The Great Paradox of Presidential Power

Last week, my section’s EC Viewpoints discussion on “America’s role in the world” quickly and predictably segued into a discussion on American foreign policy. Tensions rose and tempers flared, but the discussion remained respectful and constructive. As the discussion closed, we brainstormed ideas on how business leaders can affect geopolitical events and how America might become better in its leadership role going forward. My conclusion was a humble and ironic one: American foreign policy begins and ends at the desk of the United States President.

As head of state and prime minister, this man (maybe soon to be woman) not only sets the tone abroad but the policy as well. Unfortunately, this great capacity is not met with commensurate competence.

The following seeks to explore:
1) Why Presidents focus on foreign policy?
2) Why Presidents are inadequately prepared for this responsibility?
3) Why this incompetence does not matter come reelection?
4) What should we listen for in the 2008 campaign?

As a President takes office, he usually rides a wave of momentum from the mandate he received in the November election. This provides him a brief “honeymoon,” typically 100 days, to push many of his domestic campaign promises through Congress. Reagan did this successfully with his tax cuts in 1982, despite a heavily Democratic Congress. Likewise, Bush submitted his education act “No Child Left Behind” on just his 3rd day in office. However, as any married person can attest, all honeymoons come to an end. Congress returns to its business-as-usual self, which is fraught with petty partisanship, pork-barrel legislation (bills that garner money for infrastructure projects in a Congressman’s home district, such as a new 10-lane suspension bridge in Maysville, Kentucky), and distracted by the perpetual reelection campaign (the House serves 2-year terms).

So, where does this leave the President? As Congress resumes its control over the domestic agenda, the President is left looking outward. Foreign policy is the area in which over the next two to six years, if re-elected, he will enjoy the most room to manage and affect policy. He appoints the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, and the CIA Director. Congress does have to approve any “extended” use of force, but in general leaves foreign policy to the executive branch. In fact, this “strong executive” tradition was born in the Constitution, and was a catalyst for the creation of that document.

This is where the cruel irony begins. While a President can affect the most change in foreign affairs, this is the area where he is the least versed. The past four out of five Presidents were state governors immediately before assuming the Oval Office. Simply put, this meant that they didn’t have a clue about foreign affairs upon assuming office. They spent their years as governor worrying about education in Jerusalem, Ohio and tornadoes in Paris, Texas…and rightly so. This paradox is unambiguously detrimental to the American people and to the world. No doubt, this inexperience caused JFK’s misjudgment to go ahead with the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 and contributed to George W. Bush’s sheep-like susceptibility to neocons such as Cheney and Wolfowitz after 9/11. Remember, 9/11 occurred only eight months after Bush’s inauguration.

The only non-governor President in the past five was George H. W. Bush, who previously served as Vice President and CIA director, and he was wildly successful in foreign affairs. He marshaled together an unparalleled international coalition in the first Iraq campaign. No doubt, he leveraged his previous executive branch experience. Ironically enough, his success abroad arguably cost his reelection at home in 1992 against Bill Clinton.

This leads us to cruel irony #2 about the American presidency. While the President can impact the most change abroad and the least at home, he has historically been held accountable by the U.S. citizenry for the opposite come reelection. Looking back at the past thirty years, the incumbent president or vice president has only been unseated due to economic downturns (Ford, Carter, Bush I) or scandal at home (why Gore didn’t win). Lyndon Johnson was the last not to run for reelection because of a foreign issue, Vietnam.

Is this evaluation fair? Can the President control the economy? No. Besides natural economic cycles, fiscal policy (i.e. tax cuts, hikes) requires significant lag time and must be passed through Congress, which as we saw earlier is tough for a president to manage. Monetary policy is governed by the Federal Reserve, whose governors are elected to 14 year terms, which restricts any one President’s influence. So, the President finds himself utterly responsible for an outcome he cannot control.

Conversely, Americans give the President the benefit of the doubt in foreign affairs. Americans reelected Bush to office in 2004 because they don’t like to change leaders in the middle of the war; at least until they are damn sure it is wrong. Unfortunately, Iraq wasn’t at that point in 2004.

In summary, my hope was to highlight the vast influence a president holds over foreign policy and in turn highlight the importance of selecting the right person for the office. In 2008, America will choose again, and if America wishes to regain the world’s respect and trust, it should look for a candidate that espouses:

-Sincere contrition to the world for its misjudgment in Iraq. There is a myth that the world superpower will look weak if he recognizes “enemies” such as Iran and Syria by talking with them. My bet is that only good could come from this. The U.S. still can boast a $420 billion defense budget (more than the rest of the world combined) and an unrivaled economy (GDP $12.6 trillion, the #2 is Japan with $4.6 trillion). Talking and understanding does not automatically mean legitimizing or approving.

-A humble yet firm posture in other world affairs (i.e. Iran, North Korea). The U.S. must rebuild and bolster international institutions and alliances. It must take on “low-cost high benefit” initiatives such as AIDS in Africa. In short, it must recapture the hearts and minds of the world and remind them about the best of America’s ideals and values.

-A leadership role in nuclear nonproliferation. The U.S. is clinging to the moral high ground here, and can easily reclaim it by ceasing all developments of new nuclear weapon designs, such as nuclear bunker busting bombs. For goodness sake, the benefit of such developments can by no means outweigh the costs to international goodwill and/or trust. On such an important issue, we must be fervently consistent. The easiest way to prevent a nuclear catastrophe is preventing the bombs from being created in the first place. Indeed, as one moves from enriched uranium to warheads to border security it becomes exponentially more difficult to defend against.

February 20, 2007
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