Thursday, June 6, 2013

PEPFAR and the Presidency

I have a new column up over at TAP about the presidency, about how the presidency we have isn't particularly Constitution-based. It goes along with last week's column there, which was about why the myth of the magical heroic-king presidency is so persistent; this one is about how our ideas about the presidency gain strength because the Constitutional version is such an empty shell.

I used an example at the end about how George W. Bush's program to fight HIV/AIDS in Africa, PEPFAR, was in part a reaction to the "need" for him to have something feel-good to say in his 2003 SOTU speech. As it happens, I also use that initiative as an example of something else about the presidency, so I'll use this excuse to tell that one, too.

What I find in explaining the Neustadtian presidency is that the hard part for people to grasp is the part about how the bargaining presidency needs to do "persuade" people and groups to do things across the board. Everyone understands that Congress doesn't have to do what presidents want (even if they often forget it; see, again, that magical hero-king), but the rest of it seems less intuitive to many people. Sometimes that's because there's a basic assumption that, say, the executive branch has to do what presidents say...that's one of the reasons I find Watergate so interesting, since it's chock full of examples of executive branch agencies and departments ignoring what Nixon wanted.

Then there's the president's political party, and party-aligned interest groups. Here, I think the assumption is again too often that they will do whatever the president says; presidents are the "leaders" of the party. But that's wrong; parties, and party-aligned groups, are autonomous, and there's little inherent hierarchical structure. It's often in the interest of the party to go along with the president, but any president who thinks he can just issue edicts and have the party fall in line will be very disappointed -- as George W. Bush was when he tried to put a buddy on the Supreme Court.

Anyway, to PEPFAR: I really like this example, but I do have one problem, which is that I'm not entirely sure it's true. I always include that disclaimer when I use one point, I wasted a few hours trying to track it down in sort of a half-assed way, and failed, and concluded that I might as well just keep using it as long as I always remember to mention that I'm not sure whether it's correct or not.

The point of the story is that presidents are always asking people for things that those people are free to refuse. In this case, the president was George W. Bush, the people were Christian conservatives, and what Bush was asking for was for them to look the other way. Why? Bush, for various sensible presidential reasons (oh, and perhaps also because it was a Good Thing, I suppose) wanted to do something about the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa. The problem? Doing something about the epidemic was going to mean US money paying for condoms, and a lot of Christian conservatives really don't like condoms. If they opposed the initiative, then the Republican Congress probably wasn't going to pass it, at least not in a form in which it could actually work.

Bush didn't need Christian conservative groups to support the program. He just needed them to look the other way. Which they didn't have to do!

Again, whether that's fictional or not, it's not unusual. Think, for example, about same-sex couples (and the groups who lobby on their behalf) and the current immigration bill.

The point is that Bush couldn't order Christian conservatives to look the other way. He had to "persuade" them. Usually, that's going to take the form of bargaining of some sort, either in particular deals, or more generally keeping a group "on board" enough that it will go along.

Presidents, as Neustadt says, have more things to bargain with than anyone else in the political system; they also, however, have more things to ask for, and more people to ask, than anyone else.

At any rate, the Prospect column isn't very newsy, but it does get at one of the core issues with the presidency, I hope. It's just a very difficult office to nail down, and it has been from the start.


  1. I think your phrase (or whoever you borrowed it from), 'hero king' nails it. The concept of a ruler has *deep* roots. If Congress was broadly modeled on the 18th century concept of Parliament (with the Senate as a 'house of lords'), the chief executive - however limited formally - was implicitly taking the place of the crown.

    Notably, the framers did not follow the Roman precedent of two mutually-checking consuls, with limited terms of office. Instead they provided a single chief executive, with a potentially lifetime tenure of office. And while the explicit powers are limited, there are none of the explicit constraints placed on the Doge of Venice.

    Two things that are not in the Constitution, but contemporary with it, reinforce this. The first president, chosen effectively by acclamation, was not a ceremonial elder statesman (say, Ben Franklin), but the generalissimo of the Revolution, George Washington.

    And they built him, or at least his successors, a palace. The White House may not be Buckingham Palace, but it certainly isn't Ten Downing. Anywhere else in the world it would be called the presidential palace.

    So it seems to me that, in the context of 18th century republican thought, the presidency had from the outset a scope just barely short of a constitutional monarch, and at the very high end of the powers that would have been appropriate to a republican chief magistrate.

    1. Excellent points.

      One of the important things to add, however, is that he may have been "generalissimo of the Revolution," but Washington for them was no Napolean; he was Cincinnatus, the man who had given up power. That rapidly became a very important part of the presidency, most obviously with the two-term tradition, but more broadly with a relatively restrained presidency for a long time.

      It's very easy to imagine the republic developing in a very different direction if there was no Washington to be the first president, but then again there's probably no presidency, and very likely no Constitution, without Washington.

    2. Rick: you seem to be taking a bit of the Antifederalist's take on the presidency. The Federalist Papers on the presidency, written by Hamilton, seem (to me) to be dripping with sarcasm. Hamilton was defending the presidency against charges that it was too close to a monarch, when he himself seems to have thought the president should have MORE power. He's almost incredulous that he has to respond to the Antifederalists on this point: "Too strong? It's too WEAK!"

      Just yesterday, I was arguing to my students that the framers were not particularly concerned with the executive, because they thought all the power would be in the legislature. So, they wrote the Constitution to constrain Congress, and never gave the president much thought.

      I'm not sure I'm right about this, of course. I'm not as expert on this as Jon, for example. And none of this pushes back against the notion that we have COME to regard presidents as hero-kings. We're really just quibbling over when that impulse took root in the public.

    3. 'Generalissimo,' with its despotic connotations, was probably not a good choice of words! Washington was indeed seen as a Cincinnatus, not a Caesar.

      If I'm echoing the antifederalists it is sheerest accident - I'm generally supportive of a strong presidency within a republican framework, and I think that is what the framers had in mind.

      Just as - quite contrary to contemporary 'constitutional conservatives,' I believe that the framers intended a strong central government. After all, they had experienced a weak one under the Articles of Confederation, which they completely scrapped and replaced with a totally different structure.

  2. Similarly, I hate it when people say the President "runs the country", or the Mayor "runs the city", or whatever. Even "runs the government" or "runs the Federal government", while better, isn't great.

  3. I'd actually be very interested in a policy history of PEPFAR. Pretty amazing that Barbara Lee, Tom Lantos, Henry Hyde, Bill Frist, and George W. Bush were apparently the key politicians.

  4. This neo-reactionary would disagree somewhat. FDR basically did what he wanted. If you like very long posts from very smart people, I would recommend starting with this post, then his first post and then reading forward, skimming whenever he gets too far off the road.

  5. I've thought that as well--the "hero king" is more than a turn of phrase. It has seemed to me that really it all goes back to the king, the divinely appointed king, and back to the start of agriculture when the king or whatever he was called was responsible for good crops, because he was in good with God. If he failed, he was executed. Kings got around that by having somebody else executed in their stead, or an animal, hence scapegoat.

    The modern American sense probably comes as much from FDR as anyone--while forgetting his congressional majorities etc. All presidential candidates talk about what they stand for and the changes they will make, and people who vote for them oddly expect them to live up to what they said.

    There's even more of a shift in wartime, justifiably perhaps, toward prez as king, as not only the leader and symbol of the nation, but the hero who will win the war. That's why war was so shall we say convenient for GW's presidency.

    Neustadt's book came out during JFK who was saying the same thing--people were mad at him for not doing more--why didn't he just have "fireside chats"etc. At about the same time was Emmet John Hughes book on Eisenhower which said similar things, as well as Ted Sorensen's Decision-Making in the White House. So this is not a new debate.


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