Politics and Presidents

by Jonathan Bernstein

Everyone, I guess, is talking about the latest WaPo exercise in Kremlinology*: Is Rahm in trouble?  Who is feuding with who?  Or, even...whom?

I'll pass on all of that, but I'm interested in Ezra Klein's reaction.  I agree with everything he says about health care reform and the other substantive issues, but then he concludes:

[O]n the areas that I know well, the defense of Rahm favored by some Washington Democrats is evidence of everything that is wrong with Washington: It prizes politics rather than policy, and seems interested in the problems Americans are facing only insofar as those problems show up in the president's poll numbers. In this telling, the measure of Obama's success is not how much good he does for the country but how much good he does for congressional reelection campaigns. No wonder people hate this city.

I mostly disagree with that.  Not completely -- I think if Obama construed politics narrowly, as Klein does here, to include only the midterm elections, then Obama would be wrong to focus on politics over policy.  But overall, I think this is the wrong way to think about the presidency, and about elected officials in general.  For them, it is precisely good politics that makes for good policy.

I'll have to explain that.  There are two ways at getting to the same place...I'll start with what I find to be the more intuitive, which is just that a really good test of good policy is, well, if voters like it.  George W. Bush didn't wind up really unpopular because of the wrong emphasis on politics over policy; if anything, the problem in Iraq is that Bush plunged ahead, in 2004, 2005, and 2006, with policies that were almost certain to draw the wrath of the American electorate.  Because they were bad policies!

The other way of getting to this is through Richard Neustadt's classic, Presidential Power.  For Neustadt, the quest for presidential power has the happy side effect of making government work well: "an expert search [by the president] for presidential influence contributes to the energy of the government and the viability of public policy" (154).  That is because, for Neustadt, no one can actually know what will actually constitute good policy.  What makes a policy work, anyway?  For Neustadt, it must be:

an operation that proves manageable to those who must administer it, acceptable to those who must support it, tolerable to those who must put up with it, in Washington and out.

How can Obama know whether health care reform (or Afghanistan policy, or a plan to fight H1N1, or changes in the structure of the American nuclear arsenal, or a climate/energy proposal, or financial sector reform) will work?  Obama certainly appears to be smart and well-read, but no president can actually be a true expert on even a small number of the issues that he or she must deal with, so just knowing what's what isn't going to do it.  I think a lot of people would just say to get the experts, and have them tell you what would work and what wouldn't.  But experts invariably disagree: which experts do you listen to?  How do you know?

What Neustadt suggests is that presidents can find what he calls "clues."  If the Senator from Florida complains about how his constituents would object to changes in a Medicare program, that's a clue.  If a group of credentialed experts sign on to a letter saying that Congress should be pass the bill before it, that's a clue.  If the governors complain about Medicaid provisions, another clue.  If some liberals revolt at the prospect of a bill passing without a public option, that's another clue.  Each of five committees, in the case of health care, reported different bills: more clues, because each provision reflected something that someone in that committee cared about for some reason.

Neustadt's claim is that the same things that made presidents successful politically -- that is, in his terms, increase presidential power -- are the things that make presidents good at reading those clues.  That is, presidents, in order to convince others to do the things that the president wants them to do, must figure out what the people who will administer a program can actually do (which, of course, differs from what they might say they can do -- reading clues is hard).  Presidents must figure out who really needs to support something so that it will pass, and know what they will accept (think public option. Who can you afford to lose -- Ben Nelson or Jane Hamsher?  And will the inclusion or not of a public option really make one of them walk?  What about Howard Dean and Blanche Lincoln, same questions?  The answers are not obvious, nor were they at the time).  But for Neustadt:

The things a President must think about if he would build his influence are not unlike those bearing on the viability of public policy.  The correspondence may be inexact, but it is close.  The man who thinks about the one can hardly help contributing to the other.  A President who senses what his influence is made of and who means to guard his future will approach his present actions with an eye to the reactions of constituents in Washington and out.  The very breadth and sweep of his constituencies and of their calls upon him, along with the uncertainty of their response, will make him keen to see and weigh what Arthur Schlesinger has called "the balance of administrative power."  This is a balance of political, managerial, psychological, and personal feasibilities.  And because the President's own frame of reference is at once so all-encompassing and so political, what he sees as a balance for himself is likely to be close to what is viable in terms of public policy.

Let me take that apart a bit...it's a big nation.  A really big nation.  And within it, people mostly care about themselves.  Members of Congress care about reelection.  Bureaucrats care about getting bigger budgets and easier work to do.  Interest groups care about a whole host of things.  Experts may think they are neutral, but they're also apt to be committed to a particular methodology, or their own pet solution, or they may not care about transition costs or local harm in service to a national goal.  The only person, Neustadt argues, who has an incentive to care about the entire nation, to balance all the particular interests and the national interest, to know when a Senator really is indicating that a bill will cause unacceptable harm to her constituents and when she's just bluffing, is the president.  And he will do so, paradoxically enough, not if he asks "what is good for the country?" but if he asks, instead, "what is good for me politically?"  "What will make me a powerful (read: influential) president?"

Just to be clear...what's good for the president politically, in this way of thinking about things, is not the same thing as whatever will maximize short-term approval ratings, or even what will maximize midterm results or even reelection.  Those are elements of it, but there are also usually trade-offs involved, and Neustadt's presidents will need to figure out how to balance those sorts of things -- which are valuable, because they become resources to help the president in the next round of bargaining -- with other goals.

*Paging 1985: the composer I'm using does not recognize the words Barack, Obama, Rahm, or WaPo, but it's all over Kremlinology.