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Bureaucratic Resilience

[ 48 ] June 21, 2010 |

This is simply wrong:

One of the principal aspects that make the “weak presidency” claim so laughable is that the post-World-War II presidency has done virtually nothing but expand in power. The President controls virtually the entire Pentagon and intelligence industry, and all administrative agencies, with very few limits. That includes a massive amount of jobs, contracts, access, and projects the White House single-handedly directs, and the President can expand or cancel a whole slew of pet projects for various members of Congress and their home states or districts.

This is, it’s fair to say, a brutal misunderstanding of the relationship between the President and the national security bureaucracy. The White House does not, in point of fact, single-handedly direct projects that can, in any significant number, be canceled or redirected at executive whim. Each expansion of executive power creates an institutional manifestation of that power; the institutional manifestation then produces, in and of itself, an interest group with powerful incentives in favor of the status quo. These interest groups have multiple ways in which they can check executive power, including intra-administrative regulation, labor protection, and congressional influence. The vast majority of the employees of the executive branch are career civil servants who continue to enjoy considerable control (as they should) over hiring, firing, and placement. Non-governmental employees also enjoy a variety of protections while under government contract. The money spent on the national security bureaucracy flows to a large number of states and congressional districts, vesting interests within those that support executive power in effect if not in principle. These structures are not infinitely plastic; they cannot be moved from district to district at executive whim. Simply put, just because the President technically has control over a particular budget does not mean that he or she has the practical ability to slash or multiply at will.

This is not, I should hasten to add, part of an “Obama apologist meme.” Bureaucracies, especially large ones associated with the state, are deeply resistant to change, and manifest that resistance in any number of ways. This is not a phenomenon that is limited to the Obama administration, or to the United States government. In every state (and, indeed, in every corporation) the power of the executive is limited in ways that aren’t obvious from a surface legal analysis. Observing this hardly constitutes an apology for the executive. At risk of Godwin, Hitler and Stalin were unable to coerce their bureaucracies into doing precisely what they wanted, in spite of minimal legal obstacles to executive power.

…to add a bit, the idea that the US presidency is relatively weak compared to other executive offices is not new to the Obama administration. It is an argument that has, the “imperial presidency” notwithstanding, been made repeatedly over the last fifty years by political scientists specializing in American and comparative politics. Repeating this argument hardly makes one an “Obama apologist”; skeptics of the comparative power of the US executive may be wrong, but they aren’t specific to the Obama administration. Indeed, more than a few of the same liberal pundits that Greenwald assails have noted that George W. Bush accomplished relatively few of his domestic priorities, in spite of enjoying significant congressional majorities for several years of his two terms. In foreign policy the situation is different, and indeed Greenwald allows that “honest” discussants of American executive power have noted the difference between domestic and foreign executive latitude.

None of this is to say that the Presidency is “helpless”; rather, it’s really important, and people should take it very seriously. People should also take Senate elections, which are altogether less important than the Presidency, very seriously. However, I haven’t really seen anyone claim that the US Presidency is “weak, helpless, and impotent”; Glenn certainly intimates that his interlocutors have this view, but he fails to demonstrate such, and my own cursory reading of the discussion has thus far failed to uncover anyone who holds such a view of the US executive.

Comments (48)

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  1. Dave says:

    The big, glaring hole I see in Greenwald’s anti-Obama arguments (only making a partial appearance in this one) is that they lay court decisions at Obama’s feet. If the most important progressive criticisms of the administration pertain to civil liberties, followed closely by foreign policy (on which Greenwald stipulates there isn’t liberal disagreement) then why is it that all available anger is leveled at the Obama administration, who “argued” to uphold or expand on Bush policies, rather than at people with decision making power, i.e. judges?

    • Seedee Vee says:

      Hi Dave.

      I think we are going to have a “chicken or the egg” moment.

