Sunday, March 18, 2012

On Becoming the President of the United States of America

We Americans are in the midst of selecting our President for the next four years. There is a contentious battle for the Republican choice to run for President in November, 2012. Democrats already have a candidate: Barack Hussein Obama, the incumbent President. There will be hundreds of millions of dollars spent by candidates and their supporters on both sides. Why is there so much at stake for a job that pays an annual salary of $400,000 per year and may last only four years? How many of a candidate's promises will be kept? Do the men (or women) we elect to the Presidency change as a matter of choice or necessity when they become the President of the United States of America?

The presidential primary elections of 2008 brought new "reform minded" candidates to the forefront of American politics

A lot of people got involved in politics with the hope for change

This sign was typical of grassroots involvement in 2008

Senator Obama came to Albuquerque to an overflowing crowd of people at the Civic Center in January, 2008

Candidate Obama had an appealing message of Change in American politics

I was there with him
The victory of the Democratic candidate in November, 2008 was widely hailed as a vote for real political reform and renewed hope for the majority of Americans.

My friend, Price, who helped to elect Barack Obama in 2008, sent me an email to check out the March issue of The Atlantic to read an analysis of President Obama (and the institution of the Presidency including why past Presidents fail or succeed). I thought it was worth sharing. Here's one excerpt from the article by James Fallows:

We judge presidents by the specific expectations they ask to be measured against: inspiration (Kennedy, Reagan, Obama), competence and experience (Eisenhower, the first George Bush), strategic cunning (Johnson, Nixon), integrity and personal probity (Carter), inclusiveness and empathy (Clinton), unshakable resolve (the second Bush). But eventually each is judged against his predecessors, a process that properly starts with a reminder that all begin their terms ill-equipped, in ways that hindsight tends to obscure.

The sobering realities of the modern White House are: All presidents are unsuited to office, and therefore all presidents fail in certain crucial aspects of the job. All betray their supporters and provoke bitter criticism from their own side at some point in their term. And all are mis-assessed while in office, for reasons that typically depend more on luck and historical accident than on factors within their control. These realities do not excuse Obama’s failings, but they do put his evolution in perspective.

Presidents fail because not to fail would require, in the age of modern communications and global responsibilities, a range of native talents and learned skills no real person has ever possessed. These include “smarts” in the normal sense—the analytical ability to cope with the stream of short- and long-term decisions that come at a president nonstop. (How serious is the latest provocation out of North Korea? What are the “out year” budget implications of a change in Medicaid repayment formulas?) A president needs rhetorical clarity and eloquence, so that he can explain to publics at home and around the world the intent behind his actions and—at least as important—so that everyone inside the administration understands his priorities clearly enough that he does not have to wade into every little policy fight to enforce his preferences.

A president needs empathy and emotional intelligence, so that he can prevail in political dealings with his own party and the opposition in Washington, and in face-to-face negotiations with foreign leaders, who otherwise will go away saying that this president is “weak” and that the country’s leadership role is suspect. He needs to be confident but not arrogant; open-minded but not a weather vane; resolute but still adaptable; historically minded but highly alert to the present; visionary but practical; personally disciplined but not a prig or martinet. He should be physically fit, disease-resistant, and capable of being fully alert at a moment’s notice when the phone rings at 3 a.m.—yet also able to sleep each night, despite unremitting tension and without chemical aids.
                        -from The Atlantic, March, 2012

Here is another excerpt from The Atlantic article on President Obama and the current political situation he faces in Congress and the Senate:
If Obama really thought that America had moved past partisan division, then he was too innocent for the job. But part of political leadership is being able to project a positive idealism that you know is at odds with the real world. I am ready to believe that Obama adopted this faux-harmonious tone, apart from its being his natural register, as a way to win the election, and as a marker for what he hoped America could become, and—crucially—that once in office, he maintained it as a sound position for himself as he moved toward reelection. Late last year, he also applied it with chess-master skill against the congressional Republicans, in daring them to let the widely popular payroll-tax cut expire at the start of an election year. They backed off, and when the dust settled, the Republicans found themselves at an unaccustomed political disadvantage. Having secured an agreement on government funding for the rest of the year, Obama had taken one of their favorite tools, the threat of a government shutdown, out of their hands through the campaign season. And after three years of seeming to shy from “partisan” rhetoric, he began linking the slate of GOP presidential contenders to the Tea Party–dominated Republican Congress, whose approval ratings were far worse than his own.

