The President is caught in a Neustadtian reality.
Or perhaps a Neustadtian nightmare.
His power of persuasion, what Richard Neustadt found to be the only real power of the successful modern executive, cannot help here. Fixing a website, particularly one as troubled as healthcare.gov, and administering a presidential falsehood regarding the plan, is beyond persuasion.
President Obama’s partisans are learning the hard lesson of the modern executive regarding the power of the office. It is a bitter pill, particularly since the President successfully defended the powers of the executive in the face of the shutdown and default brigade. Upholding the power of the modern executive to shape a policy agenda is not the same as the power to successfully create a specific policy or to implement it.
On so many matters of public policy and policy implementation, presidents can issue all the edicts they want, pound their fists on the podium demanding action, and still they find frustration.
So many ignore the story Harry Truman told as Eisenhower prepared to take office:
“He’ll sit here, and he’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen. Poor Ike—it won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll find it very frustrating.”
When presidents find their power to persuade the Washington community at a particular nadir, they seek the relative comfort of the hustings in an attempt to mobilize voters, and move their poll numbers.
They are often encouraged to do so despite the lack of evidence that presidential success is predicated on launching a successful public policy campaign.
In his analysis of the recent political crisis gripping the White House, Andrew Sullivan made an excellent comparison to Ronald Reagan and Iran-Contra and offered this advice to the President after acknowledging the administrative task ahead:
But he must soon also engage in a critical political task: to get off the defensive and onto the offensive; to make the case for the good things the ACA can do, and is doing; to remind people of the radical uncertainty of the past, and to demand that the Republicans offer more than just cynical, partisan spitballs to address the unfair, unjust and grotesquely inefficient mess that the ACA was designed to reform. That was the gist of his presser today. It needs to become a stump-speech. He needs to get out of his White House administrative mode as soon as he gets a grip on the reform, and launch a campaign mode against a return to the wild west of the past in healthcare and to expose the Republicans as cynical, opportunist critics who refuse to offer any alternative and any constructive reform.
Again, we return to the Harry Truman model of presidential campaigning, taking the issue to the streets and moving the public in the direction of the White House.
It’s advice the White House would be wise to ignore. It’s not 1948 and the whistle-stop tours of our political memory will not impact that which is causing the current dilemma.
Indeed, when has a coordinated series of stump speeches, television addresses, or a proactive political campaign helped our contemporary executives advance a policy agenda, particularly when that agenda revolves around the much more sober, and arguably boring, task of policy implementation?
More so than most, Barack Obama lives in the world created by FDR. During his campaign in 1932, Roosevelt addressed the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco and described the task ahead: “It is the soberer, less dramatic business of administering resources and plants already in hand . . . The day of enlightened administration has come . . . As I see it, the task of government in its relation to business is to assist the development of an economic declaration of rights, and economic constitutional order.”
Soberer. Less Dramatic. Universal health care may be the final programmatic right to be secured by Roosevelt’s liberal successors, but it is in its administration that the President will be judged.
Successful administration remains that which is sober and less dramatic. Presidents get into serious trouble when they promise that which sober administration cannot fulfill. Thus do we find a President making a political promise (“if you like your health care plan, you can keep your health care plan”) that could not possibly be met administratively.
His legacy will on the issue of health care reform will not be made, or saved, by a series of stump speeches. It will be secured by a much more sober, mundane reality: a website that works and an administrative state that matches presidential promises.
To be fair, Sullivan is arguing for an explanatory campaign to “remind people of the radical uncertainty of the past” and not a campaign with the goal of moving the needle in DC. But, for the moment, the people may not be in the receptive mood to listen.
Our open age of instant communication has made presidential appeals to the old customs of campaigning largely irrelevant to issues such as this.
What the people ultimately desire is a system that works and one that is implemented according to that which a President promised. It is in the successful administration of health care as a programmatic right that will convince people the current system is preferable to the pre Obama health care regime.
Another mass appeal for public support using the President’s rhetorical skills is not likely to work.