      We can’t have court decisions unless someone goes to court asking for one. The Obama Admin has been in the courts since day one of his grasp of power. What his (His Dept of Justice, Not to mention his personal institutional military courts) lawyers have been doing is, on many cases, asking for the same, and worse, infringements on our civil liberties that the Bush lawyers did.

      They have to ask for something to get it. So, we can blame the permissive parents (the Courts) for giving Obama too much candy (favorable decisions)or we can blame him for asking for and eating too much candy. I believe a little personal responsibility-check would say that it is Obama’s fault for asking for and eating too much candy, not the Courts.

      As for Farley’s comment above, it is almost laughable. To say that “The White House does not, in point of fact, single-handedly direct projects that can, in any significant number, be canceled or redirected at executive whim . . .” is about as fake of an argument as one can make.

      Why not just say that “No one in this world, in point of fact, can single-handedly direct projects that can be canceled or redirected at whim”? Because it would be a laughably simplistic answer to any question of abuse of power.

      And that is what the whole “weak President” line is about — making sure that those with power are not held accountable.

  2. Monty says:

    I agree; normally I’m on board with Glenn but he went a bit overboard on this case, perhaps substituting a bit too much outrage for reason. I must confess to being pretty disgusted with Obama myself, but wouldn’t use discussions with people who observe real, actual limits to the presidency as a reason to create the idea of a straw man “impotent office of the president” meme.

    The Executive does have the ability to act with a far greater degree of freedom in matters foreign than domestic. Glenn does admit this, and I got the distinct impression this attack was more about Obama’s handling of civil liberties and most of his foreign policy than about “apologists.”

  3. Incontinentia Buttocks says:

    1. There are real institutional limits on the power of the president as Farley points out.

    2. These real institutional limits do not prevent Obama from pursuing different policies w/r/t torture, claims of executive power, and civil liberties. They do not make him order the unreviewable assassination of U.S. citizens. They do not force Obama to illegally hold innocent people like Mohamed Hassan Odaini who courts have ordered be released in Gitmo.

    As Greenwald notes in the post linked above:

    The more honest commentators who are invoking this “weak presidency” defense on behalf of Obama — such as Matt Ygleisas, Ezra Klein, and Scott Lemieux — acknowledge its basic inapplicability to Terrorism and foreign policy, which accounts for a substantial part of the liberal critique of the Obama presidency. And, for that matter, many of the positive steps Obama has taken — changes in drug policy, an improvement in tone with the Muslim world, release of the OLC torture memos — were also actions taken unilaterally using the power of the Presidency.

    The first two comments here reveal the dynamic of this “debate.” Greenwald may overstate the general point about presidential powers in the passage that Farley quotes above. However, he and the ACLU’s Anthony Romero are 100% correct about this administration’s horrific attitude toward civil liberties. Yet Dave and Monty turn Farley’s argument about what amounts to a side point as an excuse to handwave away real, concrete concerns about policies that are entirely in Obama’s power to change.

    • Monty says:

      I agree with Farley more than Greenwald. Mr Farley’s observations about the dynamics of fed government, especially wrt his remarks per the federal bureaucracy, seem right on the money.

      OTOH, while Greenwald’s post sucks on several levels (his argument is fail), I totally see where he’s coming from.

      Likely, Greenwald’s (like Hamsher’s, etc) outrage comes from assuming Obama was every bit the liberal reformist he campaigned as…yet now he’s observationally behaving more like George WPE Bush than not.

  4. MacGyver says:

    I do not look forward to Greenwald’s 10,000 word update to this post.

    • philboyd studge says:

      Yes, it is uncomfortable for some when Greenwald clutters up the Web with facts instead of piping pithy opinions devoid of any anchor in reality.

      Personally I enjoy Greenwald’s work, because he provides evidence for his assertions. But I understand that such a tactic can taint the taste of the kool-aid.

      • Bob says:

        It’s pretty clear you also enjoy Greenwald because you approve of arguments that paint those who dare you disagree with you as :kool aid” drinking idiots because smart people always agree with and those who bring up injections are clearly incapable of independent thought if they don’t agree with the mighty GG. Be original, think exactly like GG (or you).

