Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Energy in the Executive

I don't know if I'd go so far as to call it a paradox of presidential power, but as I've said before (and this is standard Richard Neutstadt, as usual), presidents have far more tools to help them persuade others than anyone else in the political system, even though collectively everyone else have plenty of tools to use against the president.  What's difficult for the president is that everyone else has a relatively narrow agenda, so they can wield whatever weapons they have -- control over a subcommittee, or over the lobbying agenda of an interest group, or over PAC disbursements, or over whether something gets implemented quickly or slowly -- in order to bargain for the relatively few things they want.  Presidents, on the other hand, want everything, more or less.  So, and just thinking about Congress for the moment, Barack Obama can offer to cut a TV ad for a Democratic incumbent, or can threaten to oppose her in a primary...but it's always tricky, because Obama wants so many things from each Senator (yes, even the Republicans), and so using one of his weapons once might mean that it's not there the next time.  If you promise a Senator you'll campaign for her if she votes for Bill 1, you can't very well threaten her that you won't campaign for her after all if she votes against Bill 2.  Not if you want anyone in Washington to believe your word is any good -- and you very much want that, because otherwise most of your weapons become useless.

So the presidency game is incredibly complex, and incredibly difficult.  As Kirk says,  "Not chess, Mr. Spock -- poker."  Poker is a good analogy for the presidency, but think poker with all the permutations of chess.  What that means is that when we see a move, we rarely can judge it at face value.  That's why we get the kind of fascinating disputes of interpreting presidential actions you see, such as the dispute between Mike Konczal, Tim Fernholz, and Konczal again about Obama's (and Treasury's -- they might not be the same thing!) choices during the negotiations over the banking bill.  I haven't been following it closely enough to even guess who's right, but that's sort of the point.  Obama might have supported a provision of the bill because he really wanted it; because he was convinced by career people at Treasury that it was best (which might mean he was rolled by them); because he was currying favor with an industry group for reasons external to passing the bill; because he correctly decided that a bill was only possible if he advocated for something he didn't really want but was a trade-off he needed to make; or because he mistakenly (but honestly) believed that a bill was only possible if he advocated for something he didn't really want but was a trade-off he needed to make.  Sometimes we find out the truth, sometimes far down the road.  Sometimes it's never really clear, and historians argue about it.

What we can say about the presidency is that to be good at it requires extremely active play.  If you're a poker player, you may know what I'm talking about.  Every betting round in poker gives a player three choices: bet, raise, fold.  An active player will, well, actively consider each of those possibilities, aiming to exploit every possible permutation of the game.  Such a player can, in effect, multiply her options -- she may be able to get away with an extra bluff because she's folded unexpectedly in this situation before, or even better suck players in with a terrific hand because she's known to bluff.  A great poker player sees more opportunities than a weak player, and acts on them.  For a president, that's energy in the executive, Hamilton's old phrase.  A great president, an FDR, becomes a master at the game.

That's why Barack Obama's failure to even nominate anyone for so many positions, for so long, is such a major fault.  I agree with Matt Yglesias, who has been hounding on this for months, and with Brad DeLong, who brought it up again yesterday, that the worst of these was his failure to nominate anyone for two Fed vacancies for over a year.  Here's the thing: it's not just that he's losing two votes on the Fed, as bad as that is.  He's also lost, for months and months and months, the opportunity to cut deals and to make bargains over those appointments.  And not just on the Fed, but on dozens of other positions for which he was slow to appoint anyone, including a simply scandalous number of judicial vacancies.  There are very few times when it's almost certain that the president himself is clearly responsible for something going wrong, but it's hard to see who else could be ultimately to blame for this.

Overall, on "energy in the executive," I'd probably rate Obama to date, from what we know, pretty high -- certainly higher than either Bush, or Carter, and very possibly higher than Clinton and Reagan.  He's been impressively aggressive on legislation, trying hard (as far as we can see) and devoting considerable resources into passing major laws on important subjects.  He's been impressively aggressive on other things, too.  But not on appointments, and they matter quite a bit.  On that, he's letting opportunity after opportunity pass him by.  Yes, he finally did appoint people to the Fed vacancies, but he's not doing much to get the Senate moving quickly on them -- at least, he's not exerting any public pressure that I'm aware of.  Look, presidents are going to be beaten plenty of times, even the best of them (yes, FDR lost plenty of battles with Congress, with the bureaucracy, with all the players in the system).  But you can't win if you don't play, and that's been the story far too often on appointments.


  1. I'm not sure how you see this situation as all Obama's fault. Given that the Senate is now institutionally incapable of dealing with even the most non-controversial appointments, how is nominating someone for the Fed anything but a losing hand for Obama. There is simply no way that the person would be approved. Whoever it is would be smeared shamelessly by the other party and it would be progressively more difficult to find good nominees. It seems to me on the Fed and judicial nominees, not playing is the only winning strategy (hat tip to WOPR, of course).

  2. Obama is being blamed because he is not even trying.

    It's not that the meanies in the Senate are holding up these nominations, it's that he hasn't nominated anyone.

    He might have problems getting the nominations through in the political environment, but to allow cowardice to prevent him from even trying is not an acceptable alternative.

  3. Given that Obama has to fight to get anything or anyone through Congress, and that each fight takes effort and time, he has to pick the ones he engages in very carefully. He has chosen a few very big fights, intended to have a long term effect, and he has won them. Would winning some confirmation fights instead have been a better use of his finite time and energy?


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