Category Archives: Executive Power

Book Review: Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker – A Very Stable Genius: Donald J. Trump’s Testing of America

Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker – A Very Stable Genius: Donald J. Trump’s Testing of America (New York: Penguin Press, 2020)

This book, by two Washington Post journalists, is a chronological, personality-based history of the first three years of Donald Trump’s presidency. By keeping a mostly straight tone, it has significant comedy value. It also has instructive value about the intersection of personality and party politics.

Historians will likely have a field day with the Trump presidency. Or at least they will when enough time has passed for partisan passions to cool. Until then, there will likely be more splenetic rants than useful analysis. Leonnig and Rucker do a better job than most about keeping their spleens in check, though they are not perfect about it.

The late Charles Krauthammer viewed the Trump administration as a stress test for America’s liberal institutions. He thought they would remain intact, and the country would learn a few lessons about executive power. So far, so good, though there has been some important damage in the areas of trade, immigration, and diplomacy. The Republican party is also in rough shape, and isn’t quite sure what to do with itself now that the personality by which it is defining itself is no longer in office.

The story of American political institutions, almost from the beginning, has been a slow growth in the executive branch’s political power relative to Congress. Each administration takes on a little bit of new power to fight a war, ward off an economic panic, deal with a disaster, or simply to accomplish a common policy goal. After two centuries of this slow accretion, the presidency has become far too powerful compared to the other two branches. This imbalance makes the country especially vulnerable when the president is corrupt, incompetent, illiberal, or all of the above.

Today, Trump’s fondness for executive power is currently combined with congressional Republicans that will not buck him, and a Democratic opposition that also likes a powerful executive branch, at least when they are in power. The combination is a potent stress test for the separation of powers and limited government.

Trump’s various capers are often humorous—many parts of this book are laugh-out-loud hilarious. Others are damaging, such as placing tariffs against allies such as Canada on national security grounds, or forced family separations at the southern border. In the long run, Trump’s de-glamourizing effect on the presidency may actually do some good. This, however, assumes that people learn their lesson about putting too much power in one office.

As Trump has proven, in America, anyone can become president. This can be dangerous, as he is also proving. While he will not be fatal to America’s liberal institutions, it is important that his precedents do not become prologue for future presidents’ power grabs. Part of that project is not taking him or the presidency too seriously. This book helps very much in that department, such as when it tells the story, with a straight face, of the time Trump told India’s Prime Minister, “it’s not like you have China on your border.”

On the other hand, there is next to no analysis of Trump’s major policy initiatives, from his signature trade and immigration policies to his regulatory policies, foreign policies, and other initiatives. Politics should be about policy. In practice, it is mostly about personality. In that sense, A Very Stable Genius is a very practical book, though one will have to go elsewhere for actual policy content.


A Rational View of the Presidency

Back in 2008, Gene Healy wrote a book called Cult of the Presidency. It was an election year, so naturally many people thought it was an anti-Bush polemic. But it wasn’t about Bush. It wasn’t about any president, really. It was about how people view the presidency itself.

Gene’s thesis is that people have unrealistically high expectations for the office. Expectations so high that no man can meet them. But in trying to meet them, that man will grab for more and more power. As he inevitably fails to make voters’ hopes and dreams come true, he will decline in popularity until a fresher face takes his place. And that fresher face will grab for still more power, and disappoint even more people. It’s a remarkably vicious cycle.

When Gene wrote the book, he had no idea Barack Obama would win the Democratic nomination. But win it Obama did, in large part by tapping into voters’ unrealistic expectations for what the office can accomplish. Now that four years have gone by, he has institutionalized and expanded Bush-era abuses of power. He is also decidedly less popular than he used to be (though this writer still expects him to win a second term).

Obama’s Republican opponents have suffered from a tiresome Obama Derangement Syndrome from the very beginning. But even Obama’s supporters have lost much of their enthusiasm. He didn’t keep all those grand promises he made. More to the point: he couldn’t possibly keep them.

It’s not in Gene’s nature to say “I told you so.” But he does have a new e-book that came out today that updates Cult of the Presidency. His thesis has only become more compelling now that enough time has come by for it to be tested. I’ve only just begun reading the book, but a passage from the introduction makes it clear just how prescient he was in 2008, well before he even knew who the candidates would be:

If the Obama presidency has driven Americans mad, perhaps that’s because we’ve embraced a demented notion of the presidency itself.

