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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The State of the Union Address: The Presidency as Presiding or Partisan?

On The O’Reilly Factor on the evening of Obama’s health-care “summit” at the White House in 2009, Bill O’Reilly told Laura Ingrahams that the president had done an adequate job in moderating the discussion.  Laura replied, “He is not a moderator; he is the President of the United States.”  O'Reilly provided his own perspective, in admitting that “moderating is not enough in the long-run because the country wants leadership.” The host was only partially correct.

I submit that any country profits by having a presider; from this role, he or she can lead with credibility rather than being perceived as a partisan. For example, President Obama evinced leadership in the interest of the United States as a whole in taking Osama bin Laden out on May 1, 2011. The president could stand for the union as a whole in going after terrorist number 1 without being sidelined by being partisan.  On a more daily basis, this role translates into moderating meetings of partisans rather than being partisan himself. The stature of the president achieved in having stood for the whole, such as in having Osama bin Laden killed, could—if not diluted by partisan positions—give the president sufficient credibility to moderate important meetings of congressional leaders who would otherwise refuse to meet.

For an American president to want the credibility required to effectively moderate meetings involving partisans while at the same time being partisan is to want his cake and to eat it too.  A desire for both is suggestive of a sort of character that might not be sufficiently respect-worthy to preside.  If the American Presidency stands for the union as a whole, the office is inherently oriented to staying above the fray while keeping an eye on the overall interest of the whole.  Perhaps President Obama would have been able to forge a compromise at his health-care summit had he been neutral concerning Democratic and Republican proposals rather than taking on the Republican lawmakers as a partisan.  That is to say, Obama might have been able to have enough sway with the Republicans to effectively preside over the meeting to keep it from going off track. This could involve pushing one side or the other to give a little more when the process would otherwise cease without a resolution.  To be able to nudge either side, the chair must be viewed as credible (i.e., unbiased) by both sides. As it was, any such suggestions of the president were dismissed by the Republicans as motivated by an ulterior motive in line with the Democratic position.

The degeneration of the presidency is evinced by what the State of the Union address has become.  The speech is supposed to be primarily a report on the condition of the union, with prudent recommendations.  The speech is not supposed to be partisan. For one thing, the statesmanship implied in the event itself is undercut if the recommendations become the main event and they are those of the party that the president heads. In other words, the credibility, even in the president's report of the condition of the union, is undercut if a president uses the speech to push his ideological agenda. The emphasis on such an occasion as The State of the Union is fittingly on the general welfare of the United States as a whole. If half the room is clapping on a consistent basis through the speech, something is wrong.



One of President Obama's State of the Union Addresses. Imagine the change in content were the media to base evaluations on how low the ratio of half-chamber to full-chamber standing ovations is. 

Barak Obama went to items familiar to his party in his 2013 State of the Union address, presssing for an increase in the minimum wage, for example. Was the president wading too far into the details in order to influence even more policy that that of the "big picture"?  If so, was this at the expense of the statesmanship that properly goes with the event?  Flying above the clouds to get a distant view of how we are doing at the time would have precluded such minor policy recommendations that incidently are very partisan in nature. So too on how to avert automatic budget cuts, the president stuck to the Democratic plan. Alternatively, he could have taken the high road and spoke on the condition of the Union in having almost $17 trillion in federal debt. This would have meant leaving it to the Congress to fiddle with the specifics on how to reduce the deficits.
Similarly, the president “offered Americans a populist economic vision” in his 2012 State of the Union address, “seeking to draw a contrast with his eventual Republican rival and demonstrating the widening policy gulf between the two political parties.” While offering a vision is good on the campaign trail, talking about an ideal for the future is not to describe or even analyze the present state of the Union. The ensuing string of policy proposals was “aimed at buttressing a re-election message that posits him as defender of Americans beset by inequality in the tax code and broader economy.” If there was any doubt that he intended a campaign speech, the Wall Street Journal continues, “he made a point of including policies that appeal to many possible constituencies.” Two hours before the speech, he sent an email to his campaign supporters, writing “Tonight, we set the tone for the year ahead.” This indicates that Obama did not intend to report the condition of the Union at the time. After the speech, Republicans justifiably criticized the speech as “an election-year blueprint.” In short, the encroaching partisanship over the figurehead nature of the office can be seen in how far “State of the Union” speeches have strayed from the constitutional task to report to Congress on the condition of the Union. 

Were the president to resist the urge to over-reach for short-term partisan gain, he would stand to gain so much more credibility in having faith in the power of presiding. As a model to get back to, we might look back to George Washington, whose prior achievements in standing for the alliance gave him sufficient stature to preside.  Hamilton and Jefferson and their allies were able to take up the mantel of partisan leadership in the cabinet, with the President thus freed up to preside over the new system of government and look to the public interest in the whole. Because partisan leadership contaminates presiding leadership, the presiding officer should take care to avoid the former in order to preserve the latter. 

In fact, the delegates at the federal constitutional convention in 1787 intended the Electoral College to keep the popular demand for partisan leadership from infecting the Presidency, and thus the credibility of the office. Crucially, the electors, being selected by state legislatures, were to be once-removed from the passions of the people.  In being tied to the direct popular elections in selecting electors, the state legislatures have unwittingly undone the check safeguarding the presiding role.  Hence it is can be expected that presidents will act on a proclivity to be partisan as per their election campaign. 

The presidency was designed to be occupied with accomplished and notable persons who could be expected to stand for the good of the whole. By virtue of his accomplished stature and self-discipline when it came to partisanship, George Washington was able to effectively preside over the Constitutional Convention of 1786.  There being a presider with stature who resisted the temptation to take sides on every issue, the convention could withstand the infighting and conclude with a finished document at the end of the summer.  In fact, Washington was such an effective presider that he could luxuriate on the final day with a request of his own…that the electorate of a US House seat be 20,000 rather than 30,ooo so the body would be that much more democratic (i.e., the representative being that much closer to the people…that much more knowable on an in-person basis).  The problem is that weighing in on virtually every debate has become the modus operendi of every American President. 

In short, the job description of the presidency was designed for one thing and yet the default has become something quite to the contrary.  This can explain why we witness so many presidents fail. I was not really very surprised in watching two hours of the health-care “summit” that it was basically political theatre.  I was not surprised that Barak Obama had trouble in moderating the discussion without being accused of partisan by Republican participants.  So I was not surprised that the Republicans instinctively distrusted the president’s attempts to moderate the summit meeting.  In such a climate, Barak’s presiding was doomed to failure for lack of credibility.  It really is not his fault; his office had long before been transformed into something that is ill-suited to in design. To ignore something’s design and expect it to do that which undercuts it is a recipe for ineffectiveness.


Sources:


Carol Lee and Laura Meckler, “Obama Makes Populist Pitch,” The Wall Street Journal, January 25, 2012.