What the President Does — and, Importantly, Doesn’t — Do

Between the N.S.A./Merkel mess and the ObamaCare mess, it seems a good time to ask a question we’ve asked in the past: just how much does the President of the United States really matter? Our original podcast on the topic came out in 2010; we overhauled the episode in 2012, adding interviews with Donald Rumsfeld and Austan Goolsbee.

As Jon Stewart puts it so well in the video below, if the President is out of the loop on Merkel eavesdropping and his namesake healthcare law, just what loops is he in? I do not mean to cast aspersions on President Obama himself (although you are free to cast away). I mean to highlight the possibility that we assign way too much weight to the role of the President generally.

What are the odds that you agree with my argument? Who knows. What are the odds that, even if you do agree, you will disagree once it’s time to elect the next President, and we get caught up once again in our Great Man Theory of Voting? 

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  1. JLR says:

    An easy way to think about this is to ask yourself this:

    How much does the CEO of the company I’m employed by know about the work I’m doing? Your answer is likely “not a damn thing”.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 16 Thumb down 12
    • Matt says:

      If the CEO has assigned you to spearhead single largest project he promised to investors or to carry out surveillance on another member of the board, he’d better know quite a bit about it. If he doesn’t, then he’s not doing his job.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 22 Thumb down 0
    • James says:

      The executive, be it CEO or President, certainly may not be “in the loop” on every project (and likely shouldn’t be, lest s/he waste time in micromanaging), but that’s not really the issue here, is it?

      The issue is what actions the executive should take when s/he does find out that an important project is not working, breaking the law, etc. Should s/he push the project through regardless, or try to cover up the illegal acts of subordinates? I think a corporate CEO who tried that would answer to shareholders and/or the law, don’t you? So why should a President be treated differently?

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 16 Thumb down 2
      • steve says:

        “So why should a President be treated differently”

        That one is simple. The president unlike a CEO commands legions of armed men with many more legions of devoted followers. You can’t just go and arrest such a man for wrong doing irregardless of it’s severity. That requires either the disillusionment of his followers aka Nixon or armed force in the form of a coup or civil war.

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    • Dan says:

      How long do you think the CEO of Ford would keep his job if he spent 3 years touting “The Greatest Car Ever, it gets 1,000 MPG”, “The last car you’ll ever need, it lasts forever” ect…

      Then delivering to showroom floors – a box without any tires or engine, and wanting people to pay full price for it?

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 18 Thumb down 4
      • Joe D says:

        I presume you’re referring to the ACA? The problem is not with the product (necessarily), but with the showroom itself (the doors don’t always open; the showroom is several twisty hallways from the doors; salespeople keep stopping you before you get to the showroom to determine ahead of time which cars you can see).

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      • James says:

        And you have to give them access to your bank accounts before they’ll let you past the reception area.

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  2. bob says:

    We should assign more weight to our Congressmen. It’s how our government is intended to function, and it’s badly needed since we re-elect so many of our Congressmen without them having earned it.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 21 Thumb down 1
  3. texagg04 says:

    The problem then is the relationship between:

    1 – What the President legally can do (according to the Founder’s intent & the Constitution).

    2 – What the President does anyway under assumed powers.

    3 – What the People have self-determined what the President ought to do.

    The friction between those 3 and the farther out of line of those 3 from each other, the more frustration and discontent will grow.

    #3 is the clincher. We’ve developed, through media and education, a danger expectation of the role of the President.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 0
  4. Libra says:

    The list of failures of this administration is epic and nearly endless… Fast & Furious, IRS targeted audits, ObamaCare non-functioning sign up, Obama care “Keep your Doctor”, Egyptian Mess, our second best ally in middle east (Saudi Arabia) breaking off relations… etc.. etc…

    The First Benghazi story was “We know what happened and it was because of this internet video, and we are mean Americans for posting this stuff…” Then the video idea was shown as a total sham (no thanks to regular media) and we have had a full year of “we have no idea what happened”. We do know the president was informed about the problem on the night of Sept 11, and promptly went to bed.

