You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Presidential Decisions

I haven't really blogged about presidential power recently, but a couple of excellent posts by Noam Scheiber (here and here) about whether Barack Obama will appoint Elizabeth Warren to head the brand new Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection give me a good excuse, because he really does excellent analysis of How Things Work in Washington. I'll add in this related item from Tim Fernholz.

The idea that I want to get across here is twofold.  First, presidential decisions are rarely about "doing the right thing" vs. "doing the wrong thing." They're not even, really, usually about doing the right thing vs. doing the expedient thing. Moreover, it's too simple to talk about whether presidents "have the power" or not to do things. Reality is usually a lot more complicated.

So: For those who haven't been following this, the question is over whether Obama will make liberals happy by appointing Warren despite some apparent reluctance of some Democratic Senators to support her, not to mention interest group (that is, banking) opposition. How did this play out? Well, first of all, the White House leaked out not only Warren's name, but also the names of alternatives that wouldn't be much (if at all) better for affected businesses, as Fernholz reports. Scheiber notes that Warren has been, meanwhile, meeting with big bank lobbyists, presumably in part to reassure them that she's no worse than the other plausible choices. Scheiber concludes that the banks have decided that they can live with her. Meanwhile, I agree with Scheiber's argument that Democratic Senators who would prefer a different nominee are unlikely to actually oppose confirmation. But as he points out, it's a bit trickier for the president than that:

Even if Obama can get the 60 votes he needs to confirm Warren, that probably comes at some cost in the Senate, since the moderate Dems who grudgingly vote with him may feel less favorably disposed on the next tough vote--and that may be an issue where they have the political space to oppose him. I'd say that's the biggest White House political consideration at this point--not whether Warren can be confirmed, but at what cost in terms of goodwill among Senate Democrats.

That's exactly the right way to look at these things. Given that he has more cards to play than any other individual within the political system, a president often is in a position in which he can get his way if he wants something badly enough--but that doesn't mean it doesn't come with real costs. It's not about whether he wants to do something; it's about how much he wants to do it, what the costs and benefits are for moving ahead compared to the costs and benefits of pulling back. 

What makes the presidency so hard is that it's not about deciding right vs. wrong.  It's almost always about choices about priorities--which of the many possible "right" things should move up to the top tier, which are clearly not worth the effort, and which are somewhere in the middle.  This requires gauging all sorts of things...are cranky Dem Senators really upset about Warren, or just putting up a show for the benefit of home-state interests.  How much does Warren's obvious symbolic importance to some liberals translate to liberal activists in general, and how will that play out if Obama was to choose a substantively similar but symbolically less fraught nominee?  How do Washingtonians feel about the president's resolve, and will his reputation for being tough be helped if he stands up to balky Senators?  What if he stands up to liberals?  How much do the banks actually care about Warren's symbolic importance?  How likely is this choice to take up valuable Senate floor time compared to alternative nominees, and which nominations or legislation might that jeopardize?  What options does he have on those other items that might clear more space for a Warren floor fight (if one is likely), and how important would those compromises be?  

Then realize that there's a similar set of questions for each of the things that Barack Obama wants to do, and for all the things he doesn't really care about but for which others are urging him to act.  Remember that while on the one hand he has far more tools than any other individual to use in order to persuade others to go along with what he wants, he's using those tools across dozens, maybe hundreds, of issues, while many of those he deals with may only care--and care intensively--about one or two or maybe a handful of issues.  And note that everyone is watching what the president decides, and how he decides, and who he listens to and what strategies he uses, so that they can maximize their ability to get what they want from him when it's their turn to play.  None of which should be taken as apologizing for the president... he asked for the job!  He certainly should be held to account.  It's just important, in my opinion, to understand what it means for a president to make a decision before we start attacking him for one. 

Of course, many things a president wants to do are "wrong" in the view of many citizens, but I think rarely from the point of view of what the president told his supporters he wanted to do during a campaign.  So clearly most Republicans think that on health care reform the president willfully tried to do something they thought of as "wrong," and from their point of view they are probably correct.  I'm sure there are some times when a president really does "betray" his supporters, in the sense of affirmatively choosing to support a policy they oppose and had every reason to believe he would oppose: There are cases in which a president and his supporters really are surprised to find themselves disagreeing on what is right and wrong.  I believe, however, that such cases are rare. Most of the time a president's supporters feel betrayed, even major cases such as Reagan's conciliatory stance towards the Soviets, or Clinton and welfare reform, or Bush and Medicare, or Obama and the public option, the odds are good that the president doesn't fundamentally disagree with his supporters about right and wrong, just about the correct move to make given all the circumstances (which, again, doesn't mean he necessarily is correct about that).  

Obviously, the president has the constitutional and statutory authority to nominate Elizabeth Warren. Even if he believes she is the best choice for the job, however, that's just the beginning of the story. A president who doesn't take all of those other questions into account (and, presumably, others I'm not aware of) is going to wind up unable to do very much at all.

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist. He blogs at A plain blog about politics.