Presidential power –not all it’s cracked up to be.

(Yesterday’s furor over the President’s decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement may have been overblown. Here’s why.)


Richard Neustadt, the famous presidential historian, tells us what some of Mr. Trumps’ predecessors had to say about the job:[1]

In the early summer of 1952, before the heat of the campaign, President [Harry] Truman used to contemplate the problems of the general-become-President should [Dwight David] Eisenhower win the forthcoming election. “He’ll sit here,” Truman would remark (tapping his desk for emphasis), “and he’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen. Poor Ike—it won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll find it very frustrating.”

Eisenhower evidently found it so. “In the face of the continuing dissidence and disunity, the President sometimes simply exploded with exasperation,” wrote Robert Donovan in comment on the early months of Eisenhower’s first term. “What was the use, he demanded to know, of his trying to lead the Republican Party. … And this reaction was not limited to early months alone, or to his party only. “The President still feels,” an Eisenhower aide remarked to me in 1958, “that when he’s decided something, that ought to be the end of it…and when it bounces back undone or done wrong, he tends to react with shocked surprise.”

Truman knew whereof he spoke. With “resignation” in the place of “shocked surprise,” the aide’s description would have fitted Truman. The former senator may have been less shocked than the former general, but he was no less subjected to that painful and repetitive experience: “Do this, do that, and nothing will happen.” Long before he came to talk of Eisenhower he had put his own experience in other words: “I sit here all day trying to persuade people to do the things they ought to have sense enough to do without my persuading them…. That’s all the powers of the President amount to.

Presidents come and go, bringing with them all manner of ambitions and policy preferences – on this occasion agreeing, on that, disagreeing with their predecessors, and those who follow.

But they would all agree on this – that being president isn’t nearly so powerful or influential a position as they’d hoped. Surrounded by strong and diverse personalities, they find their wishes made public, misrepresented, and confounded almost the moment their backs are turned. And that’s just in the West Wing. A mile or so down the street, on Capitol Hill, and in the Supreme Court, other strong characters hold full sway. And that’s before the president ventures outside the Beltway, or across the oceans.

Presidents, like the rest of us, are swept along by events and circumstances as much as they shape them. They just have the misfortune to live their lives in a goldfish bowl.

Less than 24 hours after his statement on exiting the Paris climate agreement, President Trump sees this same dreary prospect. His own White House staff and family have been factionalized, riven, by the decision. Thirty state governors have quickly gone on record as affirming their states will continue forward within the spirit of the Agreement. Countless U.S. business leaders have registered their protest. International leaders have (excepting Syria and Nicaragua) have expressed various degrees of displeasure. China, hardly able to believe its good fortune (and a tad prematurely), is gleefully trying on for size the trappings of world leadership.

But in the case of the Paris Climate Agreement, there appear to be additional overlays. These start with the nature of the Agreement itself. Its Kyoto predecessor contained much that people hated – not least the special position of China and India, but also the cookie-cutter-, binding nature of the particulars. By contrast, the Paris accord is relatively free-form – more like a church potluck or charitable fundraiser Countries agree on the common goal – in this case, strengthening the global response to the common threat of climate change. But nations put on the table only what their domestic politics will support. For each country, the precise extent and the mix of reductions in fossil-fuel emissions; climate adaptation measures; financial donations; international offsets; and the associated schedules for all these were unique, idiosyncratic. What is universal was that countries agree to develop and share accurate data on all these aspects of their climate response – to fairly report their progress or lack of same, in some detail. They also recognize that the first round of measures is inadequate to the task (the “tiny progress” mocked by the Agreement’s detractors), so agree that every few years each country will up its game. And absent legally-binding agreements that they will instead use “name and shame” to encourage laggard countries[2]. (The United States has now shoved its way to the status of “first-among-laggards;” the shaming is already underway.)

Given all this, it’s hard to say what “pulling out” of the Agreement even means – or, in some ultimate sense – whether pulling out is even possible. A Rose Garden speech is not doing much more than saying what had been “politically achievable domestically” is no longer so. We’re doing little more than simply redefining the role we’ll play – just stepping back from any moral high ground or leadership we might have held with respect to the climate change issue and announcing that to the world (ironically, in conformity to the Agreement’s terms regarding transparency). We can’t, and won’t, even leave formally for three to four years.

The fact of the matter is that U.S. implementation has been and will remain largely a state- and local-level and private-sector, even individual concern – the steady accumulation of hundreds of economic, not political, decisions to switch from coal to natural gas in electrical power generation, to increase automobile mileage, increase agricultural efficiency, and much more. Our economy is highly globalized and our financial sector relatively transparent. Many states and companies unsurprisingly see it to their advantage – perhaps even important to their survival – to continue to conform to the outline of the Agreement. As EPA administrator Scott Pruitt argued before the press in several settings yesterday, the US had already been living up to the spirit of the Agreement prior to its signing (and by implication will continue to do so going forward). The coal industry and its workers are going to continue to see a slow, painful downward slide. The United States may reduce its financial contributions to other nations, but these were never to be that large, and China stands ready to pick them up, along with the branding and goodwill that will generate.

In closing, let’s consider the second piece: the public outcry/emotion – whether joy for those in President Trump’s base or anger and dismay for those who aren’t. Natural enough in the moment. But surely overdone. Four or five years from now, where we stand with respect to the climate-change challenge, and where Americans and America stand in world opinion, will be shaped not by Thursday’s set-piece speech, but rather by the decisions and actions that all 320 million of us make each and every day between now and then: actions with respect to energy- and resource use, building resilience to hazards, and protecting the environment. Actions to foster innovation and education for the benefit of all. And, most fundamentally, commitment to each other, here at home and internationally, versus selfishly and destructively going it alone.

All that is on us.

You and me.

Every day.

Jesus captured this distinction between what we say and what we do. In a conversation with Pharisees in the Temple, he asked the question[3]:

“What do you think? A man had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ The boy answered, ‘I will not.’ But later he had a change of heart and went. The father went to the other son and said the same thing. This boy answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did his father’s will?” [lived up to the Paris Agreement] They said, “The first.”

Summing up? The Rose Garden event per se looks to be little more than a photo op.

Truman and Eisenhower would have understood.


[1] From Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1960); if it looks familiar, perhaps that’s because it’s reprinted in Living on the Real World: How Thinking and Acting Like Meteorologists Will Help Save the Planet, 2014.

[2] Those who are skeptical of the efficacy of this “soft” approach need look no further than the institute of marriage to see its power.

[3] Matthew 21:28-31.

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