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The weaker-than-you-think president

shadowedobama.JPG

Via Jonathan Bernstein comes this classic quote from presidential scholar Richard Neustadt:

In form all Presidents are leaders nowadays. In fact this guarantees no more than that they will be clerks. Everybody now expects the man inside the White House to do something about everything. ... But such acceptance does not signify that all the rest of government is at his feet. It merely signifies that other men have found it practically impossible to do their jobs without assurance of initiatives from him. Service for themselves, not power for the President, has brought them to accept his leadership in form. ... A President, these days, is an invaluable clerk. His services are in demand all over Washington. His influence, however, is a very different matter.

This is, it should be said, less true on foreign policy than on domestic policy. But on domestic policy, it's quite true. If you could convince Barack Obama that the economy desperately needed $400 billion more in immediate stimulus, there's just not that much he could do about it. He doesn't have the votes, and like all presidents before him, he doesn't have a irresistible powers or tools of persuasion he can use to get the votes. Our system is based around Congress even if our storytelling is based around the president.

This has really reached its reductio-ad-absurdum in the BP oil spill. There's some justified annoyance that Obama wasn't tougher with BP, and more skeptical of the company's estimates, from the beginning. But there's also these arguments that Obama needs to "take over" the oil spill fix, as if the government had some secret competence in shutting of deep-sea oil rigs.

Photo credit: Charles Dharapak/AP.

By Ezra Klein  |  June 11, 2010; 12:24 PM ET
 
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Comments

Obama may not have the power to pressure senators directly to support good stuff, but he has the power to talk to the country and try to convince the populace that something is a good idea. If he succeeds in convincing the people, politicians will follow.

Posted by: fuse | June 11, 2010 12:34 PM | Report abuse

In his presidential acceptance speach, Obama said that history would record that "This is the day that the seas will stop rising". If he can stop the seas from rising then he should be able to "plug the dam hole". Oboma set the expectations high and now he is paying the price.

Posted by: cummije5 | June 11, 2010 1:23 PM | Report abuse

he should go on face the nation and drink some oil

Posted by: jackjudge4000yahoocom | June 11, 2010 2:01 PM | Report abuse

Oh Lord. Is Ezra still attempting to convince us of his Bystander Theory of the Presidency and how Obama's hands are tied by how powerless he really is? Ezra's first commenter nailed it - presidents can move the argument their way by using their unrivaled ability to set the terms of discourse. Do you think the press wouldn't cover it if Obama made a public statement that the Senate millionaires are playing games with the livelihood of millions on unemployment insurance? Or that the BP incident underscores the importance of holding oil companies accountable and not just willy-nilly giving them carte blanche to dig anywhere they want without supervision? Maybe he can move the public and the Congress with those arguments, maybe not. But he doesn't seem to want to. That's on him, not some convenient structural excuse of our government. Obama is weak because he chooses to be weak and not to use the tools and arguments that could make him stronger.

Posted by: redscott | June 11, 2010 2:21 PM | Report abuse

Obama needs to put on his scuba gear, swim down there and plug that damn hole already. That's what Ronald Reagan would have done.

Posted by: tsgauh | June 11, 2010 2:26 PM | Report abuse

I understand that the priority is to plug the leak but it would be nice to see the President or someone doing something about the oil that has already gushed out and is damaging the coastline and waters. Buoys alone won't stop the oil from reaching the beaches and wetlands. What is being done about the clean-up? Where are Kevin Costner's centrifugal machines? The lack on activity on that front (or the lack or reporting if anything is being done), adds to the frustration.

Why hasn't the POTUS taken the lead on the clean-up efforts, if his hand are tied regarding the leak?

