Posted by: Dr Churchill | April 27, 2018

What about the President? (Chapter Three)

The Cold War is over and we are all pining for it to come back…

Maybe because national security today is threatened less by slow-moving armies than by stateless terror groups who might weaponize a rented truck and destroy Manhattan…

Or we are threatened by a rogue state who might weaponize an email.

Today, rare is the day when one or more of these enemies don’t present an imminent danger requiring the president’s attention.

“The modern presidency has gotten out of control” is what Leon Panetta, who has served past presidents as the White House chief of staff, the secretary of defense, and the director of the CIA, said recently.

He went on to state that: “Presidents are caught in a crisis-by-crisis response operation that undermines the ability of any modern president to get a handle on the office.”

The growth of presidential power is not new.

When Arthur Schlesinger Jr. published the book “The Imperial Presidency” in 1973, the term was already at least 10 years in use.

But the office hasn’t just grown in power; it’s grown in scope, complexity, degree of difficulty. Each time a president has added to the job description, a new expectation has conveyed, like the Oval Office furniture, to the next man in line. A president must now be able to jolt the economy like Franklin Roosevelt, tame Congress like Lyndon Johnson, comfort the nation like Ronald Reagan.

The emotional burden of these responsibilities is almost unfathomable. The president must endure the relentless scrutiny of the digital age. He must console the widow of a soldier he sent into combat one moment, and welcome a championship-winning NCAA volleyball team to the White House the next. He must set a legislative agenda for an often feckless Congress, navigating a partisan divide as wide as any in modern American history. He must live with the paradox that he is the most powerful man in the world, yet is powerless to achieve many of his goals — thwarted by Congress, the courts, or the enormous bureaucracy he sometimes only nominally controls.

“In the presidency there is the illusion of being in charge,” George W. Bush’s former chief of staff Joshua Bolten said, “but all presidents must accept that in many realms they are not.”

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Even Trump, not one to readily admit a mistake, has acknowledged that he underestimated the difficulty of the job. “I thought it would be easier,” he told Reuters 100 days into his term. A blunt admission—and one much mocked by his critics—but one every president eventually makes. Lyndon Johnson made the point in his earthy way: “The office is kinda like the little country boy found the hoochie-koochie show at the carnival,” he said. “Once he’d paid his dime and got inside the tent: It ain’t exactly as it was advertised.”

President Trump is tackling some of the challenges of the office. He has tallied up plenty of partisan victories, like cutting taxes, appointing conservative jurists, and slashing regulations. He has also shed responsibilities, in a job that traditionally only accumulates them, neglecting allies, his own employees, and even some of the usual presidential perks of the office…

And whatever you think of him, at the very least Donald J Trump is rewiring the presidency, and making it far more acute and successful, and also dismantling the old V* engine and putting in a new space age machine and flinging the old parts along with habits onto the White House lawn and having a garage sale of all the doilies, the nonsense, and all of the crochetty old things.

Given Trump’s speed, priorities, and attention, we might be grateful to him for demonstrating, in his inimitable way, the extent to which the old engine had become a wheezing and jerry-rigged contraption badly in need of repair. Or, if you are in a grateful mood — you might consider that he fixes the flaws of the presidency that the American people asked to be fixed, and that made President Donald Trump an emergency solution to the problems that had tripped up all of his predecessors.

Either way, Presidents will continue to be frustrated by the demands of the office, and Americans will continue to be disappointed by their leaders, upon whom they place illogical demands.

Indeed it appears that we will enter another presidential campaign season desperate for a good outcome, but unprepared to choose someone who can reset the terms of success.

Over the past year, political scientists, historians, dozens of men and women who have worked in the West Wing under presidents of both parties, and some of the men who had the often unenviable job of sitting behind the Resolute Desk — have all said that the job is a disaster for the office holder. What they described is an office in dire condition: overburdened, unrelenting in its demands, and unlike anything the Founders intended when they designed the role of the President a little over two centuries ago.

Before his inauguration, Barack Obama discussed the office he was about to assume with his predecessor, George W. Bush. “Ultimately, regardless of the day-to-day news cycles and the noise, the American people need their president to succeed,” Bush told him.

Americans still need their president to succeed. But the presidency has set him up for failure, and the media back biting worsens the outlook for success when they do not ascribe the earned successes to the President for fear of being honest and truthful. Indeed the fake news media cycle hurts the President and the Presidency — but that’s a tall order for any one so called journalist to understand.

On April 8, 1938, a couple of years before the Second World War, more than 100 demonstrators dressed as Paul Revere marched along Pennsylvania Avenue. Some carried signs that read we don’t want a dictator. They were protesting the Reorganization Act, the first major modification of the executive branch since the presidency was created, in 1787. The legislation was an outgrowth of the Brownlow Committee, which Franklin Roosevelt had commissioned to study the presidency and update it for modern times. The conclusion from the final report: “The president needs help.”

Roosevelt responded by requesting a handful of personal aides and a reorganization of his Cabinet departments. “The president’s task has become impossible for me or any other man,” he said. Roosevelt’s predecessor and archrival, Herbert Hoover, supported him in the request.

