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On Presidential Power, Foreign and Domestic

[ 20 ] June 16, 2010 |

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.

Comments (20)

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  1. Erik Loomis says:

    Well, yes and no. Certainly you’re right that Obama didn’t have any specific lever he could pull against individual Senators. There wasn’t really anything he could do once the bill reached that point.

    However, to a certain extent this may be a failure of imagination on Obama’s part. What Obama had that no other Democratic president has really ever had was the ability, at least in the months after his election, to mobilize hundreds of thousands of people (potentially) to take to the streets to support progressive policies. Those throngs who came to his rallies were ready to take the next step and rally for his policies. But Obama didn’t want that–he wanted to govern from a consensus center instead–and the ability to rally Americans around his policies slipped through his fingers.

    Had Obama lobbied openly for a public option and had called for rallies to support a progressive plan, the open question remains whether a big show of support would have swayed said senators. But it certainly couldn’t have hurt.

    • Ed says:

      However, to a certain extent this may be a failure of imagination on Obama’s part. What Obama had that no other Democratic president has really ever had was the ability, at least in the months after his election, to mobilize hundreds of thousands of people (potentially) to take to the streets to support progressive policies. Those throngs who came to his rallies were ready to take the next step and rally for his policies. But Obama didn’t want that–he wanted to govern from a consensus center instead–and the ability to rally Americans around his policies slipped through his fingers.

      I think that Obama’s failure in that respect will loom larger as time passes, no matter what happens to his presidency in the future. A colossal lost opportunity.

      The public option debate was exhausted pretty thoroughly and I have no inclination to re-enter it. But at the time there were plenty of sound progressive arguments in favor of keeping the public option on the table.

      Bush got the war he wanted.

  2. Scott Lemieux says:

    Had Obama lobbied openly for a public option and had called for rallies to support a progressive plan, the open question remains whether a big show of support would have swayed said senators. But it certainly couldn’t have hurt.

    I don’t think the question is open. You think any number of rallies would have made Ben Nelson support a public option, or even popular in Nebraska? No way.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      Well–perhaps not. But it might have swayed a couple of more moderate Republican senators at the same time. Moreover, it likely would have turned up the heat on politicians to get a stronger bill passed.

      On top of this, I believe strongly that what a lot of Americans look for in their politicians is strong leadership. Whether it’s FDR or LBJ or Gingrich or Bush, a lot of people respond favorably to charismatic leadership. Obama tapped into that during the election and let it go immediately upon being elected. This created a leadership vacuum (and a media narrative vacuum) that the Teabaggers filled. Screaming about how the health care plan was socialism made a lot of Americans who might have voted for Obama wonder if they made the right choice. Obama as rallier of his base rather than Obama as consensus-seeking president might have created a different narrative that would have placed a tremendous amount of pressure on politicians to support the bill.

      • So what you are saying is that it would have been better had Obama engaged in demagoguery rather than endeavoring to govern by engaging the process of government? It is possible, I suppose, that he’d have gotten further on health care had he tried an end run around Congress– but I’m not so sure that the same applies on most other issues he’s dealt with to this point. Beyond that, I’m not so sure that the approach he brings to the process is necessarily the wrong approach. In theory it is good to have Congress involved– and although Obama’s efforts at reaching across the aisle have been rebuffed, it was worth trying, and may yet inure to the electoral advantage of the Democrats.

    • Rob says:

      And that’s due to Ben Nelson’s strongly held principles? You mean he’d never sign over his vote for a sweat-heart deal for Nebraska on health care, right?

  3. jazzbumpa says:

    I’m not disagreeing, but I wonder if Obama ever had a serious interest in any kind of public option. That seems rather to the left of his stance.

    Cheers!
    JzB

  4. Jules Mcwyrm says:

    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 was often a minor player in national security (and especially warmaking) policy in a way it never is in domestic policy.

    I do hope I’m not being obtuse, but I’m having trouble parsing the 2nd clause here. Is that “Throughout the Bush administration the international system was often a minor player…” or “The Bush administration was a minor player throughout…”?

