Advancing a Free Society

The Virtues and Vices of Presidential Restraint

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

William Greider argues in an interesting essay in The Nation that President Obama’s political difficulties are tied to his failure to exercise the full powers of the presidency.

Given the election results, the question Barack Obama has to decide for himself is whether he really wants to be president in the fullest sense.  Not a moderator for earnest policy discussions.  Not the national cheerleader for hope.  Not the worthy visionary describing a distant future.  Those qualities are elements in any successful presidency, and Obama applies them with admirable skill and seriousness.

What’s missing with this president is power—a strong grasp of the powers he possesses and the willingness to govern the country with them.  During the past two years, this missing quality has been consistently obvious in his rhetoric and substantive policy positions.  There is a cloying Boy Scout quality in his style of leadership—the troop leader urging boys to work together on their merit badges—and none of the pigheaded stubbornness of his “I am the decider” predecessor, nor the hard steel of Lyndon Johnson or the guile of Richard Nixon.

I think there is something to this.  In part in reaction to the excesses of the Bush years and in part because of genuine ideological and intellectual commitment, Obama and his team came to office indisposed towards a robust conception of presidential power.  This attitude extends, of course, to the Obama administration’s approach to counterterrorism.

Continue reading Jack Goldsmith at Lawfare