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What Must President’s Know?

What must President’s know? Paul Quirk presents 3 different conceptions of presidential competence to answer this question. The Self Reliant Presidency, the Minimalist Presidency and one of Strategic Competence.

His essay revolves around this third concept of Strategic Competence. He largely dismisses the other 2 as impractical methods of presidential action (even though President Clinton and the current President Bush both showed signs of the prior 2) While the entire range of presidential models and personalities may not fall into one of the 3 categories as easily as the author implies, his notion of Strategic Competence is one in which his argument rings clear to me.

First, the author discusses the “Self Reliant Presidency” and gives presidential examples such as FDR, Johnson, and Jimmy Carter. Quirk wastes little time in stating that it is physically impossible to carry it out. There is no way that anybody can stay fully abreast of anything remotely close to half of the issues the presidency is concerned with. Quirk says “any important policy question produces enough prospects, studies and advocacy to keep a policy maker who sought to master it fully occupied.” All 3 examples, Johnson’s micro-management of military strategy, Carter’s extreme attention to detail, and FDR’s propensity to make so many decisions on his own (He took pride in the fact that for each decision Coolidge made, FDR made at least 35) took their attention from other “more essential” tasks. Presidential Self Reliance is “inconceivable” and unattainable.

Second, on the other end of the spectrum is the minimalist presidency. Instead of attempting to make most decisions by himself, the minimalist approach delegates more decision making authority to executive personnel. The primary example used is Reagan and to al lesser degree, GW Bush. Reagan’s “chairman of the board” philosophy accommodated his lack of motivation to do much reading or sit through long briefings. While this approach is attainable, it presents many difficulties. Foremost, the president’s “subordinates” may be looking out for their own interests as well as senior administration officials. Unless the president pays close attention, he may be unable to notice the difference. Another flaw in this approach is that the public “likes presidents who seem in command.” If a president openly makes known his delegation of important decisions, the press is “likely to shame him into taking charge.” Now, we would have a president making decisions that he by and large knows little about.

Strategic Competence is a mix of the other two approaches. This conception would be the “grey” one suggesting that the other 2 are black and white. Seldom are things as simple as black or white, but usually a lot of grey. Strategic Competence is the one that simply makes sense. This strategy assumes that the president’s time, energy and talent are “scarce resources.” As such, there must be decisions made as to what things the president will attempt to know. He can’t know it all. In some instances, the situation will be better served by delegation and in others by the president himself. Regardless, with substantive issues, “vast presidential ignorance is inevitable.” “No one understands more that a few significant issues very well.” In those issues that the president is not well versed in, it is important that he have aides who share his outlook or philosophy on government. The president cannot do it all himself, nor can he delegate every decision. Just like our system of government is based on shared power, the presidency is best served when the responsibility is “shared” among competent people to make good decisions.