  5. Scott,

    You’re talking about a world of Bush and a united executive branch fully behind him vs. Congress. But what I’m saying is that that’s the wrong way to look at it. The Department of Defense doesn’t necessarily agree with the president (lots of examples, from DADT to Iran/Contra). In fact, in the case of Iraq it seems to be the case that the uniformed personnel disagreed with the civilian political appointees, and the latter won (at least for the critical years 2003-2006). Even then, though, it’s not necessarily the case that the political appointees are on the president’s side. In the case of Iraq, there’s also an important party faction involved, and they were the ones who really got their way. The point is that there are a lot more players than just the president and Congress, so showing that Congress lost (or even that Congress didn’t have much of a say) is not the same thing as showing that the president won.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      I think I see what you’re saying, and there may be something to that. On the other hand, if some of the political appointees opposed the war, doesn’t that enhance arguments about a strong presidential role in foreign policy? If Bush really didn’t want war in Iraq, he could have hid behind Powell and at least some part of the military, without paying a substantial political price. The fact that he instead went with the hawkish faction strongly suggests that this is the policy Bush wanted.

      • 1. Only if he really wanted it; not if he was rolled.

        2. And only on that issue. If we think of Bush as the winner of the “should we have war in Iraq” fight, that still doesn’t mean he gets his way without constraints; it just means he won that fight.

        In terms of speculation…I think it’s very possible that Bush was in fact in favor of war with Iraq, but much less likely he bought in to the neocon theories that NonyNony talks about below. But Bush didn’t have the option of a different type of war in Iraq because he needed the enthusiastic support of Rumsfeld and the neocons (in part because the uniformed military was probably not excited about it), and that dictated the kind of war it was. Now, given that it was Bush, there was probably a lack of due diligence to make sure that what he was being told was true, but what I’m saying is that if Bush actually wanted a Powell-doctrine type of war with Iraq, that may not have been available because of real constraints within the Pentagon, the GOP, etc.

        (And, yes, I realize that it’s by no means certain that a Powell-doctrine invasion would have worked out better…different question).

        • Rob says:

          So if we assume Bush wanted a different type of war and assume that there was push back against it we can assume that there are constraints.

          Or against all military advice for more troops Bush got that war he wanted. This has the benefit of evidence supporting it.

          • No, we have no evidence that I’m aware of one way or another. We know what the generals thought; we know what Rumsfeld wanted; we know what happened. We don’t know what Bush wanted, or even if he had any preference at all.

  6. NonyNony says:

    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.

    If we’re still talking about Iraq here (and not Afghanistan which is a whole different mess of worms), this goes beyond implausible and into “ignoring the evidence at hand.” Rumsfeld – who Bush let lead the war – set the number of troops on the ground. It’s been pretty well documented (by PBS’s Frontline off the top of my head) that Rumsfeld intentionally chose to assign the troop levels he did because he thought that you could conquer a state like Iraq with a smaller force – and much less expenditure of resources – than most people thought. Had his theory been correct it would have meant that the US could effectively threaten regime change almost anywhere in the world – the neo-con wet dream fantasy writ large.

    It turned out he was wrong – that the old adage about winning all the battles but losing the war actually is based on something real, and that while the troop levels were sufficient to defeat the Iraqi army they weren’t actually sufficient to control the territory (which was what everyone who was telling him that the troop levels were insufficient knew was going to happen). But to think that Bush went to war with inadequate troop levels because Congress was standing in his way is to deny evidence – in the patriotic post-9/11 fervor Bush could have amassed a huge volunteer army and gotten Congress to go even further into debt than we did to pay for it if he’d wanted to. Hell if he’d wanted to I think he could have even gotten Congress to pass a tax hike to pay for it all. He didn’t. Rumsfeld told him they could do it on the cheap and he believed it.

    • I am convinced that Bush always intended to go to war with Iraq– 9/11 merely delayed the inevitable. As for troop levels (and resource commitment) I think you make a good point about the ideological underpinning of their analysis, but I also think that they more or less had to go in the way they did, with the army they had. There was enough doubt about Iraq, even with the flat-out lying that they did to promote it that they might well have been unable to generate the popular support they needed to go forward.

  7. H-Bob says:

    “it’s not clear to me whether they manipulated Bush into it or if Bush wanted it from the get-go.” Yeah, and Bush was ambivalent about the desirability of tax cuts !

  8. [...] good discussion in the comments to this thread about the power of the presidency, which merit a [...]

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