        Greenwald’s problem is that, even when he’s right (which is reasonably often), he doesn’t know how to do so without being an asshole about it.

        Also, as someone else said on another site, I’d also like him to say what HE’D actually do if HE were the President. He only criticizes the present path, he never actually says what the correct one would be. Why? Because that shit is hard.

        Seriously. You’re the President and you free everyone at Guantanamo Greenwald wants freed? How do you ensure none of them attacks? You can’t? How do you salvage your presidency if one of them winds up involved in an attack killling scores, hundreds, or thousands of Americans? The right answer may be “you can’t” but you have to because that’s the law. Great, but you still need to address the practical consequences. If GG, however, can’t even address these questions even on a theoretical level in an honest way that deals with the consequenses, then why in God’s name should we take any of his endless, predictable, repetitive and tendentious attacks seriously? Maybe the answer is that civil liberties involves great risk, but then he should have the guts to make that case rather than just making the same attack ad infinitum.

  5. El Cid says:

    Greenwald was mainly emphasizing areas in which the administration has (not just theoretically, but demonstrably) had its own ability to choose which policies to pursue or not pursue, and he was critiquing both the policy decisions made and what he sees as a strategy of defending such decisions by certain persons as claiming that in those areas, i.e., particular areas in which the Administration appears to have had its own leeway in selecting policies, the Administration had little power to do anything else.

    I would think that if you felt Greenwald’s column worthy of engaging, you would address those two empirical / theoretical points, rather than a grand approach on how it’s insufficient as a scientific principle as stated in political science empirical generalizations on the power of the Presidency.

  6. taylormattd says:

    This is the problem with Greenwald, Hamsher, some Daily Kos frontpagers, Digby, etc.

    They are constantly alleging that Obama needs to do little else other than simply exert his will, and show “leadership”, whatever that means, and suddenly . . . progressive legislation? Suddenly, Lincoln, Nelson, Landrieu will vote for a public option?

    It’s completely ridiculous. In fact, Greenwald claims that Obama supporting Halter would have somehow whipped Lincoln into shape. It makes zero sense at all. Had he done that, Obama would now be dealing with a Blanche Lincoln who would be veering even further to the right, and would be highly disinclined to even talk to the person who campaigned for her primary opponent.

    Let’s face it. There is a reason all of these make make these arguments. They have been making them for going on 3 years now. They want a president or presidential candidate who will yell, scream, and use the exact magic words. They really don’t care very much about outcomes or possibilities. Not to mention the fact that a large number of these people were openly hostile to Obama during the campaign. This isn’t surprising.

    • philboyd studge says:

      “They are constantly alleging that Obama needs to do little else other than simply exert his will, and show “leadership”, whatever that means, and suddenly . . . progressive legislation? ”

      No, they are alleging the he does exert his will, but in opposition to the principle on which he ran. Making the back-room deal to kill the public option, a deed well documented in multiple sources, while weeping crocodile tears over it’s demise, is a perfect example of the deception he practices.

      • Exactly. The only people he’s prosecuted so far who were connected to Bush-era crimes are in fact the people who blew the whistle on them:

        The Obama Justice Department today announced that it has secured a ten-felony-count indictment against Thomas Drake, an official with the National Security Agency during the Bush years.  Drake’s indictment, of course, has nothing to do with the criminal surveillance undertaken by the NSA.  Rather, the DOJ alleges “that between approximately February 2006 and November 2007, a newspaper reporter published a series of articles about the NSA,” and it claims “Drake served as a source for many of those articles, including articles that contained classified information.”  In other words, he’s being subjected to what The New York Times’ Scott Shane calls a “highly unusual” prosecution for being a whistle-blower on the Bush era’s sprawling and secretive Surveillance State.  Although the indictment does not specify Drake’s leaks, it is highly likely (as Shane also suggests) that it is based on Drake’s bringing to the public’s attention major failures and cost over-runs with the NSA’s spying programs via leaks to The Baltimore Sun.