It’s childish to blame this state of affairs on the powerlust of individual presidents or the fecklessness of particular Congresses. Presidents reliably lust for power; Congress is dependably feckless. But the Pogo Principle is the soundest explanation for what the presidency has become: We the People have met the enemy, and it is us. We built this…

[O]ver the course of the 20th century, the modern president had become “our guardian angel, our shield against harm . . . . He’s America’s shrink and social worker and our national talk-show host. He’s a guide for the perplexed, a friend to the downtrodden–and he’s also the Supreme Warlord of the Earth.”

I’ll it say for him: he told you so. You can buy the book for less than four dollars here.

Obama Wants to Extend PATRIOT Act

People are often surprised to hear how similar President Obama’s policies are to President Bush’s. They shouldn’t be. One may be a Republican and the other a Democrat, but make no mistake. Bush and Obama are two peas in a pod.

-Bush signed a $700 billion bank bailout bill. Obama continued the policy. And he extended it to other sectors, such as the automobile industry.

-Bush tried fiscal stimulus twice while in power. With some help from the Bush team, Obama oversaw the largest fiscal stimulus bill in history. There is occasional talk of another.

-Bush started two land wars in Asia. Obama could end them. Instead, he is committing more troops to Afghanistan.

-Bush oversaw Medicare part D, the largest expansion of government’s role in health care since 1965. Obama also would like to expand government’s health care presence.

-And now, we have the PATRIOT Act. The bill was perhaps the largest expansion of executive power in seventy years, and the Bush administration’s signature legislation. Now that Obama has inherited all these cool powers, turns out he likes the PATRIOT Act, too. So he wants to extend some of its expiring provisions.

Predictable. Still disappointing.

Moving On

As so often happens, Gene Healy hits a home run.

On the anniversary of 9/11, what’s clear is that, despite the cliche, September 11th didn’t “change everything.” In the wake of the attacks, various pundits proclaimed “the end of the age of irony” and the dawning of a new era of national unity in the service of government crusades at home and abroad. Eight years later, Americans go about their lives, waiting in restaurant lines, visiting our ”great destination spots,” enjoying themselves free from fear — with our patriotism undiminished for all that. And when we turn to politics, we’re still contentious, fractious, wonderfully irreverent toward politicians, and increasingly skeptical toward their grand plans. In other words, post-9/11 America looks a lot like pre-9/11 America. That’s something to be thankful for on the anniversary of a grim day.

To Heckle the President, or Not?

Over at CNN, John Feehery argues that it’s better not to heckle. I agree, but for different reasons.

Feehery’s line of thinking is that the office deserves respect. Holding one’s tongue is a matter of decorum. “The president is the commander-in-chief, the leader of the country, and in many unspoken ways treated as a king.”

Technically, the president is commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and of nothing else. The rest of his job consists of humbly executing the laws given him by the Constitution and the legislature. That’s why it’s called the executive branch.

Feehery, a partisan Republican, here manages to out-conservative Edmund Burke. Royal rhetoric pervades his piece – evidence of how far the presidency has strayed from its intended purpose. The cult of the presidency endures.

Don Boudreaux’s approach to the presidency is more realistic, if less romantic:

[T]he notion that the U.S. presidency is lofty or respectable in any ethically significant sense is ludicrous. As Saul Bellow said about politicians, “they’re a bunch of yo-yos. The presidency is now a cross between a popularity contest and a high school debate, with an encyclopedia of clichés the first prize.”

Hence the real reason to let the president have his say without being heckling him: politicians make themselves look bad far more effectively than any heckler could. He doesn’t need the help. Just take his ideas seriously:

-We can save money by spending $900,000,000,000.

-We can contain costs by isolating people from the costs they incur.

-The Medicare/Medicaid model works. Expand it.

Presidents are unremarkable creatures. Borne of much talent for campaigning and little for governing, more love for power than for principle, and the unyielding belief that they know best, presidents have the worst kind of hubris. This is perhaps their only regal trait.

President Bush thought he could win two simultaneous land wars in Asia, and use military might to build a new nation in Iraq. Hubris.

President Obama thinks he can run the auto, financial, and health care industries at the same time, all while controlling global climate patterns. Hubris.

Feehery is right that President Obama should not have been heckled. If not for the sheer harm his office causes, it would not merit the attention.

