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I write today in praise of presidential inaction.
Not always, of course. In general, presidential action — energy in the executive, as Alexander Hamilton put it — is one of the engines that makes the U.S. political system go. But knowing when not to act and being willing to take some hits over inaction is an important presidential skill as well.
For example: Matt Yglesias has a smart column here at Bloomberg Opinion about the difference between inflation as economists and central bankers see it, and inflation as experienced by most citizens. He’s correct that in any given month, changes in volatile prices of gasoline and food are a much bigger deal to consumers than broader, and in a sense more meaningful, measures of inflation. So far, so good.
But should presidents react to those ephemeral changes to keep voters happy? Almost certainly not. Political scientists have found that voters have extremely short memories, which means that to the extent they would react at all at the ballot box to price changes in key areas, it would be to the latest swings in prices, regardless of what had happened over the last two- or four-year period. And whether the specific policy suggestions he makes are good for the economy overall, or even good for price stability in, say, gasoline and milk, there’s no way anything President Joe Biden does now can control price swings in October 2022 or October 2024. Indeed, we don’t need careful academic analysis to know that price swings are easily forgotten. Political reporters with long memories will remember that an oil spike during the Republican primaries in 2012 produced Republican candidates eager to talk about how President Barack Obama was failing the nation by allowing gasoline prices to soar, a topic that was mostly forgotten by fall.
If Biden is smart, he’ll focus on long-term economic policy and ignore the month-to-month ups and downs, even if it means taking some hits from Republicans.
Here’s another example: Some critics are blasting Biden for stepping back and letting the U.S. Centers for Disease Control take the lead in updating Covid-19 guidelines such as masking decisions. Yes, there’s some truth to the idea that politicians, and not experts, should make the key decisions. In some situations, deferring to experts can mean ignoring important information — about, say, how willing citizens are to follow some theoretically best practices — that politicians are better positioned to hear.
However, Biden is in a difficult position with respect to masking. For one thing, the federal role for the most part is limited; states, local governments and private entities make most of the decisions. Presidents may be able to do more than just jawbone, but taking on the challenge of attempting to force compliance would be highly risky for Biden, with little upside even if he succeeds. Part of that is because the use of masks became highly politicized long before Biden became president. And while he’s prioritized masking when he talks about the pandemic, and taken a few mostly symbolic actions, anything more would surely politicize the topic even more. Especially when the advice he most likely is getting is that vaccination, and not masking, is the most important battleground for him to be engaged in at this point. In other words? Letting CDC take the lead might not produce the best possible specific decision, but staying out of the details might not only be the best course for Biden’s political interests, but also the best way to direct his influence toward more important fights.
At least, that seems quite likely to me. But the larger point is that picking battles is one of the most difficult set of choices in any presidency. Duck too many, or the wrong ones, and the president looks weak. Engage in the wrong ones, and the president could take unnecessary losses or wind up using resources to prevent such losses that could have been deployed elsewhere.
In general, the best presidents (and we’re a long way from knowing whether Biden will turn out to be one of those) are good at ignoring day-to-day news cycles. Political opponents are always going to try to turn any hint of uncertainty in policy outcomes into a crisis — something that Republicans are doing to Biden now, just as Biden has attempted to use use “crisis” talk to rally support. After all, as the political scientist Nelson Polsby used to say, a crisis is a situation in which everyone agrees that something has to be done.
So Biden wants, say, the deterioration of U.S. infrastructure to count as a crisis since he has a plan to address it that he wants to pass — and Republicans want migrants at the border or trouble in the Middle East to be crises, perhaps because they see no good way for Biden to fully solve such things. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Biden shouldn’t act, and certainly doesn’t mean these problems are fictional. It just means that a president who constantly responds to demands for action may be forgetting that inaction, at least for a while, may sometimes be the least-bad move available.
1. Brian Klaas on democracy and cults of personality.
2. Jim Golby and Peter Feaver at the Monkey Cage on former military officers criticizing Biden.
3. Jonathan Swan and Zachary Basu on former President Donald Trump’s last-minute attempts to pull U.S. troops from various locations.
4. Michelle Goldberg on how Republicans may succeed in 2024 in what Trump and some Republicans attempted in 2020: Overturning the people’s vote for president.
5. And Ben Smith on conspiracy thinking — this time, from liberals worried about white supremacist conspirators. A good reminder that everyone — Democrats, Republicans, liberals, conservatives, centrists and yes, even you — is vulnerable to conspiracy thinking. The pressing problem right now comes from the Republican side because Republican party actors (including, of course, the former president) not only accept nonsensical conspiracy thinking but actually encourage it. Democratic leaders for the most part don’t do it, which helps quite a bit. But as this story shows, it doesn’t entirely eliminate it.
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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at [email protected]