Friday, November 20, 2009

Executive Strength, Not Executive Deference

It is with no small discouragement that I put my thoughts down today. I never expected to be this disappointed with President Obama's leadership ability and his handling of the proceedings. Still, I concede that perhaps part of it is that the sheer number of daunting challenges which face us must be held in check by the realization that the legislative process is plodding and slow. Every President, to some degree or another, bases his or her definition of Executive authority in contrast to the conduct of the previous person to hold the office. Former President George W. Bush's desire to circumvent the legislative branch and concentrate power in the White House at the expense of other branches no doubt shaped Obama's desire to give Congress its fair share of say and impact. This is a noble gesture, provided it works, and thus far it has not. My hope is that our President will realize that there is a difference between ruling like a dictator and ruling like a strong Executive, and the lines between the two are neither fine, nor blurry.

Because the responsibilities of the President are rather vaguely noted in our Constitution, each occupier of the office has taken his own interpretation of what precisely his job description connotes. Those who have boldly adopted a stance that the Presidency ought to intercede directly and without apology into affairs some might consider the domain of other branches have been variously criticized for threatening to rule as an autocrat. This is inevitable, since human selfishness and common sense dictates that everyone would like as big a piece of the pie as he or she can get. Everyone will also be reliably counted on to object loudly if that piece ends up being reduced in size, especially if one thinks it owed to him or her. Throw in partisan rancor, exaggeration, and media narrative and here one has a familiar formula that has been levied at any number of Presidents who, with the passage of time, history has seen fit to denote as "Great".

The reverse of this, of course, is being too conciliatory to other branches of government, a stance that has regrettably been President Obama's undoing in recent months. Presidents before have kept a tight leash on Congress, not out of some desire for complete control, regardless of how much Senators, Representatives, and pundits scream about it, but out of a genuine understanding that the Executive branch must set the tone, the pace, and the direction. This is especially true now when though both the House and Senate have substantial Democratic majorities, the leadership tends to viscerally underwhelm and no one person has the force of personality to stand out front and be the face of Congressional mettle and resolve. With so much that needs to be done, the President cannot afford to sit on the sidelines and watch with his hands on his hips. He needs to take an active role in the game and if that means that the other players feel as though someone's trying to grab the headlines from them, then so be it.

Public opinion of Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and of Congress in general reflects this dire situation of which we are faced. A do-nothing accusation lends itself easily to guilty-until-proven-innocent when no one has yet successfully sold Health Care Reform, Financial Reform, Environmental Reform, or any other measure now on the docket. What we have in its place are overly cautious and thoroughly uninspiring pronouncements that promise ultimate success in the wimpiest possible construction ever devised. They almost beg to not offend the hearer. The clear implication is that the latest version of the bill is a coalition of the fragile affair that could break apart at any moment. This does not exactly foment trust, devotion, and fidelity in the eyes of voters.

As is my wont, in instances like these, my mind drifts to similar struggles in different ages. Historical events roughly four and a half centuries ago shaped the formation of our Union and indeed, mirror ours in certain ways.

The climax of the English Civil War was the ascent of a commoner, Oliver Cromwell, to head the island nation. A member of Parliament before the war, Cromwell successfully lead the forces of the legislative body into battle against those supporting the crown and in so doing won eventual victory. A brilliant military strategist and general, Cromwell held little patience for the delays and cross-currents which bogged down passage and enactment of reforms, which meant that with time Cromwell concentrated more and more authority into his own hands. Though he might have been impatient, one cannot help but sympathize to a degree with his dilemma, particularly right now when partisan or even inter-party bickering has brought even the most modest reform measure to a complete halt.

As for the legislative frustrations that typified the times, they first began in the form of the Long Parliament, which was compromised of an expansive group of dissatisfied legislators aghast at the base incompetence of a heavily unpopular King. This then gave way to the high drama of Pride's Purge. The Long Parliament was dissolved in large part because it met for eight years solid but, due to factionalism and indecisiveness, could never manage to come to a solid conclusion or resolution regarding much of anything. The largely deposed King, Charles I, stalled every negotiation by playing different factions in the Parliamentary alliance against each other to his own advantage. When a significant faction sought to keep the King in control, albeit as only a figurehead, thereby disregarding the authority of the army, a coup d'├ętat commenced. The Purge brutally, skillfully removed fully half of the body, leaving behind only those who supported the army, at which point the monarchy was effectively dissolved, the King beheaded, and England's first and only attempt to rule without a sovereign instituted.

What came next was the so-called "Rump Parliament", a term that, as is sometimes the case, was made by its opposition as a means of derision but stuck nonetheless. To this day, the phrase survives and is used to mean a gathering comprised of remnants of a much larger group or organization. Though initially successful, the Rump met its end four years later. Its undoing was a combination of its failure to come up with a new, working Constitution and its flagrant disregard of the wishes of Cromwell, who commanded that the body dissolve, which it refused to do. After personally observing the stalemate for himself, the soon-to-be Lord Protector bellowed,

You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately ... Depart, I say; and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!

After the Rump came the appropriately-titled Barebones Parliament, which was even less successful. In disgust, Cromwell took control as a near-dictator and was kept in power by the backing by the army until his death five years later. The complexities of those times are fascinating and cannot be done justice by a brief synopsis, but my greater point is to note the morass between then and now and, in so doing, note how much easier would be our lot if Congress could ever get a thing accomplished without bogging down into a state of maddening paralysis. The Cromwellian Protectorate lasted only slightly longer than one modern-day Presidential term in office, at which point English citizens grew weary of it and re-established the monarchy. It is that lesson above all others which I wish I could impart to our elected representatives and the current occupant of the White House, else they squander a golden opportunity.

How tempting it would be if the ability existed to instantly call for new elections or even a way to rid ourselves of Representative and Senators whose stated agenda seems to be obstructionism and baseless fear-peddling. To return to how I began this post, I know that we are stuck with the men and women we have in Congress. I also understand that we have the theoretical right to throw these people out if they fail to be satisfactory stewards of our trust and our concerns, but one would be remiss to not note how they are often more indebted to the sway of fund raising, high value donors, and corporate interest. Moreover, I concede that the system as it exists is patently not designed for the kind of major overhauls we desperately require. The safeguards in place are designed in part for wiser, paternalistic heads to soberly contemplate, stroke beards meaningfully, and then cautiously proceed. There are too many procedural rules, stalling tactics, and needless esoterica embedded deeply in a branch of government whose ways and means are frequently noted as "arcane".

However, the time for real leadership arrived about four or five months ago. While I concede that President Obama picked his strategy for Health Care Reform based on the failed example of President Clinton, it is long past due for a change in strategy. Sometimes in seeking to avoid a mistake, we over-compensate and create new problems in the process. Cautiousness is sometimes a viable public option, but as regards a Democratic caucus that is beholden to so many different identity groups, so much ideological difference, and a big tent that strains to be wide enough to accept everyone, else they pitch their own somewhere else, Presidential authority is the only way to get everyone on board. If the Left has a true skill, it is in finding hairline cracks in party unity. If the Obama of 2008 can return, then all will be forgiven and we can move forward. Otherwise, we will be stuck with mealy-mouthed, soft-pedaled promises and over-cautious optimism.


Gail said...


YOU are so well informed and such an excellent critical thinker/writer. Really, you so should have your own column in a BIG newspaper and/or be an adviser to the President.

Love and respect

Administrator said...

I share your disappointment in Obama as president. He is far too cautious and, by seeking bipartisanship, merely waters down any good he might have been able to do. I wish he'd really use the "bully pulpit" before he ends up like LBJ... a victim of the military industrial complex.

John at