Jonathan Mahler has a smart, informative feature on executive power in this week’s New York Times Magazine. I object only to the title, “After the Imperial Presidency.” As Mahler’s piece makes clear, the title could have used a question mark, at the very least.
Come January, the current administration will pass on to its successor a vast infrastructure for electronic surveillance, secret sites for detention and interrogation and a sheaf of legal opinions empowering the executive to do whatever he feels necessary to protect the country. The new administration will also be the beneficiary of Congress’s recent history of complacency, which amounts to a tacit acceptance of the Bush administration’s expansive views of executive authority. For that matter, thanks to the recent economic bailout, Bush’s successor will inherit control over much of the banking industry. “The next president will enter office as the most powerful president who has ever sat in the White House,” Jack Balkin, a constitutional law professor at Yale and an influential legal blogger, told me a few weeks ago.
Some prominent commentators–Jack Goldsmith and Jeffrey Rosen among them–have noted the “irony” that an administration monomaniacally committed to the growth of presidential power has allegedly weakened the presidency with its unilateralism and contempt of Congress. Given the powers the office retains and continues to accrue, that’s an irony that’s hard to savor. As Mahler notes, “it’s worth keeping in mind that in the final year of Bush’s presidency — while facing a Democratic Congress and historically low approval ratings — he was able to push through a federal bailout bill that vested almost complete control over the economy in the Treasury secretary (who reports to the president), not to mention a major rewriting of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that will make it easier for the White House to spy on American citizens.”
Indeed, Mahler documents how political realities–and in Obama’s case, perhaps, the prospect of actually taking power–led both candidates to move away from their early criticisms of Bush-style “deciderism,” and flip flop on torture (McCain) and wiretapping (McCain and Obama).
In explaining the post-9/11 growth of executive power, Mahler properly focuses on the twin problems of congressional cowardice and poisonous partisanship. In the Bush years, all too many congressional Republicans put party unity over institutional responsibility. That’s a common vice under unified government, which may be why Mahler hardly sounds optimistic when he quotes Senator Levin: “When I asked Levin what needs to happen for Congress to take back the rest of the ground that it ceded to the executive branch during the Bush years, he replied predictably, ‘We need a Democrat in the White House.’”
Matt Yglesias had an interesting post the other day, making an argument that I’ve been thinking about for a while, but haven’t yet written up. Matt speculates that an Obama victory might, contrary to the conventional wisdom, lead to a more racially charged (and thus even more unpleasant) politics. I agree, if for slightly different reasons than he offers.
Because we invest impossible expectations in the office of the presidency, the presidency has become an impossible job. And once the honeymoon period inevitably fades, the modern president becomes a lightning rod for discontent, often catching blame for phenomena beyond the control of any one person, however powerful. As Thomas Cronin put it in his classic 1970 essay “Superman: Our Textbook President”:
on both sides of the presidential popularity equation [the president’s] importance is inflated beyond reasonable bounds. On one side, there is a nearly blind faith that the president embodies national virtue and that any detractor must be an effete snob or a nervous Nellie. On the other side, the president becomes the cause of all personal maladies, the originator of poverty and racism, inventor of the establishment, and the party responsible for a choleric national disposition.
Obama has done more than any presidential candidate in a generation to increase expectations for the office, expectations that were insanely high to begin with. If he’s elected, when he fails to bind up the nation’s wounds, fix health care, teach our children well, provide balm for our itchy souls, etc. etc., his hope-addled rhetoric will seem all the more grating, and the public will increasingly come to see him as the source of all American woes. As his popularity dwindles, many of Obama’s defenders will view attacks on him through the prism of race, forgetting or ignoring the fact that nearly every president eventually morphs from superhero to scapegoat in the public mind. Since some of the attacks on Obama will, unfortunately, be racially charged, his supporters will always be able to find reasons to cry racism, and try to discredit the conservative critique of Obama’s presidency. Conservatives will resent being lumped in with bigots and hit back harder, and on and on it will go. Race will take on undue relevance because the presidency is far more powerful and far more important than it ought to be. Until that changes, we shouldn’t expect any president, however well-intentioned, to be “a uniter, not a divider” in American life.
The Law of Succession: Each president contributes to the upgrading of his predecessors.
And its corollary:
This [i.e., making his predecessor look good] is the only certain contribution each president will make.
…Mark Morford of the San Francisco Chronicle for Friday’s column “Is Obama an Enlightened Being?” (answer: yes.):
Here’s where it gets gooey. Many spiritually advanced people I know (not coweringly religious, mind you, but deeply spiritual) identify Obama as a Lightworker, that rare kind of attuned being who has the ability to lead us not merely to new foreign policies or health care plans or whatnot, but who can actually help usher in a new way of being on the planet, of relating and connecting and engaging with this bizarre earthly experiment. These kinds of people actually help us evolve. They are philosophers and peacemakers of a very high order, and they speak not just to reason or emotion, but to the soul.
The unusual thing is, true Lightworkers almost never appear on such a brutal, spiritually demeaning stage as national politics. This is why Obama is so rare.
* explanation here.
It probably doesn’t detract from Obama’s coolness quotient that his personal assistant is actually named “Reggie Love.” But the NYT feature story on Mr. Love makes you appreciate the absurdity of the American demand that the president has to understand ordinary people’s problems. Remember the flap in the 1992 campaign when it became clear that H.W. had never seen a supermarket scanner before, and didn’t know what household staples cost? If Obama or McCain or Hillary know what a gallon of gas or a gallon of milk costs, it’s because some savvy aide put it in a briefing book for them. How many people do you know, after all, who have a “body man”? No double entendres please.
