‘If I Were President’

The New York Times came up with a new feature, which ran over the weekend, called, “If I Were President.” The point of the exercise is to ask “a range of Americans who don’t labor in politics or the media what they’d do” if they sat in the Oval Office.

It’s not a bad idea for a feature, but the results were underwhelming. Participants came up with plenty of worthwhile ideas — investments in infrastructure, education, and clean energy, for example — that the actual president has already endorsed. And therein lies the problem: “If I Were President” doesn’t even try to be realistic, or take into consideration the limits on the power of the presidency. It presupposes that a president can simply do as he or she chooses.

As Jon Chait noted, “[T]he entire concept makes no distinction between the notion of ‘if I were president’ and ‘if I were king.’ If you were the president, of course, you would need a course of action that could be accomplished either through an executive order or that could be passed through both the House and Senate. The proposals generally make no allowance whatsoever for Congress.”

And that, in turn, makes the point of the feature underwhelming. That said, it does get one thinking about what the president could have done differently.

Ezra Klein argues he’s pondered this, and can’t come up with better decisions that would have led to “dramatically better outcomes.”

…I’ve never been able to come up with a realistic scenario in which a lot more got done, the economy is in much better shape, and the president is dramatically more popular today. […]

Indeed, if you had taken me aside in 2008 and sketched out the first three years of Obama’s presidency, I would have thought you were being overoptimistic: an $800 billion stimulus package — recall that people were only talking in the $200-$300 billion range back then — followed by near-universal health-care reform, followed by financial regulation, followed by another stimulus (in the 2010 tax deal), followed by the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” followed by the killing of Osama bin Laden and the apparent ousting of Moammar Gaddafi? There was no way. And yet all that did get done.

Agreed. On the accomplishment front, if you’d told me in December 2008 that Barack Obama, after 32 months in office, would accomplish all of the things Ezra mentioned — along with New START, auto-industry rescue, student loans, food safety, etc. — I would have been skeptical. It generally takes presidents two terms to put together that many accomplishments. Indeed, most presidents leave office with far fewer landmark achievements. The notion that Obama would do all of this in 32 months would have seemed fanciful, and yet, here we are.

As for Ezra’s larger point, I’m hard pressed to imagine a better course, too. The White House could have been far more aggressive on housing policy in 2009, and may have been able to get a slightly larger stimulus, but in terms of achieving “dramatically better outcomes,” my imaginary hindsight-to-do list is pretty thin.