        Let’s spend just a moment thinking about what this means.  We’ve known since December, 2005, that Bush officials, including at the NSA, committed felonies by eavesdropping on Americans without the warrants required by law — crimes punishable by a five-year prison term and$10,000 fine for each offense.  All three federal judges to rule on the question have found those actions to be in violation of the law.  Yet there have been no criminal investigations, let alone indictments, for those crimes, and there won’t be any, due to Barack Obama’s dictate that we “Look Forward, Not Backward.”  Thus, the high-level political officials who committed crimes while running the NSA will be completely immunized for their serious crimes.

        By stark contrast, an NSA official who brought to the public’s attention towering failures and waste at the NSA — revelations that led to exposés that, as Shane put it, were “honored with a top prize from the Society for Professional Journalists” — is now being prosecuted for crimes that could lead to a lengthy prison term.  Why doesn’t Obama’s dictate that we “Look Forward, Not Backward,” protect this NSA whistle-blower from prosecution at least as much as the high-level Bush officials who criminally spied on American citizens?  Isn’t the DOJ’s prosecution of Drake the classic case of “Looking Backward,” by digging into Bush-era crimes, controversies and disclosures?

        Oh, and because I’m curious to see if anyone will address what IB posted upthread, here it is again:

        1. There are real institutional limits on the power of the president as Farley points out.

        2. These real institutional limits do not prevent Obama from pursuing different policies w/r/t torture, claims of executive power, and civil liberties. They do not make him order the unreviewable assassination of U.S. citizens. They do not force Obama to illegally hold innocent people like Mohamed Hassan Odaini who courts have ordered be released in Gitmo.

    • Seedee Vee says:

      The problem here is that you say “show “leadership”, whatever that means”.

      No offense, but, if you give a “whatever” response to a question of leadership, you are hopeless in this topic. As least Farley is implying that we can’t have any leadership because things are so big and complicated that our little brains just can’t get it done.

  7. taylormattd says:

    Whatever El Cid. Nothing wrong whatsoever about this post.

    For god’s sake, look at this looney whopper from Greenwald:

    Does anyone actually doubt that an Obama threat to support a primary challenge against any Democratic incumbent, to encourage Democratic fund-raisers to send their money elsewhere, or to refrain from playing any role in their re-election, would influence their votes on matters important to the White House?

    Is there a single rational human being on the planet who actually believes that had Obama threatened to support a primary challenge to Lincoln, she would be more inclined to help Obama?

  8. booferama says:

    Greenwald’s way off on the aspects of domestic policy and politics, but his comments about the Obama administration’s human-rights abuses are very apt. I suspect his anger (and the sloppiness of much of his argument) is motivated by how quiet so many commentators have been about Obama’s approach to civil liberties, whistleblowers, and foreign policy.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Greenwald is a brilliant legal analyst and thinker, but he’s completely incapable of thinking like a social scientist.

  10. M. Stack says:

    Greenwald and other progressive Obama critics also colossally overrate the utility of the bully pulpit. Their view of communication and persuasion is very simplistic.

    They think that all Obama has to do is give a speech on something, and that will seal the deal, creating instant grassroots pressure. Or that he can say to a Senator like Ben Nelson, “Boo!” and Nelson will capitulate on an issue. It’s dumbfounding.

  11. SeekerSTL says:

    Rather then basing your attacks on one paragraph of Greenwald’s well reasoned column, I urge the posters here to read Greenwald’s entire column. His premise is that die-hard Obama supporters, after investing two years of their life to get the man elected, are now making excuses for Obama’s failures by claiming that the Presidency is weak, powerless, and unable to actually do much of anything to accomplish the goals that Obama campaigned on. He asks the question, why did we vote in record numbers, why did we choose Obama if the office he holds is powerless? He further asks, if Obama is in fact powerless and should not be blamed for anything that has happened in the last year, why did we (the left) attack Bush and Cheney for 8 years, blaming him for the collapse of the economy, for abusing the Constsitution, etc…wasn’t Bush just as powerless and blameless as Obama?

