Posts Of The Year: The Presider, January 28 2009

(I've written many many longish posts this year where I've tried to frame what I'm thinking in a slightly more lasting way than the usual posts. In this last week of the year, I thought I'd repost a few, in part to remember how far we've come this past year, but also to think again if I got things right, to what extent, and in which respect. Here's my thoughts in the first week of Obama's presidency, of his style, and his conception of what the presidency really is about. I think it adds a little perspective to some of the breathless claims of betrayal currently faddish on the left, and show an inner consistency to Obama that few truly appreciate.)


One impression from Obama's interactions with the Republicans and Democrats in Congress: Obama clearly sees the presidency as a different institution than his immediate predecessor. This is a good thing, it seems to me. Bush had imbibed a monarchical sense of the office from his father and his godfather (Cheney). The monarch decided. If you were lucky, you'd get an explanation later, usually dolled up in propaganda. But the president had one accountability moment - the election of 2004 - and the rest of the time he saw the presidency as a form of power that should be used with total boldness and declarative clarity.

At times, Bush's indifference to the system around him bordered on a kind of political autism. And so one of the oddest aspects of Bush's presidency was his tendency to declare things as if merely saying them as president could make them so. The model was clear and dramatically intensified by wartime: the president pronounced; Congress anemically responded; the base rallied. At the start, it felt like magic, but as reality slipped through the fast-eroding firewall of reckless spending and military misadventure, Bush's authority disappeared all the more quickly - because his so-certain predictions were so obviously wrong. The Decider had no response to this. He just had to keep deciding and asserting, to less and less effect, that he was right all along. Hence the excruciating final months. Within a democratic system, we had replicated all the comedy and tragedy of cocooned authoritarianism.

Now look at Obama. What the critics misread in his Inaugural was its classical structure. He was not running any more. He was presiding.

His job was not to rally vast crowds, but to set the scene for the broader constitutional tableau to come to life. Hence the obvious shock of some Republican Congressman at debating with a president who seemed interested in actual conversation, aas opposed to pure politics. Last Tuesday, there were none of the bold declarative predictions of the Second Bush Inaugural - and none of the slightly creepy Decider idolatry. Yes, Obama set some very clear directional goals, but the key difference is what came next: a window of invitation. The invitation is to the other co-equal branches of government to play their part; and for the citizenry to play its. This is an understanding of the president as one node in a constitutional order - not a near-dictator outside and superior to other branches of government. It is a return to traditional constitutional order. And it is rooted in a traditional, small-c conservative understanding of the presidency.

If Bush was about the presidency as power, Obama is about the presidency as authority. It's fascinating to watch this deep difference in understanding slowly but unmistakably realize itself in public actions. Somewhere the Founders are smiling. The system is correcting itself after one of the most unbalanced periods in American history. But it took the self-restraint of one man to do it.

(Photo: Obama on the Hill yesterday by Alex Wong.)