As the anniversary of Barack Obama’s historic inauguration approaches, he struggles with the classic questions that surround the American presidency: Too much? Or too little?
Is the president doing too much? He is fighting two wars, battling terrorism, overhauling a seventh of the economy, changing the way American business operates, taking on global warming, trying to create jobs, jostling over immigration issues, contemplating what to do in Iran.
Is the president doing too little? Did he react too slowly to the Detroit bomber? Is he oblivious to the terror threat? Is he letting economic issues, especially jobs, drift? Is he a ditherer, incapable of making a decision? Is he too little involved in the Capitol Hill negotiations on health care?
One form or another of these questions has faced almost every president, save perhaps William Henry Harrison, whose 30 days in office were too short to expose his political and personal vulnerabilities, and Gerald Ford, who was charged in his 30 months in the White House with the simple task of ending the Watergate nightmare and healing a country betrayed.
These questions are not easy for any chief executive, and they are especially difficult for presidents who are works in progress (Theodore Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush) rather than fully settled, developed and mature characters (Abraham Lincoln, Harry Truman, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush).
Special challenge for Obama
This is a real challenge for Obama, whose youth and inexperience are not fully hidden by an inner serenity that is reminiscent of Franklin Roosevelt and Reagan. He is ambitious, as almost all elected presidents are; no one, with the possible exception of Warren G. Harding, seeks this office with the idea of keeping things quiet. He is restless of intellect, like many presidents who find that living in a museum makes them want to know the provenance of the artifacts and the lives and triumphs of the previous tenants.
Franklin Roosevelt said that the presidency was “pre-eminently a place of moral leadership,” and no occupant of the office before or since would contest that. But the presidency is also a management challenge — how to use power, which at the beginning may seem infinite but which swiftly dissipates, and how to use time, which is much the same as power and erodes in much the same manner.
Just as a president’s budget is an expression of his priorities, his daily schedule plays the same role. How much time he devotes to one subject or another is a powerful signal and an expression of power itself.
These are difficult times, fraught with problems economic, domestic and international, but all times are difficult, even the ones we think were tranquil. If you consider the Eisenhower period an epoch of serenity, how do you account for the Korean War, McCarthyism, the Hungary uprising, the Suez War, Sputnik, Little Rock and the U-2 crisis?
In his first year — and first years are not always precursors, as George W. Bush’s proved — Obama can be classified as a vulpes cinereoargenteus, the tree fox of contemporary American life. Many things interest him. Many things preoccupy him. Many things have his attention.
Obama’s plaint — that his plate is very full and that he has little choice but to address all the menu items — is not persuasive; every president could make the same claim. The truth of the presidency is that if there are too many priorities, then nothing has real priority.
If Sen. Obama could have been said to have had a top priority in the 2008 campaign, it surely would have been his vow to change the tone and timbre of Washington — to make it less partisan, less contentious, less pugilistic.
Even his most ardent supporters will have to agree that no progress has been made on this priority since the 2008 election. Indeed, the potentates of Capitol Hill may have been guilty in 2009 of the worst excesses of partisanship in modern times.
Much of the blame goes to them, but a substantial amount also must go to the president himself, who said he wanted to create a new atmosphere of partnership but has failed to persuade three important lawmakers to join him: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and 2008 GOP presidential nominee John McCain.
Yes, they are stubborn. But presidents have faced stubborn Capitol Hill leaders before, almost all of them more ferocious, more formidable and more nimble.
Choices to be made
Kennedy used to say that to govern was to choose. He meant that a president had to make constant choices and that there were choices he could not ignore. That is true. But the phrase — to govern is to choose — has a broader meaning. If a president is to govern, then he must choose what he most wants to do.
Some of Obama’s natural allies believe he has to do just that, and one of them, William Galston of the Brookings Institution, a top Clinton administration thinker, believes the president must stress job creation.
“What is the right thing for him to be doing a lot of in 2010?” he asked in an interview. “I think a lot of economics and as little as possible on the kinds of things that the American people are going to regard as diversionary as long as the economy is as bad as it is. The American people desperately want their elected officials to be seen as working full time on the economy, to care about it as much as ordinary families do.”
Maybe that’s not the right answer — maybe the answer is health care for the next month, terrorism for the next year — but whatever it is, presidents must choose, they must set priorities and they must be parsimonious about picking fights on other matters. It is a president’s most important decision, and how he makes it says a lot about his temperament, his perception of how to govern, his presidency and his place in history.