Posted by: saratogian | June 11, 2010 3:49 PM | Report abuse

president obama was a little late in initially communicating with the american people.....but why bother?

if people are going to measure his actions and concern by the level of hysteria that he can publicly reach....like james carville....why even bother to communicate.
i love the photographs of bobby jindal with his eyes blazing, and his shirtsleeves rolled up, screaming for something to be done, and in the next breath, demanding that the moratorium be lifted on the other wells.
for G-d sakes, you cant have it both ways.
now, it appears that whatever president obama says or does, he is mightily attacked.
i think this is a massive disaster. the last thing he would have really expected to have happened, right after health care reform.
i dont think there is a person in the world, who could be handling this better. it is a nightmare.
to watch people on the shore, picking up tarballs, and then the next wave brings in more, is like plowing the sea.
it is looking now, to be simply catastrophic.
what can be done.
we have abused the earth, and she is now spilling her guts out.
we can watch while she hemmhorages.
but bobby jindal doesnt care if the next well does the same thing, apparently. he wants them all reopened, safe or not.
and james carville is running about like an hysterical schoolgirl....everyone that can get a political point off of making obama look weak, or responsible....is doing so.
president obama has been hit with everything now, under the sun.
i dont know how much harder or smarter he can work, or what more he can do.
mistakes are going to be made.
this is just a heartbreaking disaster.
we are in the middle of a vortex.
just try to hang on.

Posted by: jkaren | June 11, 2010 3:49 PM | Report abuse

Why hasn't the POTUS taken the lead on the clean-up efforts, if his hand are tied regarding the leak?


do you see those pictures??
i dont live there....but i look at the pictures.
what does anyone think can be done?
there must be thousands and thousands of birds....
millions of tarballs, washing up with every wave....
unstoppable oil wiping out schools of fish, the algae....
what can be done?
they say the wind causes the oil to go above and under those booms.
this is beyond human proportions.
it would be like trying to fix things after a nuclear bomb.
how?????

i think only nature can heal this over a long period of time.
i think we will lose brown pelicans, and maybe other animals will be permanently lost.
the oil is everywhere.
our technology is not working.
the lesson here....believe it or not....
hard for human beings to handle....
you cant fix everything.
that is how it looks to me.
sometimes, things just are so terrible and so big....
that it is beyond our ability to fix them.
we have to live through them,
and let healing, life, nature....take its course.
we have deeply wounded the earth.
she is now sick.

Posted by: jkaren | June 11, 2010 3:57 PM | Report abuse

there is the parable of the starfish...that for each one that you toss back into the water, it makes a difference.
we can save the universe, one brown pelican, by one brown pelican. one starfish, by one starfish.....at least that saves one starfish at a time.
but when i look at those pictures, trying to fix this damage now, looks like it is beyond human hands.
i hope that i am wrong.

Posted by: jkaren | June 11, 2010 4:00 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, I'm with you 99% of the time. Literally. But not on this.

I don't want you to get used to the idea that the federal government is just an entity, like any other entity. It's the Federal Government. The one that implements Medicare and got us out of the Depression. And the one that won WWII.

Now, it's not the same government, by any means, as the ones that accomplished these great things. And that's the point- it's a function of the limitations of the people running the show, not the institution.

There is an environmental apocalypse unfurling in the Gulf. The amount of oil spilled in the Exxon Valdez is spilling into the Gulf every week. It will destroy the economy of the states in the Gulf, and the environmental and health devastation will take years to even comprehend.

I expect the US government, led by President Obama, to marshall the full resources of this country to stop it. And then I expect it to marshall the full resources of this country to make BP pay for it, both in terms of dollars and in terms of regulation. I read today that a conservative estimate of BP's liabilities is upwards of $30 billion. They're gonna have to pay that, in addition to seeing their government subsidies disappear, and they should be subjected to tighter regulation to make sure this never happens again.

But we need to stop the leak first. That means getting the best and brightest together in a war room and going all out to fix this. Instead, it takes them weeks to come up with a solution that college engineering students could come up with, and it invariably fails.

We built the bomb in record time, and we can't figure out how to put a concrete dome on a leaking well? In just a couple of weeks during WWII, the government erected an entire town that housed thousands of researchers and support staff as part of the war effort to build a nuclear bomb. Why can't they do the same now? I refuse to believe that the best and brightest in the world, living in this country, cannot come together and figure this thing out, given the right support. Instead we have yokel BP engineers who aren't trained for this sort of scenario running the show.

