Blogs > Cliopatria > Does the President Matter? (Part 2)

Oct 15, 2004 6:50 pm

Does the President Matter? (Part 2)

Now that the debates are done, and we have looked into their souls (and found the other guy wanting), this seems like a good time to revisit the question of whether we are overestimating the importance of the president himself. I don't mean that it doesn't matter which candidate is elected: on the contrary, it matters more than most people realize. But that is because the president sits at the top of a massive and powerful bureaucracy, the preeminent branch of government. That bureaucracy is largely staffed with civil service employees, career officials, but the top levels (most of those that matter) are political appointees.

Presidential transition expert Paul Light said in 2000 that"The next president will make more than 6,000 appointments in his first term, including roughly 600 Senate-confirmed Cabinet and sub-Cabinet members, another 600 non-career members of the Senior Executive Service, and 1,500 personal and confidential assistants." (There's over 3000 appointments unaccounted for here, I know.) Another Brookings scholar said"No one ever argued that the federal government would work better with thousands of political appointees filling its top and middle-management layers. That, however, has been the unintended consequence of years of accumulation of independent and disjointed legislative and administrative decisions," not to mention increasingly entrenched party machines and revolving-door lobbying practices.

You could argue that the president is important because he appoints all these people, but that's not really true, either. The president is, in these matters, largely a representative of his party, and the powers within it, rather than an independent actor. Whatever the president's stated views and plans, a great deal of the operation of the federal government is going to be in the hands of partisans allied with, but not necessarily loyal or obedient to, the president.

So in addition to thinking about the person we want to be president, we also must take into account the party and extra-party forces which support and will be included in the administration which bears his name.

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Maarja Krusten - 10/16/2004

Take a look as you have time at the study, _Toward Regular Assessment Of National Governmental Institutions_ by Roger H. Davidson, available at

Davidson provides useful context for some of the issues raised by Professor Dresner. Davidson notes at the start of his study, “The work that resulted in this volume began several years before the tragedies of September 2001. We did not embark on this enterprise with the assumption that our branches of government were necessarily corrupt or even dysfunctional. Rather, we were troubled by a growing sense that government entities at the national level had, over time, evolved into structures and developed procedures and customs that had the effect of constricting their workers’ abilities and hampering their collective effectiveness.

Pundits, scholars, and even public officials themselves speak candidly from time to time about their frustrations with the institutions they serve. But we were troubled by the seeming absence of systematic, ongoing, and nonpartisan evaluations of how effectively these entities work on a day-to-day basis. “The workways of governance” is the term we employ for the object of our inquiries.”

As someone who has spent 31 years in the service of the federal government, I nodded as I read,

“Public understanding of the work of our national government flows in part from people’s impressions of how well or poorly they provide their services. Of course, few people outside the Beltway can, or need to, master the intricacies of how government works. Yet the public benefits from a rough understanding of how laws are made, how programs are disseminated, and how legal judgments are arrived at. The public’s long-term support, moreover, hinges upon an overall feeling that legislatures are capable, responsive, and ethical; that chief executives are at once resolute and flexible; that judges are fair and independent; and that government employees are accessible, sympathetic, and helpful.

Despite their obvious importance, governmental institutions are poorly understood by outsiders. The presidency is no doubt the best understood of all the national branches because a single human being, the president, is so often the focal point. Very little of the complexity of White House decisionmaking, much less of its relationships with executive agencies, penetrates the public’s consciousness. Except on rare occasions—for example, the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the 2001 terrorist attacks, and other national disasters—federal workers are considered “faceless bureaucrats” who make things difficult for people dealing with federal agencies.

Congress, with its collectivity of members, complex structure, and opaque procedures, makes it hard for people beyond Capitol Hill to grasp its character or performance. People know what judges do—though “Judge Judy” is no doubt more familiar than any of the sitting federal judges—but most of the rules and precedents that frame and underpin judicial pronouncements are beyond the average citizen’s knowledge.

To the extent that these branches are judged at all, they are evaluated mainly on the basis of overall attitudes about politics, policies, and the state of the nation.”

Consider Professor Dresner’s comments in the context of Davidson's observation:

“From his investigations, [Paul] Light is able to chart a course for periodic measurement of the health of the public service. But of all the unfulfilled recommendations of the Volcker Commission, undoubtedly the most important remains the one that appeared at the top of their list: presidents, their chief lieutenants, and Congress must articulate early and often the necessary and honorable role that public servants play in the democratic process, while at the same time making clear that they will demand the highest performance from those who hold the public trust.

Despite occasional progress in lifting the image of the public service, most notably in the “Reinventing Government” campaign led by Vice President Al Gore, the reality remains that government workers are an
easy target of media and political attack. When in doubt, or so it seems, the easiest course for political candidates is to run against Washington and its “bureaucrats,” even if the candidate is an incumbent, and even if the incumbent is the occupant of the Oval Office. Tellingly, as Light reports, survey researchers have not yet found a survey question about trust in government that generates a positive response from the public.”

Recent books and surveys suggest that interest in civic issues is declining among young people. I am so long removed from the “Problems of Democracy” classes I took in high school in the late 1960s, I have no idea how schools now handle civics classes. Many talented officials say no to political appointments these days, they see too many obstacles and challenges.

There are many unreconciled, opposing dynamics in public perceptions these days. For one thing, there appears to be a rise in anti-intellectualism (see my post on “The Renaissance of Anti-Intellectualism" by Todd Gitlin in the Chronicle of Higher Education on December 8, 2000 elsewhere at That post nwas triggered in a thread on Vietnam, in which we discussed Dave Livingston, a Vietnam vet and Bush supporter who is a frequent poster on HNN. I wrote of him, “Dave Livingston's expressions of anger undoubtedly feel valid to him. He has as much right to post here as anyone else. If I can accept that, working in Washington as I do and knowing that he shrugged [in a post in 2003] at the thought of "DC parasites" getting wiped out in an attack, and not feeling a smidge of anger towards him myself, I would hope that others can as well. “)

If anyone has the time to read Davidson’s article and to return here to post with solutions to the problems he describes, I would welcome them. As a Fed, I am proud of my service but on my most discouraged days, I am hard pressed to recommend public service to anyone these days.

Jonathan Dresner - 10/16/2004

You're right, but there's some slippage there, too. The platform is a campaigning tool, a statement of public principles. Appointments are influenced by the same groups, but the degree to which there is negotiation and compromise depends more on Congress rather than internal tensions.

To put it another way, platforms are symbolic, not contractual, documents. Very important party factions may choose to keep their issues out of the platform, knowing that their unpopular views will be represented by the administration. The platform is directed at both party faithful and the broader electorate, and will likely tone down hard-core rhetoric and include more compromises intended to attract uncommitted voters and wavering moderates.

When was the last time a mainstream journalist went back to the last party platform to compare record to rhetoric? When was the last time a president was publicly held to account for something in a party platform? It's useful data, you're right, but only in a very limited sense.

Oscar Chamberlain - 10/15/2004


In your last post you suggested that platorms were not that important. But doesn't this post suggest the obvious?

Here's my logic. Platform sections are often used to pacify the party faithful. The faithful are powerful in the party apparatus. Therefore the platforms provide a better prediction of appointments and policies than presidents do.

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