Thursday, August 19, 2010

Presidential Decisions

I haven't really blogged about presidential power recently, but a couple of excellent posts by Noam Scheiber (here and here) about whether Barack Obama will appoint Elizabeth Warren to head the brand new Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection give me a good excuse, because he really does excellent analysis of How Things Work in Washington.  I'll add in this related item from Tim Fernholz.

The idea that I want to get across here is twofold.  First, presidential decisions are rarely about "doing the right thing" vs. "doing the wrong thing."  They're not even, really, usuallly about doing the right thing vs. doing the expedient thing.  Moreover, it's too simple to talk about whether presidents "have the power" or not to do things. Reality is usually a lot more complicated.

So: for those who haven't been following this, the question is over whether Obama will make liberals happy by appointing Warren despite some apparent reluctance of some Democratic Senators to support her, not to mention interest group (that is, banking) opposition.  So, how did this play out?  Well, first of all, the White House leaked out not only Warren's name, but also the names of alternatives that wouldn't be much (if at all) better for affected businesses, as Fernholz reports.  Scheiber notes that Warren has been, meanwhile, meeting with big bank lobbyists, presumably in part to reassure them that she's no worse than the other plausible choices.  Scheiber concludes that the banks have decided that they can live with her.  Meanwhile, I agree with Scheiber's argument that Democratic Senators who would prefer a different nominee are unlikely to actually oppose confirmation.  But as he points out, it's a bit trickier for the president than that:
Even if Obama can get the 60 votes he needs to confirm Warren, that probably comes at some cost in the Senate, since the moderate Dems who grudgingly vote with him may feel less favorably disposed on the next tough vote--and that may be an issue where they have the political space to oppose him. I'd say that's the biggest White House political consideration at this point--not whether Warren can be confirmed, but at what cost in terms of goodwill among Senate Democrats.
That's exactly the right way to look at these things.  Given that he has more cards to play than any other individual within the political system, a president often is in a position in which he can get his way if he wants something badly enough -- but that doesn't mean it doesn't come with real costs.  It's not about whether he wants to do something; it's about how much he wants to do it, what the costs and benefits are for moving ahead compared to the costs and benefits of pulling back. 

What makes the presidency so hard is that it's not about deciding right vs. wrong.  It's almost always about choices about priorities -- which of the many possible "right" things should move up to the top tier, which are clearly not worth the effort, and which are somewhere in the middle.  This requires gauging all sorts of things...are cranky Dem Senators really upset about Warren, or just putting up a show for the benefit of home-state interests.  How much does Warren's obvious symbolic importance to some liberals translate to liberal activists in general, and how will that play out if Obama was to choose a substantively similar but symbolically less fraught nominee?  How do Washingtonians feel about the president's resolve, and will his reputation for being tough be helped if he stands up to balky Senators?  What if he stands up to liberals?  How much do the banks actually care about Warren's symbolic importance?  How likely is this choice to take up valuable Senate floor time compared to alternative nominees, and which nominations or legislation might that jeopardize?  What options does he have on those other items that might clear more space for a Warren floor fight (if one is likely), and how important would those compromises be? 

Then realize that there's a similar set of questions for each of the things that Barack Obama wants to do, and for all the things he doesn't really care about but for which others are urging him to act.  Remember that while on the one hand he has far more tools than any other individual to use in order to persuade others to go along with what he wants, he's using those tools across dozens, maybe hundreds, of issues, while many of those he deals with may only care -- and care intensively -- about one or two or maybe a handful of issues.  And note that everyone is watching what the president decides, and how he decides, and who he listens to and what strategies he uses, so that they can maximize their ability to get what they want from him when it's their turn to play.  None of which should be taken as apologizing for the president...he asked for the job!  He certainly should be held to account.  It's just important, in my opinion, to understand what it means for a president to make a decision before we start attacking him for one. 

Of course, many things a president wants to do are "wrong" in the view of many citizens, but I think rarely from the point of view of what the president told his supporters he wanted to do during a campaign.  So clearly most Republicans think that on health care reform the president willfully tried to do something they thought of as "wrong," and from their point of view they are probably correct.  I'm sure there are some times when a president really does "betray" his supporters, in the sense of affirmatively choosing to support a policy they oppose and had every reason to believe he would oppose: there are cases in which a president and his supporters really are surprised to find themselves disagreeing on what is right and wrong.  I believe, however, that such cases are rare.  Most of the time a president's supporters feel betrayed, even major cases such as Reagan's conciliatory stance towards the Soviets, or Clinton and welfare reform, or Bush and Medicare, or Obama and the public option, the odds are good that the president doesn't fundamentally disagree with his supporters about right and wrong, just about the correct move to make given all the circumstances (which, again, doesn't mean he necessarily is correct about that). 

