The President's Kryptonite
Sean Evans, Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science
Jun 25, 2010
The president is not Superman. He cannot fly rapidly around the Earth and repair holes created by earthquakes or offshore drilling. Yet, we expect the president to solve all of our problems with the snap of his fingers. That is why all presidents' kryptonite is unrealistic expectation.
The oil spill is a perfect example of a president's no-win situation. President Obama can't promise to plug the leak because the government lacks the expertise and machinery to do so, and to promise something he can't deliver makes him look ineffective. Symbolically, the president needs to reassure those harmed by the spill, but to promise to save their jobs and prevent environmental damage — when he knows he can't —- makes him look callous and indifferent in hindsight. Either way, he loses.
And it's not just the oil spill. We see these superhero expectations in liberals demanding Obama to push through the public option and cap-and-trade, Democrats calling for Obama to take the fight to Republicans and save his congressional majorities in November, world leaders demanding Obama bring peace to the Middle East, etc.
People assume that if the president acts, things will work out as the president wants. But hoping doesn't make it so. As presidential scholar Richard Neustadt demonstrates, the president cannot command. The president can only persuade people that what he wants of them is what they ought to be doing in the first place.
o why can't the president command? First, our separated powers system is intentionally designed to prevent one person from commanding or acting alone. The president has few formal constitutional powers in the first place and the important ones are either inappropriate for domestic use (e.g., Commander-in-Chief) and/or are shared with another branch (e.g., appoint but Senate confirms, sign/veto but Congress must pass bill) and, thus, limits his power.
Second, different people have different interests and don't depend on the president for their job. Presidents can't fire representatives, senators and world leaders; only constituents can. Because of this, other politicians pay more attention to their constituents than the president and, frankly, opposing the president is sometimes good politics.
Consequently, presidents compromise to pass laws and presidents "bully" companies to create compensation funds because they have no other choice. Similarly, world leaders don't make peace and continue to pursue nuclear weapons because it's in their interest to do so.
The most unfortunate part is that presidents intentionally bring the kryptonite upon themselves. While law and custom require the president to be the great initiator, presidential campaigns contribute to this custom by promising more than they can deliver. But while everyone expects the president to act, there is no guarantee that others will follow.
On leaving office, Harry Truman summed up the presidential predicament predicting that Eisenhower will "sit there all day saying 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."
I'm guessing Ike was not the only frustrated president, nor are we the only frustrated public.
This article originally appeared in the June 25th edition of The Jackson Sun