To top it all off, we have government officials refusing to grant reporters access to the site, even on public lands, and the Obama administration stood by BP's absurdly-low estimates of oil flow for nearly 6 weeks. Enough is enough. This is a national crisis, and as such, the buck stops with the President. And that's why he needs to step it up. I thought we were done with the Bush style of governance in January, 2009. I guess I was wrong.

Posted by: jbouklas | June 11, 2010 4:37 PM | Report abuse

"....as if the government has some secret competence..." This government (administration and president) have ZERO competence in any facet of running the greatest country in the world! It is painfully obvious that we have NO COMPETENCE at any federal level. Our budget deficit is out of control; no one listens to the voting public; nothing is being done to create jobs! Obama and his liberal cronies are bringing this country to its knees. Maybe that is his agenda!?!?

visit: http://eclecticramblings.wordpress.com

Posted by: my4653 | June 11, 2010 4:41 PM | Report abuse

What's missing from President Obama is the follow-through on his "Yes We Can" campaign slogan: we need our president to demonstrate a "can-do" attitude together with encouragement of the American people to take the same attitude.

He and Larry Summers may indeed be the smartest guys in the room, but that doesn't matter when you're trying to get the whole country to pitch in and pull together.

A little emotional intelligence would go a long way for this administration.

Posted by: cheesemonkey | June 11, 2010 4:53 PM | Report abuse

Good point, Ezra. I mean, it's not as if there were some government agency run by an industry hack like Ken Salazar that rubber-stamped BP's drilling plans, or some president that fought for deep-water drilling. Thankfully, nobody's to blame, and we can look forwards, not backwards, as usual.

Posted by: stonedone | June 11, 2010 7:30 PM | Report abuse

---
---
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READ THIS AMAZING SCOOP ABOUT HOW BP WOULD BEEN ABLE TO STOP THE OIL SPILL FROM THE EARLY DAYS !!!
---
ARTICLE and VIDEO that shows the BP tool, here: http://bit.ly/c8y9GX
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WHY the Press hasn't seen it in the BP video??? WHY the Press STILL don't talks about that??? is BP so powerful???
---
---
---

Posted by: gaetanomarano | June 11, 2010 7:37 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Klein,
The role of an apologist does not suit you.

Posted by: dinoworld | June 11, 2010 7:53 PM | Report abuse

I expect the US government, led by President Obama, to marshall the full resources of this country to stop it.


president obama has wonderful qualities of leadership, but he doesnt have a cecil b de mille walking-stick, that parts a sea, when lifted.

in our hubris, and blind belief in the "wonders" of technology without consequences, we believe that we can solve every problem....
well, guess what.

Posted by: jkaren | June 12, 2010 8:27 AM | Report abuse

"in our hubris, and blind belief in the "wonders" of technology without consequences, we believe that we can solve every problem....well, guess what."

Then what the hell was the point of voting him in if the same rationale Bush apologists used for why the government couldn't function apply to him as well? It's time we start getting some grown-ups in the White House with the will to run this country effectively. This is the price we pay for voting for unsubstantiated claims of Change We Can Believe in from a candidate who professed his admiration for Reagan, who rallied against an individual mandate for healthcare reform, and who spoke in platitudes instead of clear and progressive policy goals.

Posted by: jbouklas | June 12, 2010 2:13 PM | Report abuse

Ezra,
I'm trying to figure out how you are missing what other commenters here mention: the President, if you wants to, can change the discourse in Washington and in the news media, not magically but by argument and persuasion.

CLIFF NOTES VERSION:

If people LIKE what he is saying they RALLY around it. THEN CONGRESSPEOPLE become FRIGHTENED that they will LOSE ELECTIONS if they don't SUPPORT what is POPULAR. THEY start proposing BETTER POLICIES which move the country FORWARD. The PRESIDENT signs those BETTER BILLS.

GOT IT?

Posted by: michaelterra | June 12, 2010 3:32 PM | Report abuse

Good point, michaelterra, but Ezra will never get it. If he admitted that the presidency has an actual bully pulpit function that Obama could use, then he might have to call Obama out for not using it. Ezra is an apologist for this administration, not someone who wants to hold it responsible for anything. But it is still useful and sometimes satisfying to call out Ezra himself on either his willful blindness or his lame hackery (pick one).

