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Sid in his law office where he sits when meeting with clients. Observant eyes will notice the statuette of one of Sid's favorite Democrats.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Presidential Power Undergoing a Transformation

Gerald Seib writes in The Wall Street Journal (2-18-2014):

It's just possible that the modern presidency is changing right before our eyes.

Much has been made of the problems President Barack Obama has had getting things done via the traditional method of working with Congress to enact laws and launch programs—and of his resolve this year to work around Congress.

It's commonly assumed that this represents a temporary state of affairs, born of Washington's recurring gridlock and the president's recent troubles, to prevail only until another election sorts out the political alignment and restores normal patterns.

But perhaps this is the new normal, not a temporary aberration. Perhaps what we think of as presidential power is changing in fundamental and lasting ways.

A series of forces are converging to change how a president can best hope to have an impact: The nation's deep and abiding political divide makes political consensus elusive on the biggest issues. A gerrymandered House of Representatives renders Congress virtually irrelevant on some matters. Long-term fiscal constraints make it hard to conjure up traditional government programs, while the public has lost confidence in many conventional government solutions.

Meantime, states, cities and nongovernment organizations are rising as venues for problem-solving. And the emergence of new technology and social media now allow a president to step outside the standard political and media channels to mobilize millions of people and dollars.

Odds are that many of these forces will persist not just through the remainder of President Obama's term, but into future presidencies. These changes mean the old pattern of exercising presidential power by proposing programs, cajoling Congress into passing them and then setting up a government apparatus to implement them may be giving way to a new pattern in which a president uses the White House as a platform to focus national attention on an issue and to mobilize forces outside Washington to devote time and resources to address it.

Consider it the 21st century version of what Teddy Roosevelt called the bully pulpit.

Thus the president is launching this month an enterprise called "My Brother's Keeper" to keep young minority men in school and out of trouble by bringing together corporations and foundations at the White House to agree on strategies and donate funds.

Similarly, when the president was unable to persuade Congress to extend unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless, he summoned some of the nation's largest employers to the White House late last month and extracted from them promises not to discriminate against the long-term unemployed in making hiring decisions.

When the White House was having difficulty getting Congress to enact legislation extending low-rate student loans, it generated a wave of social-media messages to lawmakers urging them to come up with a new plan, which they did. More recently, Mr. Obama has been creating pressure on colleges and universities to lower costs not by proposing a program for more student aid but through public lectures on the need to use new approaches such as online courses and three-year bachelor's programs to lower the bill for earning a degree.

In recent days, when the White House wanted to expand the acceptance of same-sex marriage, it simply had Attorney General Eric Holder issue a federal order extending a series of federal rights and privileges for married couples to gay couples. Meantime, the administration has begun beating the drums for restoring the right to vote to many felons, particularly those trapped by harsh crack cocaine laws that disproportionately affected minorities—even though voting-rights laws are enacted by states rather than the federal government.

Some of this is being done by using what White House officials call a president's "convening power," which is the ability to use the clout and magnetism of the Oval Office to bring together people and organizations to take on problems, contributing time, focus and money. That's the inside game of this new theory of presidential power.

The outside game is the ability to use social media to mobilize supporters around the country to push in the same direction. The power of social media was a big force in Mr. Obama's two successful presidential campaigns. White House officials acknowledge, though, that they haven't yet been as effective in harnessing the power to push governing goals.

One of the harsh realities underlying this new approach to presidential power is the simple fact that, in an era in which the federal government is hobbled by deficits, and an increasing amount of the budget that remains is gobbled up by sending out checks to pay for Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, there simply isn't much left for the kinds of initiatives presidents enjoy launching.

That trend line doesn't figure to change, meaning that Barack Obama isn't likely to be the last president who has to rethink the concept of what power a president really holds.


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