    • I do wish that readers could distinguish between a critique of one portion of Greenwald’s argument and Greenwald’s overall position…

      • The Dark Avenger says:

        Oh, really? From Jonathan Bernstein’s original post on this topic, which started this discussion and which virtually every proponent of this “the-Presidency-is-Weak” theory (including Farley himself) has approvingly cited:

        Is the idea of an “Impotent, Helpless President” a joke? No, it’s basic American politics. As I usually do, I’ll go straight to Richard Neustadt: . . . . Neustadt’s classic is all about how the presidency is a very weak office. . . .

        Gee, I wonder where I got that idea from. And you know what the title of Bernstein’s post was? This: “The Presidency Is Weak. Really.” Farley says that he’s never encountered anyone who argued that the presidency is weak, helpless and impotent even though Bernstein’s post — which Farley himself cites when disputing (and thus presumably read) — says exactly that (“Is the idea of an ‘Impotent, Helpless President’ a joke? No, it’s basic American politics”).

  12. sameer says:

    for those criticizing greenwalds argument that obama can influence decisions, how do you account for this

    (1) The Obama White House has proven empirically that they have leverage over recalcitrant members of Congress. When progressive House Members were refusing to vote for Obama’s unconditional war-funding bill, this is what happened (though the White House, unsurprisingly, denied it):

    The White House is playing hardball with Democrats who intend to vote against the supplemental war spending bill, threatening freshmen who oppose it that they won’t get help with reelection and will be cut off from the White House, Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) said Friday. “We’re not going to help you. You’ll never hear from us again,” Woolsey said the White House is telling freshmen.

    Though it seemed very unlikely at the beginning of the process, the White House succeeded in whipping enough progressive votes to secure approval for this war package. That’s what the President can do when he actually cares about a particular bill, such as war-funding.

    • mark f says:

      how do you account for this

      (1) The Obama White House has proven empirically that they have leverage over recalcitrant members of Congress

      .

      By fixing it:

      The Obama White House has proven empirically that they sometimes have some leverage over some recalcitrant members of Congress on some issues.

      That was easy accounting!

  13. lawguy says:

    This weak presidency argument follows immediately on the heals of the “hasn’t been in office long enough” argument.

    They are excuses for Obama not accomplishing anything that is remotely progressive. It would, I think, be simpler to admit that we were lied to and he has not even remotely progressive.

    mark f’s argument is another straw man. The point is that Obama chooses to use his political capital to oppose progressive positions and support conservative positions.

  14. Andrew says:

    Farley made a big mistake by suggesting that nobody had said the President was weak. In a new update to his most recent piece, Greenwald quotes Jonathan Bernstein as calling it a “very weak office.”

    You’ve been Pwned, Mr. Farley. Check facts next time. http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/glenn_greenwald/2010/06/22/impotence/index.html

  15. Plisko says:

    1) Does the president have a choice to campaign for an incumbent or a challenger and help them win elections or not?

    2) Can the President attend fund raisers and generate lots of campaign cash or not?

    3) Does the President have the authority to release people from Guantanamo or not?

    4) Does the President have veto power over things members of congress want passed or not?

    5) Does the President have a lot of horses to use in horsetrading or not?

    6) Is the President the commander in chief of the military or not?

    7) When the President wants to speak on TV does every channel cover his speech or not?

    8) During a time of war is the President able to influence the conduct of that war or not?

    This whole conversation is focusing on things that aren’t relevant and ignoring things that are.

