The Professional Left's CEO Delusion

Despite our strong belief that the government does not and should not operate like a business, many on the so-called "Left" seem to be suffering from the delusion that the President is a unitary executive, and can do whatever he pleases. If he really wants to do something, he can do it, the argument goes, thereby attributing anything that does not get done to the President's unwillingness to do it, rather than legislative reality or any other extraneous factor. It allows people to flat out ignore the fact that the President is but the head of one branch of government, restrained by the other branches, as well as the Constitutional limits on his power. But the same people are also always the first to scream that any use of legitimate executive power is itself abusive!

You have heard it all before. A, B, C didn't get done because President Obama didn't really want to do it. Or he didn't fight for it. He didn't pound podium enough. He didn't twist enough arms. He didn't do this. He didn't do that. If only he had gone to Maine and verbally beat the Maine Republican senators over the head, we would have the public option in health reform. If only he had issued an executive order rather than go through the legislative process, DADT would be history on Day 2 of his presidency. And I suppose he was supposed to bullypulpit and podium-pound into submission all 90 senators and the overwhelming majority of the House who voted to block the closure of Guantanamo.

The CEO delusion is as grand on the Right as it is on the purity Left. They believe that despite the complex and democratic system of government, we essentially vote to elect a dictator in the President of the United States. That the President is just like a CEO. The right wing sold it, and a whole lot of the left wing fell for it hook, line and sinker.

First form of the CEO Delusion: President as a unitary executive

One of the rather mistaken ideas that plugs into this delusion is the feeling on the Left that Republican presidents, who stick to their guns, are able to make their Congresses do anything they want. The most-oft cited example is that of President George W. Bush and his decision to invade Iraq, which Congress approved, and wireless wiretapping, which Congress approved retroactively. But let's get something clear - even George W. Bush could not do everything that he wanted to do. Bush has not been shy about speaking out that his biggest regret was that he couldn't kill social security. Bush's major domestic policy achievement, the No Child Left Behind law was sponsored in the Senate by none other than Democratic stalwart and liberal lion Ted Kennedy. Even George W. Bush had to sign a campaign finance law sponsored by none other than progressive deity Russ Feingold.

But the newly self-minted defenders of All Things ProgressiveTM will, without any sense of irony, point to President Bush's abuse of executive authority as what a president can do if he really wants to. Yes, I suppose a President, if he really wants to, order illegal torture. If a President, if he really wants to, pursue illegal and extralegal blanket wiretapping of the American people, I guess that a president, if he really wants to, violate the law and the Constitution. Or maybe in exercising what the President sees as his responsibility, none of the restraints of law apply to him.

Is that what we really want? Do we really want presidents who will ignore the Constitution, violate US laws and rule by decree? The answer to this question is often something along the line of "well but we're doing it for good things." Sorry, but that is both a poor answer and a dangerous one. The danger in this answer is to democracy itself: it is an answer that, taken to its logical conclusion, advocates for a "benevolent dictator." And it essentially buys the dangerous conservative frame that we ought to sacrifice the institution of democracy at the alter of our preferred policy outcome(s).

Second form of the CEO Delusion: The bully pulpit as the magic bullet

Those on the purity Left who will not admit to believing in a unitary executive theory will phrase it differently: the president has the "bully pulpit" - this all powerful and all yielding weapon in the battle of politics - that he should use to get his way - well, actually, their way. This argument too is dangerous. There is no doubt that presidents can exert a great deal of pressure and influence on members of Congress, including - and especially - on members of their own party in Congress. When the President speaks, people (and the media) pay attention.

But let's get something straight: members of Congress are elected independently of the President, and the President cannot order them around like he can his own staff. No amount of "bully pulpitting," for example, was going to make Joe Lieberman back off his opposition to the public option. No amount of podium pounding would make the Congress change its mind on closing Guantanamo when there are Cheney-loving GOP extremists pounding the airwaves that it's a conspiracy to release Muslims - err, I mean terrorists in American backyards.

Congress is a far more entrenched institution in Washington than many would care to imagine. Members of Congress have no term-limits, mostly get elected from gerrymandered, "safe" Congressional districts, and there are dozens of corporate lobbyists for every member of Congress (eight lobbyists per member of Congress on health care alone). The lobbyists - especially with the empowerment of the Supreme Court to spend unlimited cash in elections - have bought and paid for many members of Congress, and hold sway to scare the pants off of many others. No corporation would permit anything similar. The President is not a CEO.

Third form of CEO Delusion: The President ought listen only to True ProgressivesTM

There is one last, but not least, way in which the Purity Left insists that the President act like a corporate CEO. Corporate CEO's answer to one entity and one entity alone: shareholders. In other words, the people who put the CEO there. The Professional Left insists that the President, too, only answer to the people who the Professional Left believes should be credited for President Obama's election - which, incidentally, is apparently just them.

But the President is not just their president. He is the President of the United States. Every single American is his constituent. Whether they donated to his campaign or not. Whether they volunteered for his campaign or not. Whether they are sufficiently progressive or not. Whether they even voted for him or not. This is what whacks out the Professional Left the most - that the President makes a sincere effort to work with and listen to his political opponents. Corporate CEO's may have the luxury of not listening to his detractors; the President of the United States does not.

This is not to say that the President ought to abandon the principles and promises he outlined in his campaign. In fact, we know objectively that he has kept his promises. This president has delivered more for progressive goals than any in at least a half century even in the most hostile political environment faced by presidents in twice that time.

The truth about the CEO Delusion: It is rank dishonesty

But for the strident ideologues and personal detractors of the President who claim to occupy seats on the left flank of American politics, it is not about his promises. It is not about the policies. It is not about democracy. It is about a self-inflicted, intentional delusion that the President is an elected CEO, and in that view they are united with the Tea Party Right. For the Professional left, is about justifying unitary executive power to enact one's favored policies, democracy be damned. Once again, a remarkable similarity to the Tea Party Right.

It's time people got over our CEO delusions. The United States government is not a corporation, and the President is not a CEO. Those who are trying to tell you otherwise, in whatever form and from whatever part of the ideological spectrum they come from, are lying to you.