Putting Faith in Our Leaders

The economist Hernando de Soto, writing about his native Peru in 1989, makes a point that holds true twenty years later and a continent away. Echoes of F.A. Hayek:

“Those who expect things to change simply because rulers with greater determination and executive skills are elected are guilty of a tremendous conceptual error.”

The Other Path, p. 237.

Tanks for the Memories

I laughed when President Bush declared a federal emergency in the District of Columbia because of the inauguration.

Yes, it was only a way to get more funding to the District. More people are in town than expected, and the city needs to maintain order.

It’s still amusing to think of a simple inauguration as a federal emergency.

Now I hear on the tv that tanks are being brought in. Wait, what?

The Permanent Campaign

Good people generally do not become president. Good people don’t even want to be president.

Why? Power is one reason. There is nothing dignified or noble about seeking power over other human beings.

Morality in politics is that of Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic: might makes right. No parent would teach that to their child. It is wrong.

The brutal campaigns are the other reason good people shy away from political careers. A successful campaign for even minor office requires months of the candidate prostrating himself before people he’s never met.

He has to tailor his opinions to match the median voter’s. He dares not follow his own heart or mind; he’d lose for sure.

Good people carry themselves with pride and dignity. The man or woman who voluntarily endures the modern campaign has neither.

Pundits started talking years ago about the notion of the “permanent campaign.” It used to be a cynical joke at the expense of a politician whose powerlust was a little too obvious; proper decorum demanded such impulses to be kept below the surface.

Decorum has declined. People who play for the Red Team are already jockeying to position themselves as their team’s nominee. More than three years from now.

The Blue Team already knows who their nominee will be. And he’s already begun campaigning for a second term. His first has not yet even begun.

The Politico‘s Ben Smith reports that President Obama has even named his permanent campaign: Organizing for America. This is unprecedented.

Smith describes it as a “potentially hugely, uniquely powerful tool, enhancing the muscle of the official who is already the most powerful man in America.”

Power. Always power. Politicians are terrible little creatures. May our children aspire to better things.

Creating Jobs

President-elect Obama has a plan to create 2.5 million jobs over the next two years.

One of his ideas is to install energy-efficient light bulbs in federal office buildings.

In other words, we’re about to find out exactly how many federal employees it takes to screw in a light bulb.

My guess: a lot.

Obama Predictions

The voters have spoken, and Barack Obama will be the next president. Watching the partisan reactions on both sides has been both amusing and disheartening. It seems as though most people see Obama as either the new messiah, or else the anti-christ.

Not a lot of middle ground out there.

Here at Inertia Wins, we proudly take that middle ground. We believe in skepticism without cynicism; in disagreement without contempt; in conviction without Certainty; and in politics without romance.

From that perspective, here are some predictions for how the Obama presidency will turn out:

Obama will be a two-term president, though he will be significantly less popular by the time his presidency comes to a close. Stars that burn so bright tend to fade quickly. It will not help Obama that many of the problems with politics-as-usual that he speaks out against are systemic. Even the leader of the free world is powerless against the political process.

One-party rule will not be good for Democrats. As happened with Republicans during the Bush era, unified government will lead to sclerosis, hubris, and an increase in corruption. Obama will not help; he will not risk angering his party by vetoing bad legislation. Democrats will lose their Congressional majority, probably in 2012. Voters seem to prefer divided government, which is why we’ve had it about two thirds of the time over the last century.

We will not see a full-fledged nationalization of health care. The government currently spends about 54% of all health care dollars; I expect that figure to rise, but not above about 67%.

Obama will withdraw most soldiers from Iraq sometime in 2011. Some small peacekeeping forces will remain there more or less permanently, as happened with Korea.

Obama will ramp up our presence in Afghanistan, and it will not go well. This will contribute to his declining popularity. The U.S. military can fight and win almost any battle, but even they cannot build a nation. That kind of change can only come from within. Like Clinton and both Bushes, Obama will not learn that lesson.

Taxes and spending will both go up, but not by catastrophic levels. Overall public sector growth will be slightly less than under Bush. That means Obama’s final budget will probably be the nation’s first to to exceed $5 trillion. When divided government returns, Obama will find his veto pen and strike down bad GOP legislation, no matter how similar it is to Democratic legislation. Government growth in Obama’s second term will be sharply lower than under his first term.

Agree? Disagree? Predictions of your own? Comments and emails are always welcome.