Presidential poise.

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President Obama's Great Strength and Biggest Weakness

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Some of what Barack Obama was as President of the United States of America is beyond my expertise, beginning with what it means to the nation to have had a black president, and how he handled that burden -- on top of the already-impossible burden of the presidency. 

I'll settle for three points that seem important to me from my perspective as someone who studies political institutions.

A lot of what Obama did in office had little to do with him personally. He was, in many ways, a generic Democratic president in an era of partisan presidencies.  

The biggest example? It's possible the Affordable Care Act might not have passed with Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden or any other mainstream liberal Democrat in the Oval Office (see below for why), and it's possible it might have been better administered with a different Democratic Chief Executive (also see below for why). But the substance of health care reform -- and finance reform, and climate, and most likely most of the rest of domestic and foreign policy -- wouldn't have been much different regardless of which plausible Democrat won the party's nomination in 2008. 

His great strength (corny as it is) comes down to "No-drama Obama." His patience (as Dan Drezner puts it) to wait out frenzied news cycles is something few presidents have had, and it served him well. Nelson W. Polsby used to say that a crisis is a time when everyone agrees that something must be done. But Obama had the wisdom to realize that rushing to action can be worse than being criticized for inaction. 

That strength is what pushed health-care reform over the finish line despite several setbacks along the way. More than anything, however, it is probably responsible for all sorts of disasters avoided that we never talk about -- precisely because he never rushed into them. It's almost certainly the first thing I'd recommend any future president learn from Obama.

Obama's greatest weakness was an underappreciation for the value of the executive branch. There's really a longer story to be told here. Jimmy Carter combined a mismanaged White House with hostility towards Congress and to the bureaucracy. Bill Clinton came into office determined to get along with Congress, but Clinton (at least at first) was undermined by a dysfunctional White House. Obama learned from Clinton's mistakes, and has had an unusually smooth White House operation, along with reasonably good relationships with at least Democrats on the Hill.

But Obama neglected executive branch department and agencies. He was terribly slow to staff up and slow to replace vacancies as his terms went along. The most important example? His inexplicable delays in filling openings on the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, which probably had a real effect on the pace of the economic recovery, which in turn hurt Democrats in the 2010, 2012, and 2014 elections, which in turn constrained Obama's abilities to get other things done. 

Obama also didn't make Senate confirmation of his nominees a top priority. And beyond putting people in place, he didn't seem to use executive-branch expertise and capabilities as much as he could have; we heard again and again of policy being tightly run out of the White House, leaving the executive branch on the outside. 

After Republicans took their majority in the House in 2010, and especially after Republicans also picked up a Senate majority in 2014, Obama seemed to realize that the executive branch was all he had. But even then he appeared to grudgingly accept it as a substitute for legislative action, not as a legitimate and important part of policy making.

It's very difficult to draw a clear causal connection between that pattern and the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act exchanges, or indeed to any particular foreign or domestic policy misfire. But my guess is that as we learn more, it will be increasingly obvious that Obama's over-reliance on the Presidential Branch (that is, the White House and associated agencies such as the National Security Council) was a source of real weakness. 

That last part leads to an absolutely necessary caveat: We will learn a lot more as scholars get to work on Barack Obama's presidency, and I'm sure at least some of what I -- and anyone else writing their appreciations -- said will turn out to be absolutely wrong. But I'm confident that rising above news cycles and respecting the importance and abilities of executive branch departments and agencies are good advice for any president. 

  1. An era which may end with his presidency, but even Donald Trump is finding it hard to shake loose from his party.

  2. Yes, there were tensions, but that's normal. One might say, given the Carter and Clinton history, that his weakness on using the executive branch was part of his partisan, Democratic presidency, and not personal to Obama after all. That may be true in part, but I still think he bears the responsibility for not rising above it. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net