To briefly note some blogospheric discussion that happened while I was away, I essentially agree with Johnathan Bernstein about the power over domestic policy. In particular, people arguing that a robust public option could have been had if Obama had really wanted it need to be concrete: what specific and usable leverage, exactly, did Obama have over Ben Nelson and the dozen+ Democratic Senators who were clearly opposed to a public option with any teeth? In most cases, just not very much. The only caveat I have is that after enactment presidential power grows considerably; the veto points and supermajority rules that give enormous leverage to individual Senators when legislation is being considered before the fact also do a lot to give the president substantial policy-making discretion after the fact.
On the other hand, I also think Matt is right that the president is much more powerful when it comes to national security. It’s true that, structurally, if it chose to, Congress still has a very substantial ability to check the President’s national security powers. But given current political configurations these limitations are largely formal. The president is going to have a massive standing army at his disposal for all of our lifetimes, and once he or she decides to initiate action Congress is likely in most circumstances to defer to presidential decisions; these are long-standing trends, and if anything is going to change them I don’t see it. I’m also a little puzzled by this specific claim from Bernstein:
Yes, Bush got his war there. But first, note that at least in my opinion it’s an open question as to whether Bush wanted that war or not. I think there’s plenty of evidence that the neocons wanted the war in Iraq, but it’s not clear to me whether they manipulated Bush into it or if Bush wanted it from the get-go.
I’m actually pretty skeptical of the idea that Bush was just conned into the war by clever neocons — in particular, Dick Cheney had exactly as much power as Bush chose to give him — but even if it’s true in terms of presidential power it’s neither here nor there. Why Bush decided to attack Iraq doesn’t matter; he decided to, and he got the war with Congress doing little but meekly waving a red flag. I’m also not sure about about the assertion that “the things he needed to do to get the war doomed it to failure.” It may be true, I guess, that Bush really wanted a much larger invading army and really wanted to be more prudent about his decision-making process but was thwarted by external factors, but I find this very implausible. It’s much more likely that the Iraq war was fought the way it was fought because that’s how the administration wanted it. As Matt says, the international system may provide some constraints and a president’s power is never unlimited even in practice, but throughout the Bush administration Congress was often a minor player in national security (and especially warmaking) policy in a way it never is in domestic policy. And, certainly, the fact that the plan and rationale for the Iraq War were incoherent isn’t actually evidence that the incoherence was caused by external constraints.