Monday, November 22, 2010

Presidents and Presidencies

Conor Friedersdorf returned to a favored subject of his last week in a post that I do recommend.  Friedersdorf makes the conservative/libertarian argument that the presidency is too big for one person, and that therefore the federal government should do fewer things.

That's a good argument for people to hear; liberals often underappreciate just how difficult it is to actually choose and implement policies to attack the problems they see as needing solutions.  Which is not to say that liberals have no good replies, of course.  But I'm not going to resolve any of that in a blog post!

No, what I want to talk about is the capacity of the executive.  And, here, I think Friedersdorf is mistaken.  Indeed, one can see his mistake in the title of his post: "The Presidency is 'To Big For One Man.'"  Yes, it is too large for one person -- which is why, basically from the time of Harry Truman, the presidency has grown to include (depending on how one counts it) hundreds, or even thousands, of people. 

It's true that as recently as the 1930s, we elected a president.  Now, we elect an entire presidency.  Moreover, while it used to be that these unelected/elected presidential assistants were apt to be longtime cronies of the president with few ties to their party (think Bob Haldeman or Hamilton Jordan), now they are usually longtime party professionals (such as Andy Card, Rahm Emanuel, or Pete Rouse).  Why is that important?  Because partisan elections generally work better; there's no realistic way for voters in 1968 to know who Haldeman and Ehrlichman were, but voters in 2008 could know that they were choosing between Team Democrat and Team Republican, without having to know who would wind up as second deputy chief-of-staff. 

So one can make a case that the expanded presidency -- what political scientist John Hart calls the Presidential Branch of government -- is democratic.  What of Friedersdorf's complaint, however?  Well, the idea is that a large Presidential Branch allows the presidency to influence the numerous executive branch departments and agencies, and then the president can control the Presidential Branch.  In practice, of course, both propositions are often tested, but generally I don't think that the evidence suggests that the job of president is no longer possible to do well -- it is difficult, but in my view George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and (perhaps, it's still early) Barack Obama seem to have achieved at least a somewhat adequate success at it (as did Ronald Reagan at times).

I've seen serious questions raised about how well the current style of the presidency works (if you're interested, in addition to me you should be reading Matthew Dickinson (here's a recent relevant post).  And this sort of analysis can't really answer Friedersdorf's challenge, which at heart, I think, is ideological.  But it's important, when thinking about the president and the presidency, to understand who does what, how its organized, and why.  The basic idea is that the growth of the presidential branch, since its origins under FDR, has always been intended specifically to extend the capacity of the presidency.  One can argue that it hasn't worked, but the very fact of its existence -- all those extra advisers to the president that Friedersdorf is concerned about -- is intended to be a feature, not a bug. 


  1. My only quibble is with the last line: "is INTENDED to be a feature, not a bug." (emphasis mine)

    I would aruge that the growth of the presidential branch wasn't undertaken (for the most part) to fulfill any general goals of what the presidency should look like, but were taken as steps to address immediate problems. We're a superpower? Better create some group to overlook national security. Our government impacts our economy significantly? Better create some group to overlook the economy. Etc.

    The exception is the W. administration, with a large number of adherents to a particular view of presidential power. A number of their processes weren't being done because they were making the best of the situation and just trying to get stuff done; they were actually trying to change the nature of the presidency. Thus, their changes are intended.

    I think, like you, that the growth of the presidential branch is a feature, not a bug. But I don't think it's due to some vision thing; it's just the natural consequence of the growth in government and in expectations for presidential leadership.

  2. Can you expand a bit on why you describe GHWB as a successful president, but Reagan more ambiguously? I would guess that it has something to do with the scandals that arose later in Reagan's years in office, which implies less control over the "Presidential Branch," while (IIRC) there were none such during the GHWB years.

    On the other hand, 41 lost his re-election bid and thus could not successfully execute any further control over his branch of government, so it would seem that he was fundamentally less successful than Reagan.

  3. Dan: in retrospect, it seems to me that GHWB booked at least 3 major accomplishments:
    1) midwifing a relatively peaceful implosion of the Soviet Union; 2) Pushing Iraq out of Kuwait; and 3) setting budget back on course toward balance. Not bad for 4 years. Can't really blame him for a recession, Ross Perot, and being at the tail end of 12 years of Republican rule.

  4. Dan & ASP,

    Yeah...I don't know. When I evaluate presidents, I try to do it on the question of how they did at the job of being president, not on whether I agree with their policies or not. My general sense is that the things that GHWB did that I disagree with were on policy grounds, but on the whole he ran the presidency reasonably well. But I'll readily admit that it's awful hard to draw those lines as clearly as I'd like, in many cases.


    I partially agree. To the extent that it can be traced to the Brownlow Commission (under FDR), then it was sort of a deliberate plan. But I agree that most of the actual growth and shaping of it was just historical accident.

    Here's one: if we hadn't had a General as president, would we still have wound up with a chief-of-staff system? After all, it took the Dems another fifty years (until 2009) to fully accept it.

  5. Just wanted to say, posts like this are really a tremendous addition to the political blogosphere. It's so valuable to get these kinds of insights and theories in an otherwise narrow/partisan/events-driven realm. Thanks!


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