The Price of Presidential Ambition


This Washington Post analysis of the Obama administration's failure to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay is a fascinating read, and I recommend taking the time to check it out. By and large, it's an account of the administration's political failings, and it serves to illustrate the limitations of presidential power, even in areas where the president is most able to exert his will. In particular, two things stand out. First, there's this:

The president answered questions about his Guantanamo policy when asked, but only once in two years, other than in a major speech at the National Archives, did he raise the issue on his own. Guantanamo was competing with other legislative priorities, particularly health care, that consumed most of the administration’s attention.

“During 2009 and early 2010, he is totally engaged in the struggle to get health-care reform,” a White House participant said when asked about the president’s engagement with the effort to close Guantanamo. “That occupies his mind, and his time.”

And then, a short while later, there's this:

Although the closure of Guantanamo Bay was announced in an executive order, which Obama signed on Jan. 22, 2009, the fanfare never translated into the kind of political push necessary to sustain the policy.

“Vulnerable senators weren’t going out on a limb and risk being Willie Hortonized on Gitmo when the White House, with the most to lose, wasn’t even twisting arms,” said a senior Democratic aide whose boss was one of 50 Democrats to vote in 2009 against funding to close Guantanamo. “They weren’t breathing down our necks pushing the vote or demanding unified action.”

There are a few things to keep in mind about any president's agenda, particularly when it's ambitious. First, issue priority isn't simply a factor of what the president wants; it depends on what he emphasized during his campaign, as well as where consensus lies within his electoral coalition. Obama's first-year focus on health-care reform was almost predetermined by health care's extremely high place on the Democratic Party's list of priorities. That climate change received short shrift -- despite Obama's campaign pledge to the contrary -- has a lot to do with its relative youth as a priority for Democrats.

Second, presidents have limited resources, and ambitious presidents must use them carefully if they want success. This goes especially for the president's ability to persuade relevant stakeholders; the marginal lawmaker might support your signature efforts -- you lead his party, after all -- but he makes no guarantees about your pet projects, even if they have a vocal constituency behind them. If you're willing to take your presidency on these pet projects, then you can devote your time to persuading this lawmaker (and others like him). But if you have other, competing priorities, then you might save that energy for a future battle.

Yes, Guantanamo closure was a core issue for President Obama, and yes, it was a core issue for his liberal supporters, but it wasn't a core issue for the Democratic Party, and it needed to be for any chance at success. Given unanimous and vocal Republican opposition to the administration agenda writ large, Guantanamo closure was virtually certain to become a bitter partisan fight. For success, Obama needed a certain level of pro-closure consensus among congressional Democrats. Absent that consensus (and combined with public pressure to the contrary), it was no real surprise to see the White House avoid confrontation: Given limited resources, limited power, and the choice between a hard fight with a small chance of success, and a hard fight with a moderate one, the administration felt best served by investing its resources in the hard fight with moderate chance of success, i.e., health-care reform.

In other words, like Bill Clinton and gays in the military, Guantanamo closure was a high-profile fight that lacked strong support within and outside the party. Obama could have invested further resources in closing the base, but he would have lost ground with health-care reform, stimulus, and other competing priorities. This isn't to minimize Obama's failures or the extent to which he has simply embraced large elements of Bush national-security policy, but you can think of an issue like Guantanamo as the price of presidential ambition. When there are many things on the executive plate, some of them have to go by the wayside. This, unfortunately, was one of them.

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