Advice About Two Years Too Late

Matt Yglesias suggests that the appropriate response by President Obama to the setbacks he and his party just sustained is to withdraw to the White House and make greater use of executive powers — to do things like appointing more judges, aggressively negotiate trade agreements with major trading partners, and using regulatory and priority-setting power to bypass Congress towards encouraging economic activity. In other words, he needs to stop being the Democrats’ Congressional-negotiator-in-chief and start being the President.

You’ll pardon me if I say, “I told you so.” Nearly three years ago, I mused:

Personally, I think that legislative service is a relatively poor way to train someone for executive leadership. Legislative service is inherently a deliberative process. It involves seeking consensus and compromise amongst people who are more or less equals. Chairs of Congressional committees certainly wield great power, but they do so because they have the backing of their peers and therefore concentrate the power of the entire Congress into themselves, at least within their areas of speciality.

Being a legislator is great experience for learning how to make deals. It isn’t a great way to learn how to delegate tasks, how to read peoples’ abilities and how to pick amongst people for various jobs, how to set priorities. Executive power is taking the helm of an organization; it is not exercised by seeking consensus and compromise, but rather through personal charisma and the dissemination of a common set of visions, goals, and values. Ultimately, being President isn’t about making deals, it’s about taking charge. So I have to disagree with those among you who picked service in the Congress as the best qualifier for the White House. I’d have picked “Cabinet service” before “Congressional service.” But that’s just me.

Leaving aside a spelling mistake which I should have corrected, I stand by those remarks. Nor do I think I was particularly unique or insightful back during the campaign to observe that Barack Obama’s very first experience as an executive would be as President of the United States. He was never Governor of Illinois, never ran any kind of an enterprise like a university, never even ran the law firms he worked in. Knowing what to delegate and what not to, judging the character and competence of subordinates and figuring out how much leash to keep them on, and finding the right advisers to filter extraneous information and get the important data where it ought to be are difficult things to do.

Which is why it’s telling, and of mid-range importance, that so many Republicans became Governors this time around. They are the farm team for the 2012, 2016, and 2020 Presidential election cycles. In the meantime, it’s interesting to see liberals pointing out that President Obama needs to stop being Senator Obama. But this begs the question: shouldn’t he have been doing that all along?

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.

One Comment

  1. That last point is especially true given the end of McCain-Feingold, which really shifted the presidential fundraising advantage to incumbent Senators. While I'm more positive on HCR than you are, the Democrats made some huge strategic blunders in the last cycle, and I think they'll be paying for them for a while.

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