    ObamaCare “You Can Keep your Doctor and Plan”: Really !? Somebody is buying that he didn’t know about the ONE EXACT DETAIL of a 2,000 page law that he made repeated promises about? Really?! Is there any part of this that is not a combination of incompetence, arrogance, and ignorance?

    As a CEO he would and should have been Fired a long time ago.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 30 Thumb down 19
  5. NZ says:

    It kind of depends on how much the President uses (or abuses) his power, doesn’t it? It also depends on whether he is an emblematic voice for his party, because a President can do a lot just by using the prestige of his office to get the nation talking about this or that thing–or in doing so, to distract from something else.

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  6. Mike says:

    I agree that it is a large government and the President cannot and should not know about all of the details of all programs. Arguably things like Benghazai or the NSA scandal or Fast and Furious could have been handled by other people. However, “I didn’t know” still sounds like a lame excuse. Even if you didn’t know, you appointed the people who did know. It’s still your responsibility, and it just sounds like you’re picking an incredibly lame excuse so you can avoid ever admitting you or your staff ever made any mistakes.
    Then there are the obamacare and spying on our allies scandals. Starting with tapping Merkel’s phone, the question is who the heck was that information for if not the President. Presumably spying on Merkel is supposed to help the Americans who directly negotiate or interact with her. Like the PRESIDENT. If he’s not getting the results of that, then what’s the point of the whole operation?
    Then on Obamacare. It’s his signature program for his entire Presidency. He should know more about it than any other issue. I don’t expect him to know the details of which contractor did which part of the program and how they interact, but he should at least know whether the darn thing has been tested and whether it will actually turn on for heaven’s sake. If he doesn’t know that, does he know anything about how it’s being implemented at all? If he doesn’t know anything at all about how Obamacare is being implemented does he know anything at all about how anything is being done in the government? What the heck DOES he do all day? It reminds me of all those poorly written sci fi stories where people say “I have clearance two levels ABOVE the President.” Apparently, Obama wants us to believe that exists. People joked that Bush was just a figurehead while sinister bureaucrats ran the government. Obama seems to be telling us that that is true.
    Alternatively, since it is ridiculous that Obama had no idea about anything going on with Obamacare, the conclusion is that he was just lying to escape blame. Same for the spying on Merkel scandal. The other scandals could go either way, but since we already think that Obama is lying to avoid blame for two scandals, I would rather believe that he was lying about the others rather than having no idea what’s going on in the IRS, NSA and BATFE and honestly thinking that the Ambassador was killed over a video for a week after the assault.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 2
  7. Caleb B says:

    Lying about knowing Benghazi was a deliberate attack worked so well, why not keep using the excuse?

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  8. Taylor S. Marks says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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    • texagg04 says:

      The President IS responsible for every last detail in the government. That’s why he must appoint competent subordinates who in turn appoint competent subordinate so that he knows his vision is enacted at every level. If the “buck doesn’t stop there”, then there IS NO ACCOUNTABILITY to the PEOPLE. That is the basis of our government.

      He hasn’t been impeached because no high crimes or misdemeanors can be attached to him. Even if there were impeachable offenses discovered, the political climate between the two parties and especially within the Democrat’s party and rabid constituency is that ideology is more important than accountability.

      Yet one more reason why the Founder’s never wanted the Presidency to be a partisan position.

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      • mfw13 says:

        But you have to consider the fact that subordinates are usually very good at hiding things from superiors, especially if what they are hiding falls under the category of “bad news” and/or reveals their own incompetence/nefariousness.

        I’m pretty sure the NSA/CIA/Pentagon hides tons of stuff from the President that they do not want him to know about, because that’s simply the nature of the military/intelligence industrial complex.

        And I’d also bet that whomever was responsible for implementing the ACA also hid its problems from the President as well since telling him would have revealed their own incompetence.

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