The payoff for Obama in a strategy of remaining Mr. Reasonable is the prospect of occupying the acceptable center, as the Tea Party spins the Republican Party off to the extreme. The risk is that even if the Republicans make themselves unpopular through filibuster and obstruction, they make Obama look weak—and that’s worse.

Obama’s future, and his effectiveness, depend on that balance, whose results we will see this year. My impression from recent evidence is that he has found his footing, and has come to understand how to use the constrained but still real powers of a president facing congressional opposition—just in time. The most enlightening document I found for assessing Obama’s recent moves turns out to be 66 years old.

This is a memorandum that James H. Rowe Jr., a Harvard-trained lawyer who had been Oliver Wendell Holmes’s last law clerk on the Supreme Court and after World War II was a young official at the Bureau of the Budget, wrote to President Harry Truman soon after the midterm elections of 1946. In that election, the Republicans gained 55 seats in the House and 12 in the Senate, to take control of both houses for the first time since before the New Deal. Truman was if anything less prepared, for more overwhelming responsibilities, than Obama was. Three months after he unexpectedly became president upon Franklin Roosevelt’s death, he had to decide on the use of atomic weapons whose very existence FDR had never let him know about. After that came management of post-war Europe and Asia. But the fundamentals of Truman’s political situation, as described in Rowe’s memo, are amazingly similar to those Obama now faces.

Rowe tells Truman that, with the Republican victory, he should be prepared for obstruction and nonstop partisan stalemate, not because of strategic mistakes on his side but because this is the basic nature of the American system. Anyone who thinks that American politics is more embattled “than ever,” as I am often tempted to, should read this memo (and Samuel Popkin’s exegesis of it, in The Candidate).

Rowe points out that when an opposing party holds Congress, it will always view weakening the president as its paramount goal. It will launch as many congressional investigations as possible, in hopes of finding scandal in an administration or at least distracting its appointees. It will block nominations and try to frustrate a president’s attempts to keep the executive branch operational. Its leaders will define “compromise” as the president’s accepting all of their demands and abandoning his own. If the leaders of Congress do finally strike a deal with the administration, a president should be wary. The “simple fact” about most deals with a congressional opposition, he writes, is that “they just won’t work under the American two-party system”:

For “cooperation” is a one-way street. The President can discipline the Executive Branch sufficiently by exercising his right to hire and fire; he can force it to cooperate. The Republican leaders may agree to have co-equal responsibility for executing the agreements reached on policy but they do not have co-equal power “to deliver” … [Congress] has no parliamentary discipline … for a very simple reason—Congressmen are not representatives of all the people; they represent only their own districts or sections and the particular pressure groups within those sections which are vital to them. No Congressional leader can commit his party because no commitments are binding upon the Members except those they may personally make to their own sections.

Negative discipline, of the kind that Mitch McConnell has exercised to keep Senate Republicans voting as a bloc against Obama’s proposals, is easier to maintain than positive discipline, of the kind Newt Gingrich wielded temporarily over his Republican majority. That is the exception. A president “should first of all accept the inevitability that formal cooperation is unworkable,” Rowe concludes. “Despite his sincere desire to cooperate, he should accept the verdict of the politicians, of history, and of the disinterested students of government.” - The Atlantic, March, 2012

So how does the leader of the free world translate his campaign promises into successfully implemented policy and legislation?  What do you think about James Fallows' observations and conclusions?

1 comment:

  1. I liked that big homemade sign. Those hopes still work for me.....