The Limitations of the President in Washington, D.C.
How Washington Actually Works For Dummies
Many presidents have come to Washington, D.C., promising to shake up the city and fundamentally change the way it does business. They’re not part of the much-maligned Washington establishment and don’t mind ruffling a few feathers if necessary. But while presidents can make their mark on the city, they have all found themselves inevitably sucked into the usual maelstrom of Washington politicking.
Why the consistent and repeated failure to change business as usual in Washington? Because presidents compete with a slew of other actors who also play critical roles in policymaking. And while the President will occupy the White House for a maximum of eight years, the Washington establishment and veterans in Congress enjoy home turf advantage.
Making a fundamental change of course in Washington is even more difficult than changing the course of a giant ocean liner. It happens only slowly and requires that the crew and captain work together.
Policymaking is an inclusive process, and its participants tend to jealously guard their own participation and prerogatives within the process. Presidents who step on too many toes often see their efforts stymied by these checks and balances.
Woe betide the president who gets on the wrong side of a grumpy senator, for example, because so-called holds allow a single senator to prevent any motion from being voted upon, whether it be a presidential nomination or critical piece of legislation. presidents eventually realize that in order to actually get things done, they cannot avoid dealing with Washington on its own terms.
The sense of impotence and even besiegement in the face of other Washington power centers is by no means limited to the idealistic young presidents frustrated by their inability to enact their campaign promises.
President Nixon once declared to Henry Kissinger, “Never forget. The press is the enemy. The establishment is the enemy. The professors are the enemy. . . . Write that on a blackboard 100 times and never forget it.” And history hardly paints President Nixon as a naive idealist.
Even when presidents do take well-intentioned steps to try to change how Washington works for the better, critics are often quick to underline the unintended, even damaging consequences.
Consider President Barack Obama’s decision to restrict federally registered lobbyists from administration appointments and federal advisory committees (a policy that has had several prominent exemptions). It was lambasted by the Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest (CLPI) for having “done little to curb special interest influence in Washington” and “unintentionally harming public-interest advocacy and undermining the Administration’s efforts to promote transparency and good government.”
According to a CLPI survey, nonprofit leaders described the restrictions as everything from “misguided” to “insidious,” and 80 percent agreed that they were “harmful to the public interest.”