Posted by: redscott | June 12, 2010 4:24 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, you a stool of the Establishment. What an idiotic piece of blather. The sooner the WP and other liberal rags find the door to the bankruptcy court the better off the Nation will be. What a load of tripe.

Posted by: Bubbette1 | June 12, 2010 5:01 PM | Report abuse

"in our hubris, and blind belief in the "wonders" of technology without consequences, we believe that we can solve every problem....well, guess what."

"Then what the hell was the point of voting him in if the same rationale Bush apologists used for why the government couldn't function apply to him as well? It's time we start getting some grown-ups in the White House with the will to run this country effectively. This is the price we pay for voting for unsubstantiated claims of Change We Can Believe in from a candidate who professed his admiration for Reagan, who rallied against an individual mandate for healthcare reform, and who spoke in platitudes instead of clear and progressive policy goals."

even the best leaders, scientists, technicians, engineers...cannot fix everything.
as frustrated and despairing as people can be, it doesnt mean that human beings, or presidents, can fix every situation.
this is a cataclysmic event. it is looking like there is not much that can be done to fix it, at this moment in time.
it is normal to want to place blame, to demand a solution.
in the fifties, we believed that "yankee ingenuity, and our better living through science and technology/ can-do attitude" could fix everything.
well, mother nature thinks differently, right now.

Posted by: jkaren | June 13, 2010 6:11 AM | Report abuse

Yes, Klein is never critical, always an apologist for the administration. His fortunes have risen on this and depend upon it. The president has caught himself in the utterly silly position of saying that everything BP does to fix this has to be authorized by him, that he is in charge and he is the boss. He has claimed ownership, while his apologists try to make the case that there's nothing he can reasonably do. This straddle position allows him to claim victory if the efforts succeed, and avoid blame if they don't. If he were interested in MORE than positioning himself, he would be working night and day on organizing the clean up and not blocking efforts by others (Jindal) that might be productive.

Posted by: truck1 | June 13, 2010 10:03 AM | Report abuse

." If he were interested in MORE than positioning himself, he would be working night and day on organizing the clean up and not blocking efforts by others (Jindal) that might be productive."

jindal is the one who is straddling positions and is completely hypocritical in dealing with this situation.
bobby jindal's posturing is uncourageous, self-serving and completely transparent.
on one hand, bemoaning the crisis in the wetlands and coastline, and on the other, calling for an end to the moratorium on drilling.
you cannot pretend to want to protect the ecology of the area, when you are calling for an end to the moratorium, when this could happen again, and even in a deeper well.
if he stands in front of the cameras, and yells loudly enough, does he think people wont see his hypocrisy?
he is politically posturing, and not even making any sense.
he just doesnt want to take the hard stand, like president obama, calling for a moratorium....because he doesnt want to lose votes.
his is not a voice of reason, it is just transparent "politics."

"tell people what they want to hear," and then they will like you, and never have to deal with the hard truth of their situation.


Posted by: jkaren | June 13, 2010 12:27 PM | Report abuse

"Taking a stand" is not doing anything about the situation. Jindahl is trying to clean up. It's the administration that is using this to posture and strut.

Posted by: truck1 | June 13, 2010 12:53 PM | Report abuse

" Jindahl is trying to clean up."

how is he trying to clean up????
you must mean, clean up on the votes....by saying what people want to hear, in an appropriately dramatic way,
by calling for the moratorium to be lifted on the wells, without being certain that an even worse problem might not occur?
president obama has done the prudent thing, in regard to that decision.
and he has to take the heat, because he cant promise people magic bullets for this catastrophe.

all jindal cares about, is scoring points and telling voters what they want to hear.
it is reprehensible.

Posted by: jkaren | June 13, 2010 5:40 PM | Report abuse

Per ABC news, Jindal has ordered barrier islands to be built without federal permission. Sandbags are about to be dropped. That's leadership. Going on tv tonight to denounce BP and demand more taxpayer money -- that's just the usual Washington demagoguery.

Posted by: truck1 | June 15, 2010 8:52 AM | Report abuse

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