News & Politics

Pulled In Every Direction

In a world of beat reporting and single-issue voting, how can any of us understand, much less assess, the presidency?

Todd Purdum's latest opus in Vanity Fair about the ungovernability of Washington isn't the most surprising piece in the world (at least not if you've ever spent a minute covering or working in Congress or the federal bureaucracy). But this one paragraph about the president's schedule got me thinking:

On this Wednesday, Obama is dealing with the aftermath of a West Virginia coal-mine tragedy, with a vacancy on the Supreme Court, and with the prospect of a new law in Arizona that will give local law-enforcement officers the right to demand identification from anyone they happen to think may be in the country illegally. He is confronting a shortage of disaster-relief funds at the Federal Emergency Management Agency—this, days before the oil-rig catastrophe occurs in the Gulf of Mexico—and later this morning, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. will testify before Congress about the administration’s latest plans for trying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other alleged 9/11 conspirators. Also today, the president will nominate a federal appeals-court judge, seven United States attorneys, and six federal marshals, and he will present Garth Brooks with a special “Grammys on the Hill” award for promoting the intellectual property rights of musicians. Tomorrow, Thursday, he will announce a new strategy for the space program; express condolences on the passing of the civil-rights leader Dr. Benjamin Hooks; order hospitals that participate in Medicare or Medicaid not to deny visitation rights on the basis of sexual orientation; release joint income-tax returns showing earnings with Michelle of $5.5 million (most of it from his best-selling books); and travel to Florida for two evening fund-raisers on behalf of the Democratic National Committee. 

We live in a world where lots of people are single- or several-issue voters, and where an even larger proportion of the commentariat are encouraged to specialize in an issue or an area of beat coverage. And given the increasing complexity of the president's purview, I wonder if that makes us uniquely unsuited to judge the president's performance, as writers or as voters. If you specialize in health care or defense policy, or hell, my old specialty, federal personnel policy, you're probably well-equipped to evaluate the administration's positions and efficacy on that one issue you care about or cover based on your knowledge and self-interest. But that same specialization in policy as a reporter, or narrow self-interest as a voter doesn't necessarily translate to other areas of policy.

And it also doesn't translate to evaluating the president's performance in the balancing act that is the unique curse of the job. A corporate CEO may have to handle many different tranches of tasks, from personnel, to supply, to marketing, to equipment, but all of those tranches align along the same basic—and if the company's well-aligned—goal of corporate success. The president's job is infinitely more complicated, and efficacy in the position may not translate to success in the second major demand of the gig, maintaining personal and party popularity. I tend to think that the small class of journalists and evaluators who have as their specialty presidential performance and balancing often focus more on the second half of that calculus. It's a lot easier to explain that President Obama got a win out of passing health care than it is to explain why his decision to spend x time on health care and y time on another issue was effective because it let him do well on managing both.

That's not particularly anyone's fault. Politics and political optics are important. Deep attention to policy is important. The performance of government is important. But if it take deep dives and all of our attention in one individual area to gain a full understanding that we're confident using to make arm-chair quarterback calls about what the president should do, imagine how much harder it must be for the guy who has to make all the calls, all the time, on everything.

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