For my summer reading, I’m about half-way through Jodi Kantor’s The Obamas, her best-selling inside look at Michelle and Barack’s life in the White House. (Full disclosure: I was asked to review the book for a political science journal, or I never would have looked at it. And by summer reading, I mean a book I can read while floating in the pool drinking Miller Lite.) Some of you might recall that when the book was first published this past January, critics – including the First Lady – jumped on Kantor for, among other alleged vices, characterizing Michelle Obama as “an angry black woman” (the First Lady’s words – not Kantor’s) who repeatedly clashed with the President’s senior West Wing aides. (Note that the First Lady apparently did not read the book.) Others claimed that The Obamas was filled with factual errors but, for the most part, these turned out not to be errors at all. It is true that the book suffers from the flaws one often finds when journalists write about politics: it focuses on personalities as the primary explanation for political outcomes, tends to overdramatize and to find significance in often random events, and purports to reveal the thought processes of the First Lady and the President despite the fact that Kantor never interviewed either for the book.
But when Kantor sticks to doing what journalists do best – reporting rather than interpreting – the book is actually quite good. In particular, it reinforces a couple of points that long-time readers have heard me make before. The first is that presidential campaigns do little to prepare a president to govern, and in many respects they may make governing more difficult. In this vein, Kantor recounts a meeting between Obama and a group of law professors and civil libertarians early in Obama’s first year as president, when it was becoming clear that he had overestimated the ease with which he could close the Guantanamo Bay prison. Kantor writes, “He had made that promise before administration officials read the classified files on the detainees….” and goes on to note that many of the detainees were greater security threats than he realized. Ultimately, of course, Obama came to the same conclusion that Bush had: there was no other place to put most of the detainees, and so Guantanamo remains open as the least worst option available for holding suspected terrorists.
As I’ve noted many times, it should not be news that Obama’s anti-terrorist policies hew closely to Bush’s – they are dealing with the same set of problems under the same set of political incentives. It was no surprise to me, therefore, that “on a host of related matters such as releasing photos depicting detainee abuse, the administration seemed to be echoing Bush’s policies or adopting them with slight revisions (Kantor, p. 106.)” Not surprisingly, Obama’s policies did not sit well with his strongest supporters on the Left. (For that matter, they didn’t always sit well with critics on the Right, such as Dick Cheney, either.) In a classic acknowledgement of what it means to be president, Obama told the group: “When I was a senator running for office, I talked very firmly about what I thought was right based on the information I had. Now I’m the President of all the people, and the decisions I make have to be from that perspective based on the information I now have (Kantor, pp. 106-07.)” To drive that point home, Obama told those in the meeting that he was considering an indefinite detention policy, “allowing authorities to hold certain suspects without charges.” This was a far different policy than what candidate Obama had espoused, and not surprisingly those in the White House meeting were outraged. But despite that outrage, Obama has not only built on the Bush-era precedents in the War on Terror – he has sometimes gone beyond them as with his use of drone strikes.
The second revealing vignette occurs during the Gulf oil spill, which dragged on for months while the Obama administration waited with everyone else for BP engineers to plug the leak. Under pressure to show that he was doing something, Obama finally relented and gave a prime-time address from the Oval Office to describe the steps that were being taken to plug the leak. The setting of the speech was intended to demonstrate that Obama took the spill seriously, but as his aides conceded, the speech was “a wasted bullet”; “Oval Office addresses were supposed to make presidents look powerful, but the truth about the spill was that there was ultimately a limited amount Obama can do.”
These glimpses into the limits of presidential power are far more revealing about the Obama presidency, I think, than are the more highly publicized aspects of Kantor’s book, such as the segments dealing with Michelle’s fashion choices, her unwillingness to campaign during the 2010 midterms, the “secret” Halloween Party, or Obama’s alleged “women” problem within this White House staff. What Kantor’s intimate glimpse shows, once again, is that our expectations for what presidents can hope to accomplish far outstrips the capacity of the office to deliver. The presidency, simply put, is not very powerful. Even in those areas, like foreign policy, where we assume presidents wield the most power, they in fact find their choices deeply constrained by operating in a system of shared powers, but also by the unyielding pressure to do whatever it takes to protect the nation from attack. It may be that Candidate Obama was perhaps more naive about and thus less prepared for this reality than were many previous presidents. But he was not the only one who failed to anticipate just how limited his powers would be. All the evidence suggests that his strongest supporters overestimated the power of the presidency as well – and that many continue to do so. The question remains whether Obama will pay a price come November 2012 for their continued naiveté.