The Corner

The Phone and Pen President

Presidential administrations can get terribly insular, especially when things go poorly. Believe me, I worked in the Bush White House in the second term. People under stress inside a bubble are very bad at understanding their own predicament and doing something about it, and often they reach for ideas that are forms of the problem rather than solutions to it, and they just can’t see it even if everybody else can. 

This story in Sunday’s Washington Post on how team Obama plans to turn things around is a powerful exhibit of that pattern. The president and his advisors understand they are in a bad place at this point. They’re not deluded. But they think their problem is that they have been spending too much time dealing with Congress and have failed to show enough executive initiative. They appear to be taken with the notion that President Obama has been behaving too much like a prime minister lately, and not enough like a president—an assertive and dominant executive. They think what will help them is pursuing his agenda (such as it is) through executive action. And they think it makes sense to talk about it by basically saying they can’t get anything done through the usual constitutional channels and that the president will use his phone (to boss people around, presumably?) and his pen (to sign executive orders?) more from now on. Apparently they aim to make this clear (along with how inequality is the defining issue of our time and raising the minimum wage a little will fix it) in Tuesday’s State of the Union address. 

I’m not sure how it’s possible for anyone to have witnessed the last few years and concluded that President Obama has not used unilateral executive power enough, or to think he has tried too hard to work with Congress. And I’m not sure how it’s possible to review the past year and conclude that this administration’s trump card will be its ability to effectively execute the president’s agenda. Their biggest failure of the year, after all, was the Obamacare rollout fiasco, which involved a disastrous failure to execute the foremost item on the president’s agenda. Their biggest success, at least in political terms, came through a confrontation with Congress, in which Republicans behaved self-destructively. It’s also not easy to see how experienced political professionals could conclude that it is a good idea for the president to complain about his own inability to work with congress. 

The view that an assertive executive can break the maddening constraints of the constitutional system and enact the public will by personally embodying it is, of course, at the core of the progressive outlook in our politics—though few progressives today put it quite that way. But that White House officials would actually express themselves like this—in the form of a kind of trope of pure progressivism devoid of content—strikes me as more than anything an indication of the sheer intellectual exhaustion of the left. Referring to a memo prepared by one of the president’s senior advisors, the Post story says this:

The White House postmortem also concluded that the administration suffered from a lack of focus in a year without an election. The 2012 campaign imposed discipline on the White House, providing a political filter to assess every new initiative. Obama wanted to know how his decisions would be explained to voters, a demand that vanished once the election was won.

As a result, senior advisers now say, the White House’s focus did not match its ambitions as 2013 began.

This seems right, except the ambitions part. And I don’t take it to mean that the Obama team is just all about pure politics. They’re not more so, it seems to me, than most recent White Houses—and certainly not more than the previous Democratic administration. Rather, it suggests that the White House, and the national Democratic Party more generally, finds it very difficult now to define itself in any other way than in contrast to its political opponents. Every political party defines itself against its adversaries to an extent, of course, but generally by contrasting agendas and visions. But the Democrats increasingly find it difficult to articulate an understanding of themselves as anything except the party that will stop the barbarians. This is an odd self-image for a party in power in Washington. But the left is out of steam, and largely out of particular ambitions and ideas. And those that remain are for the most part pretty unpopular, which, as Republicans found out when they ran out of steam themselves in the past decade, is a very big problem to have. 

It is an impressive feat of self-knowledge for a top-ranking Democrat to be able to say that, lacking an election in which the administration could contrast itself with Republicans, the White House seems aimless. But that White House officials appear to be concluding from this that what’s missing is more presidential assertions of raw power does suggest the limits of that self-knowledge. 

By the end of the Bush years, if not in the middle of them, the Republican Party reached a similar point—a point of exhaustion at which all it could do was repeat age-old mantras and pursue age-old policy objectives that were no longer well connected to the strengths and weaknesses of America in this moment in time. The Republicans these past few years, too, have had a hard time defining themselves as anything but the party that might stop the Democrats. That self-understanding at least makes a little more sense in a party out of power (and a conservative one at that), but it’s still dangerously inadequate, as the Romney campaign discovered when its strategy of just not being the Obama campaign failed to result in electoral victory. 

The GOP is only now commencing in earnest a recovery from that state, as a few officeholders here and there propose some ideas that suggest what conservatism could look like as an engaged response to contemporary American needs rooted in traditional American ideals—as a way of thinking about taxes, entitlements, transportation, higher-ed, fighting poverty, and a few other issues. It has much work left to do, and we had better hope it does it quickly because having both of its major parties so exhausted has not been great for our country, and it certainly doesn’t seem like the Democrats are finding their footing. Here’s a hint: Pens and phones can’t achieve much when you’ve got nothing to say. 

Yuval Levin is the director of social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the editor of National Affairs.


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