Catch of the Day: Panetta's Narrow Lens

Presidents need to consider the politics of their decisions.
Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta didn't have to consider public support.

A Catch to presidency scholar Matthew Dickinson for his excellent discussion of why Leon Panetta and other former Obama administration officials have attacked the president, and why we shouldn't assume their critiques are always correct.

He points out that "presidents and their aides often disagree," but:

The disputes are more often rooted in the differing vantage points occupied by the President and his department heads. In this regard where you sit really does determine where you stand. Why do Gates, Clinton and Panetta think the President "lost his way" (to use Panetta's words) on national security issues? Maybe because from their perspectives - ones largely focused on keeping the U.S. safe from external attack - Obama seems unduly cautious. There's nothing disloyal in making that argument - as aides with national security portfolios, it is their job to push the President on these issues when they think he gets it wrong. But Obama occupies a different, broader vantage point - one that must balance national security concerns with other issues affecting his ability to lead, such as public support for his policies and the political costs associated with engaging in another extended military conflict that may involve boots on the ground and all that entails. Understandably, these domestic concerns may weigh far more heavily on him as President than they do on the secretaries of State and Defense and the CIA director - none of whom have a domestic constituency.

Yes, presidents care about politics, and rightly so. Awareness of "politics" may scare presidents away from policies that look fine in the abstract, but would be fatally flawed if public support drains away or isn't there in the first place. A president's responsibilities go far beyond national security. Following Pentagon recommendations may mean sacrificing influence in other areas. It even may be counterproductive. Suppose following the "correct" policy in Syria carried such a political cost that the president was unable to advance economic policy to prevent a recession. The U.S. would be weakened internationally and the Syria policy would probably be a failure, too. That's hardly far-fetched.

Saying that presidents should care about politics doesn't mean that a snapshot poll should outweigh a recommendation from the secretary of state. It only means that the larger picture should be part of a president's decision-making. Ignoring domestic constituencies is bad presidenting -- but so is putting too much weight on short-term polling reactions or what pundits say in a given week. There's no magic formula for presidents to follow. Above all, they need keen political instincts and skills. Fortunately, the process of becoming president, for all its imperfections, tends to select for those characteristics.

A quick thought about "disloyalty." It isn't a betrayal for the defense secretary or Central Intelligence Agency director to argue with the president. But speaking out publicly after leaving the administration and while the president is still in office? That's a tougher question. A president who denies a cabinet secretary's requests is always at risk of seeing the episode rehashed in public -- if not in a memoir then in a Bob Woodward opus. Then again, the risk of some dirty laundry being aired in public can be seen as a very acceptable potential cost of bringing strong, independent voices into the administration. It's much better to have officials who challenge the president than lackeys and yes men, even if disagreements are bound to leak eventually. And Dana Milbank is correct : Both inside and outside the White House, Obama's administration has had an unusually low number of people whose political careers are entirely tied to his.

So: Nice catch!

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

    To contact the author on this story:
    Jonathan Bernstein at

    To contact the editor on this story:
    Max Berley at

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.