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Does America need a president?

Does America need a president?

The mild position clearly has some truth to it: The everyday functioning of the executive branch does seem more independent of the president's capacities than it appeared to be before January 2017.

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Last Updated : 06 July 2024, 03:11 IST
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By Ross Douthat

As the belief that Joe Biden is fully equipped to be president dissolves like mist on a Delaware morning, some of his defenders have fallen back on the idea that the American presidency is not really a man but a team.

"I would take Joe Biden on his worst day at age 86 -- so long as he has people around him like Avril Haines, Samantha Power, Gina Raimondo supporting him -- over Donald Trump any day," a former Homeland Security secretary, Jeh Johnson, said on MSNBC a few days ago.

Don't think of this as the Biden presidency, in other words; think of it as the Biden-Raimondo-Haines-Power presidency (tack on a dozen more names if you like), in which if the central pillar weakens, the support structure can still hold things up.

If you're looking for a counter to my argument in a previous column that Biden needs to be replaced because it would be incredibly dangerous to have a senescent president in the White House for the next four years (and not just because Democrats fear he might lose to Trump in November), this corporate vision of the presidency is where you need to start.

From there, you could take the relatively mild position that one lesson of both the Biden years and Trump's first term is that the executive branch can often work around a president who isn't quite up to the demands of the job.

Or you could take the sweeping position that the government as a corporate entity almost always works independently of the occupant of the Oval Office, and so an increasingly incapacitated chief executive who does what the process tells him to do would just be business as usual for the ship of state.

The mild position clearly has some truth to it: The everyday functioning of the executive branch does seem more independent of the president's capacities than it appeared to be before January 2017.

I also think the sweeping argument gets at an important reality of governmental power: Conservatives especially have long understood the limited ability of presidents to fully impose their authority on the bureaucracy they nominally lead.

But even the most sweeping version of the sweeping case still implies good reasons to regard a cognitively impaired president as a grave danger to the country.

Consider the analysis of Curtis Yarvin, the noted advocate for replacing the American republic (or the oligarchy, he would say) with a streamlined and effective monarchy.

Rolling his eyes at my column's naiveté, he explains that in our current system, the president is always just a figurehead:

In Douthat's world, it is inexplicable that the "Pax Americana" would last a minute in the storms of history without an alert captain at the helm. How are we still afloat? How have our many enemies, the enemies of democracy, bad people, not yet prevailed?

In my world, there is no captain and no helm -- just a figurehead. Beyond the obvious embarrassment, it doesn't matter if the figurehead mumbles a little. Actually, I think it's great, which is why I bought that lawn sign.

Yarvin asks, how does anyone even think about Washington my way? He goes on:

How do you think someone was "in charge"? My parents worked in DC their whole careers. Like most of the 4 million Americans who "work for" the president in the executive branch, they saw "politics" as a vague distraction beyond their ken, like the storm above the fish in a coral reef. At most "politicians" could screw things up. This is not how people at Tesla see Elon Musk, who is actually "in charge" of Tesla.

Good, bracing stuff. Except that Yarvin also concedes that just occasionally, once in a great while, when the "deep state" can't agree on policy, the president does have to make choices to resolve internal conflicts in the government -- like a Magic 8 Ball being used to yield an answer, he suggests. Here's his example of such an instance:

Still, sometimes, a meaningful "decision" will sometimes trickle up to the Oval Office and make it to the Magic 8 Ball on the Resolute Desk. I genuinely believe that the US withdrawal from Afghanistan would not have been accomplished without personal decisions from both Trump and Biden.

Interesting example, that! So, the personal decisions of the president don't matter at all, except for that time when the personal decisions of two consecutive presidents were crucial to ending America's 20-year war in Central Asia. Just a small thing; no big deal.

Of course, Yarvin is right about Afghanistan: We left the way we did because we elected Trump and Biden, not Hillary Clinton and Marco Rubio. But then, in much the same way, one might say that we invaded Iraq the way we did because we elected George W Bush, not Al Gore.

(Gore might have done something related to Saddam Hussein after 9/11, but an invasion of Iraq would have been clearly less likely with him as president.)

