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More On Executive Power

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Some good discussion in the comments to this thread about the power of the presidency, which merit a response.

First, from Erik, who says that Obama could have “lobbied openly for a public option and had called for rallies to support a progressive plan” because “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.” I still don’t buy it, and at best it represents a trivial source of power, for at least two reasons. First, even assuming that using the bully pulpit could substantially affect public opinion (and I actually don’t even believe that, but let’s leave that aside for now), it greatly understates the autonomy of legislators, especially in the Senate. First of all, there are basically only two moderate Republicans left, and 1)Snowe is enormously popular, 2)Collins isn’t up until 2016, and 3)the only thing either of them really have to fear is from Republicans who could fund a primary challenge. The idea that holding some rallies could have caused them to vote for a much more progressive plan when they didn’t even vote for the final compromise is, frankly, absurd. And as Jonathan points out, even if by some magic you can get their votes, you’re still more than 10 votes short of a meaningful public option, and you would have to get most of them from states in which no amount of rallies are going to make health care reform popular. And, second, I think this focus on particular policy details is far too fine-grained in terms of how politics works and what the public understands. Obama did, after all, lobby hard for health care reform in general, and you’re unlikely to get many people to go to the barricades over the important but essentially wonky detail of whether the bill contains a robust public option. After all, if that kind of public opinion mattered, the bill would have had a robust public option, since the public option was more popular than the bill as a whole. Public opinion just doesn’t have that kind of impact on policy details.

Jonathan, meanwhile, argues that I’m still overestimating the president’s power on foreign policy. Responding to my argument that the fact that political divisions in the administration over the Iraq War were resolved in the president’s favor in fact indicates the strength of the president’s position, he responds:

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.

On the first question, I’m not really sure how to respond; at some level, it gets to be like speculation about whether John McCain is “really” an anti-abortion zealot or whether George Wallace was “really” a racist. At some point, for public officials, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. So if Bush was “rolled” (by who?), this doesn’t really say anything about institutional limitations on the president’s power; it just says a lot about Bush’s weakness and lack of judgment. Nothing inherent in the powers of his office compelled him to side with Rumsfled and Cheney instead of Powell. And while he may (or may not) have been constrained in terms of fighting the war of Paul Berman’s dreams, the fact that remains that he ended up pursuing the war knowing that it wasn’t that type of war. Which makes the most logical inference that this was the war he wanted.

More generally, I don’t think that anyone is arguing that presidents in national security are entirely unconstrained by political or administrative factors. Even in a parliamentary system, there’s no such thing as entirely unconstrained power. The point I take most people to be making is that these constraints are different not only in degree but in kind from the kind of constraints a president faces in enacting domestic legislation. If an evil neocon cabal was pushing Bush towards a war he didn’t want, he could have ignored them or fired them. But potential median votes in the Senate don’t want to vote for new legislation, in most cases there just isn’t much a president can do about it. (And while presidents sometimes need Congress in national security policy, of course, this is less common and generally the president is more likely to receive deference.) So I think it’s fair to hold the president much more responsible for national security policy than for domestic policy.

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