Thursday, April 28, 2011

The President's Partisan Job

I have a new post up over at Greg's place agreeing with Fred Kaplan that Barack Obama made good choices in his national security reshuffle.

Two additional points. Kevin Drum highlighted one of the more interesting bits of Kaplan's article: the apparent lack of a strong "bench" in national security. It's worth mentioning that developing the party's farm team -- in both governing and electioneering -- is actually one of a president's most important partisan tasks. Not only is it important for future same-party presidents (I've talked many times about Bill Clinton's problem with finding experienced White House personnel), but it's presumably quite important for a president's second term, as well. Of course, an inattentive attitude towards executive branch staffing is not going to produce good results, there.

The second point is about Ezra Klein's question about why it's so hard to get budget cuts through the Pentagon:
This seems both perfectly plausible to me and completely insane. No one asks whether the Department of Health and Human Services will accept budget cuts, or whether the Labor Department is willing to downsize. But the Pentagon gets treated differently.
Well, yes and no. All departments and agencies, HHS included, resist budget cuts and changes to standard operating procedures; the Pentagon is just (perhaps) better at it than others. We know, certainly by reputation at least, some of why this is: contracts carefully arranged for maximum political benefit; the high esteem in which the military is held by the public, especially in wartime; the advantages of legitimate (and plausibly legitimate) secrecy. Add to that, for a Democratic president, fear of an issue "owned" by the other party, and you can see why it's hard to effect change. But the truth is that it's always hard to get the bureaucracy to go along with what the president wants.

And to tie these points together: it's presumably easier to get the bureaucracy to bend to the intent of the White House when political appointees are enthusiastic about carrying out the president's policies. Not certain, by any means; there are plenty of stories of bureaucratic capture of even the most gung-ho appointees. But easier. And for a Democratic president, it's not hard at all to find lots of enthusiastic nominees for Interior, or EPA, or Justice's Civil Rights Division. It's an important part of the president's job to develop an equally strong group in national security and other areas that might not spark quite as much natural passion.


  1. aren't you making a big assumption that most of the national security political apparatus is controlled by parties? From where I stand, there are a lot of other interest groups out there that are far smarter than parties....

  2. Don't know if you read the comments of back posts, but Heather Hurlburt argued in a bloggingheads a day or two ago that the Dems' bench strength in foreign affairs is quite strong. FYI.


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