When Mr. Obama makes calls to woo superdelegates, Mr. Love is at his side with a briefing book, dialing the numbers. When an outdoor speech ended on a windy day in Noblesville, Ind., he appeared behind Mr. Obama as he shook hands on the rope line. “Jacket?” he asked, a coat draped at the ready over his arm.
When Mr. Obama dropped food on his tie while eating in the car between stops, Mr. Love was ready with a Tide pen. He always carries one, along with ballpoint pens, and has turned himself into a walking dispensary of Sharpies, stationery, protein bars, throat lozenges, water, tea, Advil, Tylenol, Purell and emergency Nicorette, not to mention his ever-present iPhone, BlackBerry and Canon Rebel XT digital camera.
The royal treatment starts even before the coronation. I imagine this sort of thing is unavoidable. If you’re crazy enough to spend years constantly gladhanding your way around the campaign trail, mouthing platitudes and shielding your real opinions like nuclear secrets, you can hardly be expected to carry your own Tide pen. But I also imagine that after about six weeks of it, I’d begin to demand Van Halen-style concert riders and believe that nothing less was my due. And upon taking office, it only gets worse.
As I write in the book (buy it, damn you):
When a fellow is constantly surrounded by fawning assistants hanging on his every word—when his golden chariot is a modified 747—it might be hard for him to maintain the sense of perspective the Romans sought to instill in their military heroes.
We mortals—most of us, anyway—don’t need a designated ego-deflater to remind us of our unimportance. From the deli counter to the office, we’re confronted on a daily basis with people who don’t think we’re anything special and don’t particularly care what we think. The social environment in which the president operates is radically different, and it’s easy to appreciate how that environment might distort his judgment.
Perhaps only the fabulously wealthy and the fabulously famous live in a milieu as unnatural as does the modern president. Like the president, rock stars, movie stars, famous athletes, and corporate “Masters of the Universe” spend their lives immersed in adulation and surrounded by the trappings of wealth and power. And in 21st-century America, people who have it all should surely have their own syndrome. Thanks to Dr. Robert B. Millman, professor of psychiatry at Cornell Medical School, now they do: it’s called Acquired Situational Narcissism.
…. Standard psychology teaches that classical narcissism, with its symptoms of self-absorption, delusions of grandeur, and lack of empathy for others, originates in childhood. But as Dr. Millman sees it, “given the right situation, it [can] happen much later.” It can happen, he says, when a person rises to fame, wealth, and power—and spends an extended period of time in atmosphere of artificial deference:
“When a billionaire or a celebrity walks into a room, everyone looks at him. He’s a prince. He has the power to change your life, and everyone is very conscious of that. So they’re drawn to this person. What happens is he gets so used to everyone looking at him that he stops looking back at them.”
Which is understandable, says the doctor: “why would they feel normal when every person in the world who deals with them treats them as if they’re not?”
Think what you will of our therapeutic culture, but whatever the scientific merit of the syndromes it ceaselessly generates, it’s easy enough to imagine one’s own character getting distorted by the conditions Dr. Millman describes. And there is evidence from experimental psychology that dominance warps judgment. In a series of experiments in 2006, scholars from Northwestern, NYU, and Stanford found that “power was associated with a reduced tendency to comprehend how others see the world, how others think about the world, and how others feel about the world.”
Whatever social power celebrities have over those that surround them—and it’s considerable—the environment in which the president exists is even more unnatural. Rock stars and movie idols can order their functionaries around and buy their own planes, but they can’t send the Seventh Fleet through the Taiwan Strait or bomb Syria. And the stakes are much smaller where Russell Crowe, Lindsay Lohan, or Tom Cruise is concerned. If fame and wealth go to a celebrity’s head, he ends up jumping up and down on Oprah’s couch, no harm done to the wider world. If the president loses his grip on things, there’s rather more at stake…
I’m reminded of a charming story about Jerry Ford, our sanest recent president, and (not coincidentally) our most accidental one.
One day Ford’s dog, Liberty, made a mess on the rug in the Oval Office. A Navy steward rushed to clean it up. “I’ll do that,” Ford said. “No man should have to clean up after another man’s dog.”
Then again, it says something that Ford seemed like a great, down-to-earth guy because he didn’t expect other people to pick up after his dog.
If you grew up in Hawaii, wouldn’t you assume everyone who lives in Western Pennsylvania was bitter? Hell, I kinda think that, and I grew up in New Jersey. The whole incident reminds me of a terrific book review by Andrew Ferguson that almost–almost–made me want to read Dreams from My Father:
As a teenager he befriends Ray, another African-American boy who vents his authentic black rage between classes at their prep school, as the ocean breezes stir the towering palms overhead. This black rage was “the thing that Ray and I never could seem to agree on . . .
“Our rage at the white world needed no object, he seemed to be telling me, no independent confirmation; it could be switched on and off at our pleasure. Sometimes . . . I would question his judgment, if not his sincerity. We weren’t living in the Jim Crow South, I would remind him. We weren’t consigned to some heatless housing project in Harlem or the Bronx. We were in goddamned Hawaii.”