Home / General / I Guess I’ll Burn Down This Strawman

I Guess I’ll Burn Down This Strawman


I have more to say about what the presidency and what it can and can’t accomplish based on Jeff Shessol’s terrific book on FDR and the court-packing fight.   But since I have a couple deadlines, I’ll make a point that should be more obvious first.   Glenn Greenwald is impressed by this vastleft cartoon for some reason:

But, even leaving aside the fact that Obama’s staunchest critics from the left are rather more likely to make arguments that it doesn’t matter who wins presidential elections than his supporters, the point is silly. If I may be permitted to state the obvious, the fact that presidential powers in terms of getting new domestic policies enacted are relatively weak does not mean that the presidency is weak in all respects. In foreign policy, the president is the dominant figure, and much of Glenn’s criticism of Obama here has in fact been correct. The presidency also has more limited but substantial powers over executive and judicial appointments — and, whatever quibbles one may have about Obama’s slow pace and excessive moderation obviously his appointments have been very different and much better than those of his predecessor. The president also has substantial power in terms of implementing existing statutes — which is why, for example, environmental regulations have been strengthened rather than weakened. And the president can certainly prevent Congress from doing things. But the fact that the president has very substantial powers in some areas doesn’t change the fact that in terms of domestic policy presidential power is subordinate and highly contingent. The fact that the president can unilaterally decide to bomb Libya doesn’t mean that the president can get 60 Senate votes for single payer health care because he really wants to. And pointing this out doesn’t mean that it doesn’t matter whether Barack Obama or Rick Perry sits in the oval office.

I’ve asked this before, but since I’ve never received a decent answer let me ask again: for people who believe in the Green Lantern theory of domestic presidential power, how do you explain the near-total lack of major legislation passed during George W. Bush’s second term, including a failure to even get a congressional vote on his signature initiative to privatize Social Security? He didn’t give enough speeches? He wasn’t ruthless enough? Help me out here.

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