Governing with a free hand

Yesterday, we discussed why President Obama has found it far easier to oversee foreign affairs than domestic affairs, and why his successes in the former area haven’t been duplicated in the latter. The key, I argued, is that the president can largely operate with a free hand when it comes to foreign policy, but has to deal with a broken Congress here at home.

This led to an interesting email from a reader who argued I was pointing in a dangerous direction. The problem, she said, is that I was making the case against checks and balances — when Obama wants a worthwhile jobs bill, he can’t have one because Congress is ridiculous, but when Obama wants to end the Gadhafi regime or take out al Qaeda’s leadership, he can act decisively and effectively.

When it comes to domestic policy, the reader argued, the president has to put up with the messiness of American democracy and the machinery of Washington policymaking. When it comes to foreign policy, the president can circumvent the Hill and, it turns out, actually get quite a bit done.

But if I (or anyone else) like to see a leader capable of making decisions and enacting policy all on his or her own, the reader argued, I’m effectively arguing for fewer checks and more power in the hands of the executive.

That’s not the point I was trying to make, so let’s revisit.

The observation here has to do with understanding why Obama finds it easier to thrive in international affairs than on domestic policy. I imagined some voters asking, “Why can’t the president’s domestic record be just as good?” The point was to offer an explanation.

Jon Chait had a related point yesterday afternoon: “Obama’s handling of domestic affairs is the subject of endless recriminations, and his foreign-policy conduct is among his strongest assets. What in the name of Jeremiah Wright brought about this strange turn of events?”

One answer can be found in the juxtaposition of a second Obama triumph that occurred yesterday: He finally got his Commerce secretary confirmed. You probably didn’t hear, because it doesn’t matter, which is the point. Last June, Obama named John Bryson as his Commerce secretary. Senate Republicans, despite harboring no objections either to Bryson or to his unimportant department, nevertheless held up the appointment for months in order to demand the signing of several trade deals. When Obama signed those, they made other demands.

They finally confirmed him yesterday — the same day Qaddafi was killed, and the day before Obama announced the final pullout of American troops. The striking contrast is the relative ease with which Obama pulled off these respective feats. At the snap of his fingers he can start a war or end one. But try to install a bland functionary into an unimportant domestic position, and he’ll be ensnared in months of controversy and inertia. This is the current state of “separation of powers.”

Republicans have the same whatever-you’re-for-we’re-against incentive on foreign policy as they do on domestic policy…. The difference is that Obama can simply do whatever he wants. This makes him look strong — no endless pleading with Congress — and allows him to craft the exact policies he wants, as opposed to half-measures that can attract 60 Senate votes and a House majority. When Obama tries to craft international coalitions to support his policies, he is negotiating with leaders who have different interests than his, but ultimately share a common interest in peace and prosperity. On domestic policy, Obama has to deal with leaders engaged in a zero-sum contest for power, understanding full well that anything that helps Obama hurts them.

Of course I want checks and balances, as well as legislative oversight over the administration (any administration). My goal was to highlight a fact about the nature of competing attempts at governing. If Americans want to understand why Obama is excelling in foreign policy and struggling with advancing a domestic agenda, this is the reason why. In international affairs, the president can assemble experts, weigh the evidence, consider the consequences, and make a decision. Watching a bill become (or fail to become) a law is a very different ordeal.

Would I like a more constructive domestic policy process with fewer choke points? Absolutely. Congress needs institutional reforms in a big way. But I’m not suggesting for a moment that we have one chief executive who can act with a free hand in any area of public policy.