Wednesday, December 22, 2010

It's Time to Shrink the Presidency

Michelle wants to downsize the Big Mac. I say McDonalds should keep the supersize meal but we should downsize the presidency to a more digestible portion.

There was a time when an imperial office was justified—the cold war years come to mind—when actual leadership of the western world was exercised by the American president. The whole world was in a constant state of near-war then, a state of alert that might have required nearly instantaneous response at any moment. It was a time when a response that only the President could decide upon would be in time for it to be effective. With that role—the president as constantly alert guardian in a very real way standing for world peace—it made sense to load up on the accoutrements of office in order to keep the occupant safe and in constant communication with others.

Nearly every event over those decades seemed to argue "more." Assassination attempts, against Truman, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton and Bush II and the murder of Kennedy, justified an ever-tightening ring of steel and agents to surround the president and separate him from ordinary life and ordinary people.

Nixon added his own special magic to accelerate the process, not only fanning flames of ceremonial pomp and circumstance, but hardening the walls of staff against intrusion by outsiders. Reagan made efforts to live his own way, retreating frequently to the tonic of hard labor required to maintain both Rancho del Cielo and his own sense of grounding. While security tightened during the first Bush's term, largely due to a shooting war, Clinton led the presidency into an enormous leap into personal hedonism, treating the White House and the Executive generally as ornaments on his personal flight from polyester. Even though Bush II tended more toward the Reagan model than Reagan himself, the war or terror drove the security bureaucracy that had grown nearly non-stop since 1948 to new levels of presidential constriction. President Obama, marketed as the "post-imperial President," has turned the entire structure to a celebration of his own existence, an aggregation of outings, travel and parties as if there is no tomorrow, a magnifying mirror of personal aggrandizement.

Today, nearly 6,000 people work full time to support the president and his family, at a total cost of $1.5 billion annually. By a spectacular margin, President Obama's lifestyle is the most expensive in all history, easily more than any other living person, exceeding by more than $1 billion the costs of any runners-up. Even the Sultan of Brunei, a despot not known for his material moderation, can only dream of the regalia at Mr. Obama's beck and call, all of it tax-free.

As an old joke has it, "No need to pay me, I'll work for expenses."

We'd be better off paying the man a celebrity-level salary if he'd just agree to pick up the tab for his own expenses. Of course, that presents an issue: if presidential pay was more extravagant, say $100 million a year, voters might be more careful about the applicant they hire.

Now would be a great time to deconstruct the imperial presidency, to shrink the office to human scale. Given that the United States is retreating from world leadership, that there is no need now or in the foreseeable future for an instantaneous decision to vaporize 200 million people in MAD retaliation, let's cut back. The thousands of federal agencies, commissions, and bureaucracy have proven themselves terribly resilient. They will easily withstand loss of communication with the President for short periods, an hour or two, a day or two. Heck, they're nearly certain to keep doing tomorrow what they did yesterday even if they were out of touch with the boss for a month or two… or three.

Consider for a moment: What presidential task of the last several years has justified 600 factotums, let alone 6,000? Does the job really require a minimum of 41 vehicles in every presidential motorcade, flown in for foreign visits? Are we better served with a fleet of White House aircraft than Great Britain, where the prime minister flies commercial, as he did just a few weeks ago on his way to visit the president?

Although the story was likely apocryphal, how many readers believed at first reading it was true, that a presidential visit to the Taj Mahal might actually cost $200 million a day? It probably didn't, but who can say what it did cost? Probably more than $2 million, quite possibly more than $20 million, even, conceivably the $200 million figure. Who knows?

The American nuclear arsenal will soon be just ten percent of its size four decades ago. Isn't it time we did the same for the imperial presidency? Given a shrinking American footprint, it's time to shrink the foot to fit.

I suggest we consolidate presidential spending from its current 20-plus agencies into a single budget for all White House activities, then shrink it to a smaller huge number, say $150 million a year.

I suspect many of our presidents could do just fine on such a purse, but wonder if Mr. Obama could manage to squeak by.


Norma said...

Although it's still a lot of money, the $1.5 billion a year is 2008 figures, during the Bush presidency. It's probably impossible to know how much we spend on the presidency.

Bob Leibowitz said...

Norma -- Good comment and solid point. The conclusion stands, that it's past time to shrink the office to match what should be a reduced role.