  16. Ice says:

    DocAmazing says:
    June 22, 2010 at 12:22 pm

    Which then causes us to ask: given Lincoln’s appalling behavior, why did Obama back her over her challenger? Mere stupidity?
    Reply

    *
    Scott Lemieux says:
    June 22, 2010 at 1:16 pm

    Because Lincoln did, in fact, vote for the health care bill and the financial reform bill.

    Scott, you realize this is making Greenwald’s point, right? Yes, Obama would rather have shitty Democrat Lincoln in office, because he doesn’t really care that she and her ilk gut real progressive legislation. He just wants to make sure that the half-ass bills get passed. For “strategic” reasons Obama finds it very convenient to have the Lincolns of the world in office as “Democrats”.

    In Glenn’s opinion, shared by many, Obama backing Halter would have been a much more progressive stance, for two reasons:

    - Halter, had he ultimately won an election, is far more progressive on almost all issues

    - It sends a message to Lincoln that her conservative stances cost her support from the “progressive” party

    Obama, however, backed Lincoln. And the most obvious explanation is that he really doesn’t care about those two points, because he’s not actually very progressive (in contrast to many of his specific campaign promises).

    • Seedee Vee says:

      Very well said, Ice.

      Obama publicly got what he wanted from Lincoln and publicly gave her his support.

      • Bob says:

        This ignores the fact that Presidents have, as far as I can tell, always supported incumbents of their own party. For him not to do so in this case was at least arguably a good idea — assuming it really made the difference and lost Lincoln the election, which is by no means a foregone conclusion. It would, however, have been hugely risky because then he’d have a conservative Demo in office owing him absolutely nothing.

        Once again, Greenwald never addresses consequences, only ideas. He simply expects Obama to do what GG thinks is right and not even take consequences into account.

  17. [...] today by ignoring most of the arguments I made and distorting the rest.  Others have responded to my argument a bit more substantively, but I’m content to let stand the extensive arguments [...]

  18. By the way, guess who’s apparently decided that Bills of Attainder (especially if used to take down progressive groups that work to house poor people, like the one Congress did against ACORN) are A-OK?

    It’s subtly stated, in Judge Gershon’s even-handed, duty-driven opinion, but it seems clear that her orders protecting ACORN’s rights have been effectively ignored twice by the Obama administration, particularly by its OMB director, Peter Orszag, starting last December.
    First, Orszag apparently only went through the motions in reaction to Judge Gershon’s December preliminary injunction (enjoining Section 163 in the Continuing Resolution funding bill), and followed the DOJ’s lead in pretending that Section 163, and thus her injunction, had “expired” by “happenstance” (while the DOJ was considering whether to appeal), so that he had no need to formally rescind his far-reaching October 7th directive warning agencies not to fund ACORN [while the DOJ was disregarding the amended complaint of ACORN, which added the other funding bans soon passed in the regular appropriations bills enacted before the continuing resolution expired on 12/18 (one of which was worded identically to the expired Section 163 provision)]. Thus, any effect of Judge Gershon’s December preliminary injunction against the funding ban was apparently mostly illusory, as a practical matter, to zero consequence for government actors, but to grave consequence for ACORN.
    Then, as soon as Judge Gershon issued her final judgement on March 10th this year, the Federal Programs Branch of the Civil Division of the Department of Justice quickly appealed [on March 17th], and moved to stay her permanent injunction, which had been made necessary by the intransigence of the Obama administration in response to her December preliminary injunction. Judge Gershon denied the goverment’s motion for a stay of her injunction on March 31. The same day the DOJ moved in the Second Circuit for a stay pending a decision on the merits of their appeal of Gershon’s decision. On April 1, Circuit Judge Gerard Lynch granted a temporary stay of Judge Gershon’s injunction. A hearing was held on the DOJ’s request on April 20, and one day later, the three-member appellate panel unanimously granted a stay of Judge Gershon’s permanent injunction for the duration of the government’s appeal in the Second Circuit.

  19. [...] points. Here are Glenn’s first, second and third pieces, as well as a smattering of other perspectives (not an exhaustive list by any [...]

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