So it looks like Jeb Bush is running for president. The prospect of a Bush vs. Clinton race in 2014 does not warm the cockles of any of my internal organs, but I want to put in a speculative word for presidential dynasties, despite the repugnance of that idea to my small-“r” republican ideals.
The president is the head of the executive branch of government. You took social studies, right? But, really, what does that mean? It means that the president is nominally in charge of the entire, vast bureaucracy of the American state, including the military and the various spy shops. I think it helps to try to maintain a distinction between the government and the state. Let’s say the government is made up of a constantly churning set of elected officials – the president and congress. (Not sure whether to put the courts in here or not, but no matter; this is just a rough-and-ready division.) The state is the more-or-less permanent administrative apparatus – all the many thousands of clock-punchers at the EPA and the FBI and Homeland Security and Commerce and Labor and State and the Pentagon and the NSA, etc. It’s what the chief executive is executive of, how he (or she!) executes, the way the government governs. It’s also way more than the executive can possibly keep tabs on.
Each president has a handful of political appointees in each agency, but either they come from outside and don’t really understand how things work, in which case they’ll more than likely be manipulated by the senior agency hacks, or they come from inside, in which case their loyalty is more likely to align with the agency’s internal powers-that-be than with the president. The chief executive has a thousand strings he can pull, but a lot of them aren’t actually connected to the various agencies’ real mechanisms of influence and power.
What we have here is a classic principal/agent problem. If you want the president to have effective power to govern via the bureaucracy, you’ll want him to be able to overcome some of the problem of bringing the agencies to heel. A big part of the problem is that agents almost necessarily have information their principals need but don’t have, and can use these asymmetries in information – can dole it out or withhold it or misrepresent it – to manipulate the principal into wanting what the agents wanted all along. Just think about how brazenly the CIA lies to congressional oversight committees. There’s no reason to think they don’t do it to presidents, too.
The most effective presidents, in terms of overcoming agency problems, will be those with strong preexisting networks within the bureaucracies willing to circumvent the de facto power structure and independently transmit reliable information straight to the White House. One reason I thought in 2008, and still think today, that Hillary Clinton would have been a more effective chief executive than Barack Obama is that a senator and insider wife of a two-term president is much more likely to have useful allies and contacts within the bureaucracy than a green, freshman senator new to town. And what’s even better than that? The son of a former CIA director, vice-president and president, who is also the brother of a two-term president. If Jeb Bush is worried that somebody in the CIA or State Department is dicking him around, there’s a good chance he knows a guy who knows a guy who is owed a big favor and can get him the straight scoop. And that’s power – the power by which the government renders the far-flung and opaque permanent state governable.
It may well be that the insider power of dynastic presidents amounts to a form of corruption, as our populist, republican instincts suggest. But it may also be that, given the vast scope of the modern state, presidents without this sort of power can’t really be said to be in charge. And the enormous, deadly, often malign power of the sprawling American security state makes it worth asking whether a decent president who isn’t really in charge is better than an odious one who is.
(Photo: Former US president George Bush, his wife Barbara Bush, their son Jeb Bush, First Lady Hillary Clinton, and US President Bill Clinton look up to see the US Army Golden Knights parachute team at the conclusion of the dedication ceremony of the George Bush Library in College Station, TX on November 6, 1997. By Joyce Naltchayan/AFP/Getty Images)