One might say similarly that we got half-involved in Syria in the 2010s but stopped short of deep involvement because we elected Barack Obama rather than Hillary Clinton, John McCain or Mitt Romney.

Or that we fought the first Persian Gulf War the way we did because we elected George H W Bush, not Michael Dukakis. Or that we bombed Cambodia and made a deal with China on our way out of Vietnam because we elected Richard Nixon, not Hubert Humphrey.

The point being, the strongest case against a decisive role for US presidents in US foreign policy still leaves, as its residua, some of the most important decisions for war and peace that the US government has made across the past half-century.

Even if the president exerts meaningful influence only when a decision trickles up to the Oval Office, the kind of decisions that actually trickle up are the ones that decide if Americans live or die, regimes stand or fall, allies survive or get abandoned.

Did John F Kennedy decide on general US Cold War policy during his presidency? Arguably not: I would agree that where something like our drift into the Vietnam War was concerned, the institutions mattered much more than the man. But did his decisions matter with the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban missile crisis? For better or worse, they obviously did.

Likewise, today: You can say that any US president would be pushed to take some kind of hawkish line with Russia, with Trump's four years as evidence, because that's what the "deep state" and its policy process demands. But would the Ukraine conflict look different if the more dovish Trump had been reelected in 2020? Almost certainly.

Would it look different if you swapped in a Republican president who was more hawkish than Biden -- a Nikki Haley figure? Yes. We'd clearly be more likely to be at war with Russia outright.

Now, I suppose you could argue that all of this only proves that who the president happens to be matters, not that it matters whether you have a functioning president at all -- because if the president isn't functional, the key decisions still get made by somebody, and why shouldn't we trust a committee of Biden's subordinates to make big decisions about Russia or China or Afghanistan as much as we trust Biden himself?

Here the historical examples are more limited, because modern America has not had that many periods when the president has been as nonfunctional as a senile president could become.

But I defy anyone to read about the last days of Woodrow Wilson's administration or Nixon's presidency and think, "This is a model that would work just fine for the next four years of the 21st century."

Likewise, the recent example I cited in an earlier column, Trump's inability to set a consistent policy in response to the unique crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic, was not as disastrous as it could have been because the virus was not as deadly as it initially appeared, and Trump made one really good Magic 8 Ball call in pursuing the vaccine.

But if you think Trump's response was an advertisement for having a leadership vacuum in a future pandemic, I don't know what to say.

In the end, Yarvin's belief in the merits of monarchy makes the case against his relaxed attitude toward presidential incompetence in a crisis.

Even a republic or an oligarchy needs someone to act as a monarch at certain moments, and a system that cannot identify that person in advance is more likely to fail in a crisis and more likely to provoke probes and tests and threats that yield such a crisis in the first place.

As Noah Millman suggests, there's a strong case that "you simply cannot go to war without a functioning commander in chief and that our allies and rivals alike know that and will act accordingly."

And even if that's an overstatement, with a presidential vacuum, the way in which the United States handles the most serious challenges -- military or otherwise -- will inevitably tend toward disaster.

As Millman writes:

If the head of the executive is effectively nonfunctional, then where is the locus of accountability for bad decisions? And if there is no such locus, and everyone's individual incentive is to collude in avoiding that accountability, what forces a correction? If the nonfunctional executive is still formally in charge, but everyone understands he has to be manipulated into decisions (because he's no longer capable of reliably assessing what's being presented to him), then what happens when different advisers start to compete for an audience, and the opportunity to manipulate him? This is a dynamic that executives have to deal with all the time; it's a different kind of problem when the executive is incapable of dealing with it. Even a committee with a high degree of internal cohesion will have some factions, as well as divergent individual interests; at a minimum, individuals won't want to get the blame for bad decisions they pushed for. These inevitable conflicts are why you need someone specific in charge to resolve them. A vote for Biden is a vote for not having any such person.

Which is why it is so obviously in everyone's interest, above and beyond questions of partisanship or fears of Trump, not to ask Americans to vote for Joe Biden at all.

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