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? 


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".


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.


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.


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.


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.



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.


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.


Caleb B

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

Taylor S. Marks

Is the president responsible for making every little detail of the government work? Of course not. Is it reasonable for him to know at least as much as various major national (and international) media sources are reporting? Absolutely.

I'm sincerely confused - why haven't we impeached him? What exactly does one have to do to receive serious punishment from any branch of our government? Commit mass murder? You're insane; go to jail. Rape a teen? She was mentally mature; 30 days in prison. Sleep on the job as a manager of a failing company? Keep your position! Guess that explains why it's failing.


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.


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.

Howard Brazee

The Constitution is clear. Taxing and spending are done by the legislature. Which means economy credit we give to our guy in the white house or blame we give to the other guy in the white house are both misplaced.

And while the president needs to be able to react with the military - it is Congress's job to evaluate that action and either declare war, or demand that the war end.

If you like or dislike laws - look at Congress, and maybe the Supreme Court. If it is competence in implementing those laws - look at the executive.


Of course, any leader has a rather tenuous grasp on the low level work that happens under his regime. But that is not the point. A leader serves two very important purposes. He is both a final decision maker and the repository of credit and blame. We, as humans, need this. Trying to make decisions by consensus always breaks down. Humans are hierarchical. And when things go badly, we want a scapegoat. It is the leader's job to embody these needs. It really doesn't matter if the president personally knew about something that happened. He should have known. If he was any good at his job, he would have had people in position to know, and let him know about potential scandals. When Snowden first started leaking, the first thing the president should have done is call Clapper and ask for a full rundown of all the damaging shit that might come down the pipe. It's been months, he's had time to have an audit, get the info. So, did he fail to order an audit, or did his appointed underling fail to tell him (still his fault for appointing an incompetent, ultimately), or is he just lying? Those are the options.


Tom Lindholtz

I was just driving the length of California and, in process catching up on Freak podcasts. I'm not sure which podcast on the President it was, but an analogy was made to the difference a baseball manager makes. The test was how different players do under different managers. This is a VERY flawed analogy. It is comparable to evaluating chess players based on how well a knight or a pawn or a bishop moves under a given player. The pieces performance is a characteristic of how they are. The skill of the player, or of a baseball manager, lies in how well he strategically employs the particular characteristics of the piece, or the player. Instead of asking an academic you might try asking George Will; someone who loves and understands baseball.