The President as an operating officer

If Obama thinks the job of the President is “setting a vision,” he really *isn’t* ready to be President on Day One. Here’s hoping he’s a quick study.

I’m not surprised to see that Bill Clinton doesn’t believe that running the bureaucracy is part of the President’s job. His singular lack of interest in that task during his previous Presidency is part of what makes me unenthusiastic about a restoration.

But if Barack Obama believes the same thing, and can’t be persuaded otherwise, we’re in a heap of trouble. The one thing the Bushies have been good at is twisting the bureaucracy to their evil designs. And it’s not going to untwist by itself, or because a President “sets a vision.” Those 100 Regent University Law School grads in the Justice Department are now civil servants; they don’t leave automatically when the White House changes hands.

The fact that Obama loses pieces of paper isn’t a problem; Presidents have staffs. But if he’s not willing to get into the weeds of program operation, he’s not going to be able to get much done. He’ll be in the position Harry S. Truman imagined for his successor:

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.

The notion that Obama doesn’t know how to “fight” never made much sense to me. But it’s possible that his extensive reading didn’t include Neustadt’s Presidential Power, and that he doesn’t know how to do &#8212 or doesn’t even know that a President needs to do &#8212 the part of a President’s job that involves wrestling with the various bureaucracies to get them to perform in the public interest. That would be bad. And if HRC’s claim about being willing to “work” means being willing to talk to (which includes listening to) GS-15s when necessary, that would be a substantial argument in her favor.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: