The Presidency Is Too Big for One Person

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by Conor Friedersdorf

Todd Purdum writes in Vanity Fair:

Washington is hard to govern, above all, because of the radical growth in the scope of the federal government’s responsibilitiesit’s an obvious fact, but it’s where explanations must begin. On the eve of World War II, F.D.R. had six high-level aides who carried the title “administrative assistant to the president.” Harry Truman, after the war, had 12 of them: they met every morning in a semicircle around his desk. There are now upwards of 100 people who have some variation on “assistant to the president” in their titles. The sheer number of things the executive branch is responsible for just keeps expanding; the time available to think about any one of them therefore keeps shrinking. This is not just a management issue, it’s a stakeholder issue: every special interest in the country is working zealously to keep what it has, or to get something better. Emanuel, who was a top White House aide through most of the Clinton years, thought the pace was bad back then. It’s much worse now. “Leon thinks it’s a huge problem,” he says, referring to Bill Clinton’s chief of staff, Leon Panetta, who is now Obama’s C.I.A. director. “He says that this is a highly caffeinated speed.”

This is a concern I've had for a long time. The President of the United States remains a single man or woman. Can he or she possibly preside successfully over a government that has grown orders of magnitude bigger than it was at the Founding? That higher ups in a Democratic administration agree is somewhat puzzling. The status quo strikes them as dysfunctional, but they want to expand the role of the federal government and the scope of executive power even more?

Here's an excerpt from later in the piece:

The sheer size of government makes juggling a fact of lifeand, to some extent, an impossibility. Balls are dropping all the time. But even more debilitating is what size gives rise to. The reach of government may touch every cranny of national life, but those in the crannies can also reach back and touch the government, seeking favor and preferment. The Federal Register is published every working day and contains the text of new government regulations, presidential decrees, administrative orders, and proposed rules and public notices. The edition for this ordinary Wednesday comes in at 350 pages of dense, dark type. It is unimaginably varied: you’ll find rules for the importation of Chinese honey; proposed conservation standards for home furnaces; permitting procedures for the experimental use of pesticides; announcements concerning the awarding of new radio and TV licenses; and hundreds of other items. You can think of the Federal Register as the official record of federal activity in all its range. You can also think of it as the daily report card of the lobbying industry, whose interests and resources underlie nearly every line of type. There is hardly a large private company in the country not dependent on some kind of government contract, and hardly a business of any size that is not subject to some kind of government oversight.

Perhaps it would be better if less depended on the federal government -- in fact, perhaps if it had less to do, its remaining functions could be carried out more skillfully, with less waste, and to the greater benefit of the citizenry. Given the subject of the article, it's almost astonishing that neither the author nor any source ever suggests that we'd be better off if some matters were removed from the president's consideration.

 

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