It seems to me that Greenwald and other liberals' problem with Obama is that they feel he was lying to them: i.e. supporting the public option in public, while knowing he had already given it away.

    Not to speak for Glenn, but that's certainly my view.

    First, the evidence for this position is highly questionable

    See NYT quotes above. Also this timeline of the evolution of Obama's position is illuminating.

    Second, Obama never said he would go to the mat for a public option.

    Indeed, he never came within shouting distance of the mat. I wonder if there is any progressive policy he would go to the mat for. It's very clear now that he is not a progressive.

    Don't focus solely on HCR; Obama has also backtracked on a great number of things. Guantanamo, Afghanistan, habeas corpus, on and on. I would almost put money on the offshore oil drilling moratorium next.

    How can anyone look at that disaster of a process and not come away thinking we're lucky we got HCR at all?

    We got the crumbs that the health insurance industry was willing to let drop. That's all. The "concessions" we got on pre-existing conditions and the rest were trifles compared to what we gave up with the mandate. The health insurance industry is crying all the way to the bank.

    ReplyDelete
  22. I don't really understand this weak president theory. You can argue that in the original set up the president was weak, at least when Congress was in session (a big caveat). But I always thought it was conventional wisdom, political history 101, that the presideny was weak during the 19th century and much stronger in the 20th century. What has happened to this theory? Has Bernstein rewritten the history of the presidency and nobody noticed?

    Another pieve of conventional wisdom is that hte presidency in teh 20th century reached a nadir during the seventies - Nixon-Ford but then bounced back.

    Obama is in stronger position than Carter, not to speak of Ford. And Nixon facing big democratic majorities in both houses was a much stronger president than cleveland who had to deal with a republican senate.

    I will stop before I bore everybody to death. But how can anybody claim that the presidency is weak, given this very elementary facts?

    ReplyDelete
  23. My understanding of the "weak president" theory is that he is weak in comparison to a monarch or a dictator, who have no checks on their power even in theory. That is a definition of "weak" that is somewhat counterintuitive; as Dr. Bernstein has said, being "weak" in that sense doesn't mean being powerless. And in a world where the President can unilaterally declare someone an enemy combatant and imprison them indefinitely in a foreign gulag without charges, or order the killing on sight of an American citizen, one increasingly wonders just how weak the "weak president" truly is.

    ReplyDelete
  24. Rob,

    another thing: the old congresssional checks on the the president, the power to declare war and the necessary consent to keep up a standing army longer than two years, are quite meaningless nowadays. The rise of the industrial-military complex has strenghtened the president and weakened congress. On all matters regarding the military and the national security state the president has gained power at the expense of congress.

    And the president is unusually strong vis-a-vis the bureaucracy in comparison to other democracies: He can appoint the top 1000 to 1500 members of the administration when he comes into office. That is hardly a strong permanent bureaucracy in the european mould.

    ReplyDelete
  25. IM,

    On your last point -- I'd modify that. The bureaucracy is weak in the US because of all the political appointees compared to most other democracies, but the president isn't the only one who is helped by that; Congress, parties, and interest groups are also helped.

    ReplyDelete
  26. But that is still 19th century thinking. A president without a party like sometimes in the 19th century is very weak. But the modern president always belongs to one of the major parties and so he can stack the administration with ideological fellow-travelers. And he has always automatic supporters in congress, (almost) never facing a unified congress. And he tends to be the de facto party leader.

    If just add interest group, congress in the abstract, parties together a president can be beaten. But does this ever happens? Some of these people will always be on the side of the president.

    ReplyDelete
  27. @Rob "Yes, but the point is to force Congress to take that vote."

    Because if Congress were to have taken that vote, it would've likely precluded any movement of GTMO detainees to the States which is what we're trying to do now (with lots of resistance, still) by buying a prison in Illinois. It's also, unfortunately, not a debate that would be won in public; highly publicized debate would result in further limiting any route towards closing GTMO.

    Forcing a vote can result in something worse than the status quo. A corollary to this is that having a vote on an unsettling compromise position can be better than the status quo. To me, GG is too reflexively anti-Obama to realize that he might actually be making the best choice out of a bunch of somewhat bad ones more often than not. Not being able to command the entire Democratic caucus to get the ideal bill passed is a result of (1) Democrats not closing off their party to the ideologically unpure and (2) the fact that the power structure of Congress favors minority positions. Personally, I'll take an ideological unpure party over a losing a majority.

    ReplyDelete
  28. @Rob "Glenn's point, as I see it (and I agree with him), is that there are any number of issues where President Obama has engaged in (or refrained from) Presidential actions in ways that go against what he promised he would do as President."

    Does anyone actually think that Obama wouldn't do more or less exactly what Greenwald wants and what Obama promised in the campaign if he were granted unlimited executive power? I don't understand the idea that Obama somehow hoodwinked us by not going after politically impossible goals.

    ReplyDelete

Who links to my website?