Congress and the public, however, objected. In an April 1938 Gallup poll, only 18 percent of the country thought the president should have more power. Three hundred thirty thousand Americans sent telegrams to members of Congress denouncing “one-man rule.”

The Democratic majorities in Congress denied the Democratic president’s plea for help—a rebuke nearly impossible to imagine today. In a fireside chat, Roosevelt promised to work to defeat in the 1938 election any Democrat who had blocked him. He failed badly; all but one candidate he backed lost. After a year of fighting, Congress finally granted the president some additional manpower. To dispatch the duties of his office, he would now be allowed six assistants and given the power to reorganize the executive branch within certain limits. Congress reserved the right to veto any of the president’s plans for further modifications.

The emergencies of the Great Depression and, later, World War II gave Roosevelt more leverage with Congress, and the gains he made for the executive branch not only increased its power but provided a blueprint for his successors to do so further. In the 80 years since Roosevelt got his six additional men, the executive branch has steadily increased in size and power; Congress and the public have grumbled plenty about power grabs by presidents from the other party, but offered little resistance of the type witnessed on Pennsylvania Avenue in 1938. “Congress chose to abdicate by choosing not to govern,” the NYU public-service professor Paul Light says. “It has totally acquiesced to the White House,” enabling its own diminishment.

The Congress-centered government of the Framers’ conception has thus shifted to one dominated by the executive. Today, about 400 people work inside the White House, in jobs from national-security adviser to public liaison to special assistant for financial policy. Two thousand more work in the Executive Office of the President. In 1940, the civilian agencies of the federal government employed 443,000 people. They now employ three times that number. Roosevelt’s vice president and Cabinet of 10 could join him for a group picture behind his Oval Office desk. The 24 members of the Trump administration with Cabinet rank have to be photographed from across the room to all fit in the camera frame.

A White House once quaintly understaffed is now overstaffed, which leads to laborious decision making and palace intrigue. Even in the sparsely staffed Trump administration with many appointments held up by Congress, the traffic jams at the Oval Office door are routine. “The guys around the president want to show their stuff. They want him to look at my program, look at my issue,” says Joseph Califano Jr., who served as the chief domestic-policy adviser under Johnson and also as Jimmy Carter’s secretary of health, education, and welfare. “So many issues get to the president’s throat that shouldn’t really get there” — issues “better left down in the bureaucracy to resolve.” Aides who don’t get the attention they want gripe, then leak. The insatiable, never-resting media take those leaks and turn them into new headaches for the West Wing team.

Even so, you might think that extra manpower would be a boon to an overextended president. But unlike a chief executive in the corporate world, a president can’t delegate. Some, such as Carter, have tried. It didn’t end well. In July 1979, he held a Cabinet meeting that was more like the Red Wedding. He had come to believe that the people he’d appointed were being disloyal and “not working for [him], but for themselves.” Some pushed back, saying they were simply advocating for their policy positions. But the press has a way of describing debate as discord. Carter concluded that because a president is on the hook for every decision his administration makes, decisions of any import must be made not by the Cabinet secretaries but in the White House, where the president’s political team can vet them. So he brought more decision making into the West Wing—lengthening the line at the Oval Office door, and shortening everyone’s temper. “You’re lucky you were fired,” a friend told Califano, a victim of the bloodletting. “You’d have never been able to stand being strangled by the White House staff.”

Dwight Eisenhower was a life-hacker. During his military career, he devised systems that made him more efficient. After he became president, he applied his methods to the already vast management challenge. When Ike first entered the executive mansion, the story goes, an usher handed the new president a letter. “Never bring me a sealed envelope!” he said. Nothing, he explained, should come to him without first being screened to see whether it really merited his attention.

Eisenhower sorted priorities through a four-quadrant decision matrix that is still a staple of time-management books. It was based on his maxim “What is important is seldom urgent, and what is urgent is seldom important.”

Sage advice, but antique for any president trying to manage the office after the attacks of September 11, 2001. The Cold War presidents monitored slow-moving events that had flashes of urgency. Now the stakes are just as high, but the threats are more numerous and fast-moving. From North Korea alone, the president faces both Cold War–style nuclear devastation and cyberwar mayhem. Michael Morell, a former deputy director and acting director of the CIA who briefed the previous four presidents, said:

“There have never been more threats than there are today.”

Yours,

Dr Churchill

PS:

Presidents now start their day with the President’s Daily Brief, an intelligence assessment of the threats facing America.

How the PDB is delivered changes with each president.

Early in his term, Trump reportedly requested a verbal digest of the brief. During the Obama years, the PDB was wrapped in a stiff leather binder and looked like the guest book at a country club. Inside was a grim iPad containing all the possible ways the president could fail at his most essential role.

Satellite photos tracked terrorists’ movements, and pictures of failed laptop bombs demonstrated the pace of awful innovation.

And at the end of the briefing with intelligence officials, a president might be asked whether a specific person should be killed, or whether some mother’s son should be sent on a secret raid from which he might not return…

And the President has to respond with a Yeah or a Nay to the given options…


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