A Tour de Force: “Obama Explained,” by James Fallows

Just how much power does the presidency really offer? Any president, not just Obama, but Roosevelt, Eisenhower or Reagan? The
March issue of the Atlantic’s article on the political, social and
economic powers of the presidency is the finest piece of analysis we’ll
see in a long time. It continues to amaze me that so
many of the expectations about a president, any president, are bogus.
Can a president actually create jobs in the short-term? Six months to a
year-and-a- half? That’s a completely counterfeit notion from the
get-go. Can the president create jobs on a long term basis through
policy decisions? You bet your sweet bippy he can.

James Fallows sets about to answer that big set of presidential
questions–and does an absolutely masterful job. His article is a superb
case of reality deflowering stupid ideals and politics-as-usual. This
is as close to civic accuracy as you’re going to see in a long time.

Sobering realities
Take for example, Fallows statement, well into the article, regarding the “sobering realities of the modern White House.”

The sobering realities of the
modern White House are: All presidents are unsuited to office, and
therefore all presidents fail in certain crucial aspects of the job. All
betray their supporters and provoke bitter criticism from their own
side at some point in their term. And all are mis-assessed while in
office, for reasons that typically depend more on luck and historical
accident than on factors within their control

Maybe that shouldn’t be, or maybe you don’t like that, but them’s the facts, buddy.

Big Surprises
What are the biggest surprises any new president faces? Here’s what one person with extensive nation-level experience said: The
biggest surprise for any new president is the strain placed upon the
“decision-making muscle,” since the choices that come upon him every day
are precisely those the rest of the government has not been able to
resolve. The question for someone whose only real executive training has
been the management of his campaign is “how quickly that muscle will
develop and improve”; as it is developing, the instincts and
institutional memory of those around him inevitably have great effect.
Obama frequently emphasizes how many troubles he faced as soon as he
took office. The real problem, for an inexperienced president, is that
he had to make so many big decisions so fast. How tough to get on Wall
Street; how hard to push for extra stimulus; how much time to give
Congress to mull health-care plans; how much to trust the Republicans to
cooperate; how long to delay on energy and environmental plans—these
are just some of the choices Obama had to make about
domestic affairs.

Faced with tough opposition
What’s the role of
the opposition? Fallows goes back to a letter that James H. Rowe, a
Harvard –trained lawyer who had been Oliver Wendell Holmes’s last law
clerk, and after World War II was a young official at the Bureau of the
Budget, wrote to President Harry Truman soon after the midterm elections
of 1946. In that election, Republicans gained 55 seats in the House and
12 in the Senate, to take control of Congress. The “simple fact” about
most deals with a congressional opposition is that they “just won’t work
under the American two-party system.”

How does Fallows read this letter?

And so Rowe offers his
recommendation. With legislative ambitions blocked, with many
appointments left to languish, with rear-guard battles under way to
uphold vetoes and fend off investigation, a president should resort to
the only tool that is uniquely his: the ability to speak to all of the
public. He should prepare the ground by sounding reasonable and
conciliatory, in light of an unquenchable if unrealistic belief that
parties should be able to get along. (“Public demand for bipartisan
cooperation will probably continue. The realpolitik of
the situation requires that there be some gestures toward cooperation.”)
Then, with his bona fides established, the president can move into the
next election, making a clear case for his side.

Imbibing this article and its spirit is an exceedingly worthwhile experience. You can download the entire Atlantic article here: Obama Explained. It’ll provide a backdrop for the rest of this year—and hopefully, the coming four years of the Obama presidency.

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