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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Supercommittee’s Failure: Obama’s Too?

In the wake of the failure of the joint congressional committee that was tasked with coming up with a proposal to reduce federal deficits over a decade by $1.2 trillion, Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York City, said at a news conference, “It’s the chief executive’s job to bring people together and to provide leadership. I don’t see that happening.” The mayor may have been wrong. Take the word executive: literally it is to execute, or implement, which implies management rather than leadership. Put another way, implementation depends on a goal already established, presumably by a leader. To lead is to formulate a vision of social reality that is an ideal, and thus consisting of goals rather than actualities, and then to persuade others to accept that social reality. Once the directionality is established, the means, or strategies, can be executed by managers (i.e., those who manage the implementation).

Even Dan Pfeiffer the White House communications director at the time, may have conflated management with leadership in remarking, “A president’s job is to lay out a plan and then rally the country to that plan.” The word plan is key. A plan is a means to get from here to there. It is therefore not the same as a goal, which is only an end-point. So once again leadership, which is oriented to formulating and selling a vision, is being conflated with strategy, which belongs with management, which implements goals by making and executing plans. Pfeiffer went on to refer to the president’s $3 trillion deficit reduction plan, whose specificity renders it clearly within the executive purview of the chief executive, rather than the leadership function of the president. Whereas to preside is literally to sit before (from the Latin), which is consistent with formulating and selling a vision, to execute is to draw up (or have drawn up) specific plans and negotiate on the basis of them.

The U.S. Presidency is a strange bird in that it contains, among other roles, the leadership of presiding and the management of executing. It is no doubt a tricky business balancing these two hats (among others, such as commander in chief). If the chief executive gets too caught up in negotiating particular plans that require legislation, his leadership function can suffer, as can the separation of powers that is vital to the proper functioning of the U.S. Government. That is to say, if the chief executive becomes the chief legislator through his minute legislative-committee involvement, he has gone far beyond the minority role represented by his veto pen. That veto is a check on congressional legislative power rather than an encroachment on Congress’s main function. Therefore, the chief executive should not have been an active part of the “super-committee” on the deficits.

The plans that the chief executive draws up should be oriented to the post-legislative implementation, or enforcement, of legislation, with only advice given to congressional committees as per the minority role of the presidential veto. In a sense, the American President is both before and after the Congress; the leader’s vision is as though the tip of an arrow pointing where the country is to go, whereas the executive’s plans are means of implementing legislation, which is ideally in line with the leadership vision’s goals and principles. Admittedly, in a governmental system of separated powers, the broad directions and principles, strategies as laws, and executive plans are not necessarily in sync. Perhaps this is reason enough for the U.S. President to keep straight the distinctive functions of leading and managing.


Source:

Jackie Calmes, “Obama Weighed Risks of Engagement, and Decided to Give Voters the Final Say,” The New York Times, November 22, 2011.