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Powerless President? Obama’s Lame Excuse

In the wake of the VA scandal, President Obama’s cheering section in the press has been scrambling to come up with an excuse for his latest lackluster response to a governmental problem. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told the country that Obama first heard about the disaster at the VA while watching television, the same story we were told about his discovery of the IRS scandal as well as other instances of potential misconduct. But the fact that this absentee president is incapable of coming up with original excuses about his slow response time to the fiascos that occur on his watch is just the tip of the iceberg.

Though Obama arrived at the Oval Office claiming that he would transform America in a blaze of hope and change, he has proven incapable of fixing the most mundane issues, let alone reboot the country’s political culture or turn back the oceans. Obama’s presidency is stuck in neutral as his second term drifts steadily into lame duck territory. Washington gridlock, the complexities of foreign problems that the president thought would be solved by the magic of his personality (Russian “reset,” Iran engagement, and Middle East peace), and the difficulty of rolling out his signature health-care law have left him looking not so much defeated as helpless. When he spoke to the country about the VA scandal that may have led to as many as 40 deaths of veterans kept waiting for medical service, he lacked passion. Even though VA Secretary Eric Shinseki had clearly failed in his five and half years to address the agency’s problems, Obama was prepared to give him more time. The administration’s slow response was seen as a function of a government that simply didn’t work. For those not still in thrall to Obama’s historic status this state of affairs is a damning indictment of his leadership style and inability to hold his appointees accountable for incompetence and/or failure.

But according to liberal blogger Ezra Klein, the fault lies not with Obama but with his office. In a piece published on his Vox site, Klein makes the argument that it is unfair to expect Obama to succeed when the presidency is designed to be ineffective. In Klein’s view, instead of blaming Obama for being an absentee president, we should be scolding James Madison and Alexander Hamilton for crafting a Constitution that didn’t provide a president with the ability to govern because of the checks and balances incorporated into the system. Those who differ with this view are, he wrote, subscribing to a “Green Lantern Theory of the Presidency” in which the commander-in-chief is invested with magical powers.

This is, to put it mildly, bunk. No American president who respects the Constitution (a dubious proposition when applied to Obama) can be a dictator. But the presidency has evolved from its bare-bones origins at the Federal Convention of 1787 into one that both liberals and conservatives have often dubbed an “imperial” institution. To say that Obama hasn’t the power to succeed is to engage in denial of both history and logic.

Were we having this discussion in the 19th century rather than the 21st century, Klein might have a point. Up until the Civil War, American presidents had only a tiny federal bureaucracy to rule and lacked the ability to influence many domestic issues, though even then some larger-than-life characters like Andrew Jackson were able to wield enormous power by both constitutional and unconstitutional means. The vast expansion of the national budget and its consequent expansion of federal power that the Civil War helped create changed that. But even in the late 19th century, presidents had but a fraction of the ability to influence events that they do today.

However, in the 20th century, the quaint notions of the early republic with its part-time Congress (meeting only a few months out of each year) and tiny federal payrolls were forgotten as the presidency grew along with the country and the government. Contemporary presidents have at their disposal vast and numerous Cabinet departments and sundry agencies that have been gifted with virtually plenipotentiary powers over states and municipalities. They needn’t resort to attempts to govern by executive orders as Obama has done to throw their weight around. As Obama proved in his first term, the bully pulpit of the presidency and the ability to pressure Congress to act can result not only in giving the man in the White House a trillion-dollar stimulus but also the ability to transform America’s health-care system.

But Klein tells us not to believe our lying eyes and ears and instead believe that Obama’s doldrums are the function of his office. He dissects criticisms of Obama’s inability to work with Congress or to effectively communicate his agenda to the nation by claiming that those who have done so were flukes. Such “Green Lantern Presidents” as Lyndon Johnson, whose legendary ability to ram bills through Congress despite bitter opposition makes Obama’s refusal to deal with the legislative branch look particularly bad, and Ronald Reagan, who used the bully pulpit of the White House to change both foreign and domestic policies, were operating in different times and under different circumstances. He also asserts that partisan divisions are exacerbated by stark ideological splits with the opposition party always believing that it is in their interests to oppose the president on every conceivable issue (as both George W. Bush and Obama could attest).

It is true that the 21st century president has problems that even Reagan and LBJ didn’t face in eras where each party had its share of liberals and conservatives. But the power of the presidency has continued to expand as well. As Obama has perhaps belatedly realized the courts have given him wide latitude to enact policy on issues like carbon emissions. He can also use a Judiciary Department to selectively enforce laws in ways that overshadow the will of Congress.

But none of this gainsays the fact that Obama is simply incompetent in the business of political persuasion and in administration. That he lacks these basic skills that have always been considered essential to a successful presidency cannot be lain at the feet of Madison and Hamilton.

I write more about Klein’s potshot at Alexander Hamilton in a subsequent post.

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