There are few things that frustrate me more about political writing than reporters helping to promote the myth of powerless top government officials.
It most commonly takes the form of the false claim that it takes 60 votes in the Senate to pass anything. Or it’s the insistence that the President wants to do something, but can’t, because he is powerless on his own.
This myth of the toothless President is perfectly exemplified by this article about drug policy from Marc Ambinder in CQ:
According to ongoing discussions with Obama aides and associates, if the president wins a second term, he plans to tackle another American war that has so far been successful only in perpetuating more misery: the four decades of The Drug War.
Don’t expect miracles. There is very little the president can do by himself. And pot-smokers shouldn’t expect the president to come out in favor of legalizing marijuana. But from his days as a state senator in Illinois, Obama has considered the Drug War to be a failure, a conflict that has exacerbated the problem of drug abuse, devastated entire communities, changed policing practices for the worse, and has led to a generation of young children, disproportionately black and minority, to grow up in dislocated homes, or in none at all.
This is just nonsense spun in a way that politically helps President Obama without holding him to any form of democratic accountability. Basic translation: “See, young people, unnamed sources claim Obama will be cool despite his past behavior, but you shouldn’t hold him accountable since there is nothing he can do now.”
The reality couldn’t be more different. While some important reforms would require Congressional approval, a determined President has incredible latitude on the issue of drugs. One of the biggest things the President can do is instruct his administration to legalize medical marijuana by reclassifying — “rescheduling” — marijuana from schedule I to schedule IV. Through rescheduling, the Controlled Substance Act actually gives the Executive Branch the power to unilaterally change the legal status of any drug without Congressional action.
In addition any President has both the power of executive discretion and the pardon. Just as Obama did with certain young undocumented immigrations, he can issue executive directives regarding the use of executive resources which could have huge real world implications. The Presidential power to pardon, while underused, is real. Obama could in theory pardon or commute the sentences of a large number of people convicted of minor federal drug crimes, which could be a powerful statement about what is an appropriate punishment.
Finally there is the bully pulpit. Ambinder says we “shouldn’t expect the president to come out in favor of legalizing marijuana,” but there is no reason he can’t. Marijuana legalization has near the identical level of popularity as same-sex marriage had right before Obama recently endorsed it.
Using his bully pulpit would be a way for Obama to “act by himself” and have a big impact. It would draw attention to an issue and give it legitimacy. Importantly, as we saw with marriage equality, his endorsement could easily cause some in his base to re-evaluate their opinions. That alone could be enough to push several state marijuana legalization initiatives over the top at the ballot this year.
For a proper democracy to function we should judge our officials both by how they choose to use their power and by how they choose not to use their power. Of course the only way to really do this is for people to understand exactly how much power any elected official actually has.
Those promoting the myth of a toothless president create an excuse for the President’s failure to act. which frees them from blame, when in reality no excuse is justified. This undermines basic democratic accountability. Whether or not you support or oppose a current policy, you cannot properly hold a President accountable for it unless you know how much power a President actually has to change it and which powers the President is choosing not to exercise.