Climate change and the cult of the presidency
If you read nothing else this week, please read this piece from Jonathan Chait. Seriously. Just read it.
He makes a point I’ve made a number of times, but (unsurprisingly) makes it better:
There is nothing quite like a presidential inauguration to bring to full bloom the cult of the presidency. We fuss over the pageantry and the ritual and the First Lady’s attire like the tittering royal subjects we fought a war to stop being. The cult of the presidency is not merely excessive deference to the president as a figure. Sometimes, as when we expect the president to do things beyond the powers of his office and rage at his failure, it is not even that. The cult of the presidency is a pervasive assumption that public life is a drama revolving around the president.
The current debate swirling around President Obama’s second term embodies that misconception. Obama is approaching the outset of his second term differently than his first, and also differently than the outset of his second two years, when he first confronted the Republican-controlled Congress. He is occupying popular centrist terrain, using his office to define the debate, and daring Republicans to oppose him. What will the outcome be? Some say Obama is treating the Republicans too meanly. Others think he has to be meaner.
But the prosaic reality is that Obama’s disposition isn’t the issue here. The main question is what the Republicans in Congress decide to do. The legislative results of Obama’s second term lie almost entirely in their hands. Obama may be the central figure in the national political drama, but the choice is being played out offstage.
Nowhere is the assumption that “public life is a drama revolving around the president” more in evidence than in the climate world. I can’t even tell you how many pieces I’ve read in the last week about what Obama will do on climate in his second term. The first paragraph of this Jeff Goodell piece captures the spirit. Climate was a “test” for Obama and he failed it. But if you look at the catalogue of failures, they almost all reduce to Obama not talking enough about it. He should have talked more to Congress, to force them to pass the law. He should have talked more to international negotiators, to force them to forge a climate treaty. He should have talked more to the American people, to educate them on the subject.
What all these pieces have in common is the vast power they ascribe to presidential talking. Journalists and green groups, one after another, call on Obama for an “ambitious agenda” and a “plan,” but insofar as any of them offer details, it mainly comes down to talking. (Or having a climate “summit,” which is one step below a “commission” in the hierarchy of things that matter in D.C.)
It’s bizarre, this power we ascribe to Obama. Just to pluck one random example, this morning I read a Washington Post editorial that laments Obama’s failure to advance a carbon-pricing bill in his first term. “Congress, too, bears blame for this,” the editors note. Oh! Good to hear that the branch of U.S. government charged with writing and passing laws also bears some blame for not passing a law. Glad they at least got a mention. But note that they are treated as a Greek chorus, reacting to Obama rather than acting on their own agenda and in response to their own incentives.
The purported power of the “bully pulpit” has been vastly exaggerated. The president’s ability to “focus” Congress and “set the agenda” has been vastly exaggerated. The president’s ability to “twist arms” to get what he wants out of Congress has been vastly exaggerated.
It’s not that Obama is helpless or powerless. There are things he can do on climate. He could direct EPA to get ambitious in limiting emissions from power plants. He could block the Keystone pipeline. He could quit leasing coal for pennies on the dollar. And yes, he could talk about it more (though the notion that he could “educate the American people” is forlorn, I fear).
In the end, his power on this issue pales before the power of Congress. It is Congress that passes laws, and it is laws we need. Right now, the radicalization of the Republican Party is preventing anything from happening on climate in Congress.
Whenever I make this argument, people respond by accusing me of “letting Obama off the hook.” That’s not the point. The point is not to argue solely about what Obama should or shouldn’t do. The point is to question whether that’s the only argument that matters. From what I can tell it’s the only argument greens are having.
I understand it’s frustrating to focus on Congress. It’s like focusing on a committee. No one’s in charge. There’s no singular hero or villain, none of the human drama we love. As Chait says, “Nobody knows or cares whether John Boehner’s wife has bangs.” There’s systemic dysfunction that requires systemic solutions. Kinda boring.
But the obsession with Obama is unhealthy because it distracts attention from the way U.S. politics works and the ways it can be fixed. Bullying Obama into saying the word “climate” more — the seemingly irresistible sport of climatespotting — is way, way down the list of things that would help. If we want change on climate, we’ll have to change U.S. politics. There is no shortcut. Obama is not our daddy, our king, or God. As Chait concludes:
… that is all he is — the head of one, equal branch of government, a man we have hired to do a job. Our need to elevate him into a monarchial figure not only causes us to persistently misunderstand the world around us, but is also detrimental to the habits of self-government.