Obviously, the president has the Constitutional and statutory authority to nominate Elizabeth Warren.  Even if he believes she is the best choice for the job, however, that's just the beginning of the story.  A president who doesn't take all of those other questions into account (and, presumably, others I'm not aware of) is going to wind up unable to do very much at all. 


  1. I understand that the political press will always frame things this way, but as poli sci prof, do you really think that this controversy is really about whether Obama will make liberals happy? I don't speak for liberals, professional or otherwise, but I support Elizabeth Warren because I believe that she understands what needs to be done as the head of this agency. That belief is based on her writing, her recent performance in her current role, and the public appearances she has done. If Obama is going to appoint Warren to keep liberals happy, he's a fool. He should appoint her because he believes that she can do the job at hand, which is decidedly non-trivial AND she has significant public support.

    Whether he wants to appoint Warren tells me something important about what Obama values. I think you are contributing to the trivialization of policy into nothing but politics. You are concerned with the ego of Washington politicians and the symbolism of the appointment to the exclusion of the substance. Of course, in politics, symbolism and egos matter, but when they completely crowd out the actual substance of governing, something has gone very wrong. Real people have been hurt by the financial shenanigans that have gone on. More people will be hurt if this agency is ineffectual and that's what this fight is really about. Is it business as usual or not? I think that matters beyond the symbolism, the egos, and perceptions of Obama's manhood.

  2. Prof. Ockham, the bottom line is that the liberal blogs and lefty orgs that are insisting on Warren are basically stomping their feet like children and insisting that they deserve a "win." Not one blog, to my knowledge, has written anything meaningful about the other potential choices. You're not seeing daily takedowns of Michael Barr on dkos and firedoglake. So the claim that "only Warren is acceptable," has not been put into controversy. It's simply something that liberals have repeatedly asserted without providing any reasoning as to why this would be so. And according to the banks that would be regulated, it's probably not true--a lower profiled hire with better connections in D.C. would be worse for them.

    So the only reason Obama would give in to them is that he could reasonably believe that he's catered to the centrists too much in these first 18 months, mostly at the expense of the priorities of liberals, and he needs to throw the liberals a bone. The entire health care debate centered around what Byron Dorgan, Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, Joe Lieberman, Bart Stupak and Ben Nelson thought should happen to the bill. The wall street legislation was opened back up so that Scott Brown could take a pen to it. The unemployment extension passed because Snowe and Collins said it could. And there's an election in a few months. The push to nominate Warren only makes sense to the extent that the more ideologically liberal members of the Dem caucus are necessary participants to turn out the maximum amount of votes in November, and to the extent that nominating Warren at some cost to the Prez himself for no other good reason would work to show those liberals that the Prez won't completely ignore them.

  3. "Most of the time a president's supporters feel betrayed, even major cases such as... Obama and the public option, the odds are good that the president doesn't fundamentally disagree with his supporters about right and wrong, just about the correct move to make given all the circumstances (which, again, doesn't mean he necessarily is correct about that)."

    What about Obama's reversal on civil liberties issues (i.e. running against Bush's policies in this area and then substantially continuing them in many respects)? Would you put this in that category, or is this a genuine betrayal?

  4. Yes, the civil liberties business is important to a lot of us "liberals" (liberal with what, I keep wondering when I hear this term used). And there are quite a few other matters where the President has not exactly taken up the cudgels he led us to believe he would be brandishing during the campaign.

    The image he has acquired in many left circles is of someone with no particular convictions at all, who is terrified that he won't be re-elected and is appeasing anyone and everyone that might make things difficult for him in 2012. Or, political problems have become so difficult to solve at this point that practically nothing that the left wants can be achieved, so we should just shrug our shoulders and let what happens happen.

    Or, as most of the "serious people" seem to believe, the left is just a bunch of silly fools who are mostly concerned about their trivial ideological hobby-horses, while the President has much more serious work to do. That is, the left really does need drug testing.


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