Probably less to talk about tonight, but the Clinton speech is as important as such things can be, so we should probably have another one. And I’m burying the lede: tonight will also feature the epochal fart-in that will surely lead to the nearly instantaneous demise of American capitalism. (Will Jonah Goldberg be the keynote speaker?)
A couple people have flagged this Yglesias piece, which is indeed good. Whether or not you buy the argument about Clinton, this is always worth highlighting:
The presidency is the most powerful office in the most powerful political system in the the most powerful country in the world, so in the grand scheme of things, the president of the United States is probably the single most powerful politician in the planet.
But viewed in comparison to the powers wielded by other heads of government, the American presidency is actually an extraordinarily weak office. Our federal system diffuses power down to the states and to myriad small-time local elected officials. We further diffuse power out to America’s unusually powerful judicial branch. The president’s legislative powers are sharply circumscribed by a bicameral legislature whose Senate even has the power to reject the president’s executive appointments.
Within the sphere of appointed executive officials, a wide range of important jobs — from the Federal Reserve chair to the FBI director — enjoy fixed terms of office and cannot be operationally controlled by the president on a day-to-day basis. Many other important executive functions are farmed out to an alphabet soup of semi-independent commissions — SEC, FCC, FTC, FEC — whose leadership the president only partly selects.
The upshot of this is that a successful president needs to govern collaboratively.
We have a mental model of decisive leadership in a crisis — the president snapping quick commands, making the hard choices no one else will — but what effective presidenting generally requires is coordination across diffuse centers of power. Most of the people whose acquiescence the president needs to get big things done genuinely can’t be forced to do it. He — or, more to the point, she — needs to convince a lot of prickly stakeholders that even if they can’t all get what they want, it’s better to get something done rather than fall apart in a sea of bickering.
I allude to this briefly in the Hyde Amendment piece from today, but the way supporters of LBGT rights gained power as the Obama administration proceeded is one relevant example of how the dynamic plays out. Any president will have a few big priorities, but apart from that the direction of administration isn’t just a case of the president imposing his or her will on the rest of the political system.