The In-Box Presidency

What's behind the politics of personality.


This truly is the first presidential race of the 21st century, a period defined not simply by dates but by states of mind. The 20th century was an age of ideological combat, of political visions clashing on printed pages and bloody battlefields, an age of heroic rhetoric and executive power. The century began in 1914, with the start of World War I, and ended in 1991, with the failed Soviet coup. We have been in an interregnum ever since, slowly adjusting to a changed world.

The 20th century was not just an era of ideological struggle. It was also an age of planning and high-level management, of bureaucracy as an ideal and society as an engineering project. The president was said to "run the country," as though American life were a machine or a corporation. The job of political leaders was, in Theodore Roosevelt's grandiose formula, "to look ahead and plan out the right kind of civilization." The president became the embodiment of national power and identity, an elected king with a nuclear trigger.

The trigger is still there, but the presidency has shrunk. The limits of social engineering and political faith were apparent by the 1970s, a chastening decade whose legacy of cold-eyed realism is too often denounced as cynicism by those over 40. By the early '90s, the end of the Cold War had made "leader of the free world" a less awesome title. Bill Clinton would never have been elected president before 1992, nor would a Cold War public have tolerated his scandals as merely personal.

Now the romantic age of political heroes is over, for a moment at least, and not everyone is pleased. When Time named Albert Einstein "man of the century," Churchill fans were appalled. Without their man, they argued, Western civilization would have fallen to the forces of darkness–forces that would have extinguished Einstein himself. They had a point. But there was wisdom in Time's choice. Einstein is the only 20th-century figure whose name will be a positive touchstone in 500 years. Though they did not realize it, Time's editors were already living in the 21st century, an age in which greatness need not be political.

Of course, neither politics nor public policy has disappeared. Political disputes are an essential aspect of civilization, an inevitable consequence of living together. At a more mundane level, Americans still have presidential campaigns every four years, and the energetic executive that Roosevelt and his successors established still wields enormous powers. We have not yet redefined government for a more modest era. Our would-be civilization-planners are still issuing new regulations, even if the Soviet model lies a few layers down in history's compost heap.

But there is something palpably strange about this year's presidential race. It is nearly free of issues. It looks more like a high school student council contest than a choice of historical moment. Candidates dutifully introduce ideas, following the scripts of their predecessors–universal health care if you're a Democrat, big tax cuts if you're a Republican–but voters mostly yawn, interested in personalities, not policies. John McCain may claim his supporters are excited about campaign finance reform, but exit polls say they like his story and his style.

Voters have learned something from the last 12 years that the candidates haven't yet grasped: Nowadays, you never know what the president is going to do from what he says on the campaign trail. This isn't simply a matter of empty promises. It's a reality principle. Presidents don't plan civilization. They react as it changes rapidly and unpredictably. Presidents face questions, challenges, and constraints that never came up in their campaigns: The Soviet Union collapses, Iraq invades Kuwait, the Internet booms, Asian economies crash, tax receipts pour in and wipe out the deficit. It's the age of the in-box president.

President Bush was, in his peculiar way, ahead of his time. His administration lacked activist initiatives. Bush waited for the problems to come to him. In his day, that was damning. Today, it would be good politics.

Interestingly, the truest heir to Bush in this race is not his son but McCain–a war hero of generally conservative instincts but little political philosophy, the scion of a family of public servants, a man who promises little more than to uphold the national honor and do the right thing. McCain sings the praises of Teddy Roosevelt, but his agenda is surface sentiment. Nothing about his impossibly vague platform suggests a genuinely activist agenda. He merely promises to support truth, justice, and the American way.

McCain says again and again that he wants "to inspire young Americans to commit themselves to causes greater than their self-interest," but rarely provides examples of such causes. He offers neither a Clinton-Gore list of wonkish specifics nor a Reaganesque strategy of a few big ideas. The most he promises is to be a good man, vetoing obviously foolish expenditures.

For all his talk of reform, McCain is a status quo candidate whose supporters say they're generally satisfied with the state of the country. They trust him with the nation's in-box because they like him. He's upbeat and funny and courageous. His history recalls an age of heroes without asking us to re-enter it. He appears to speak his mind–or at least not to guard his tongue, which among talking points and spin control seems like the same thing.

McCain draws support from a bizarre cross-section of the ideological spectrum because he has a winning personality. Policy has nothing to do with his success. He barely understands his own tax plan.

The appeal of voting on personality is that character doesn't change much after middle age, and it's harder to fake than policy positions. What you see on the campaign trail is probably what you'll get in office, which is more than we can say for most platforms. The danger is that merely promising to do the right thing or, as McCain likes to say, "to lead," can mean just about anything.

After a century of civilization-planning, an in-box presidency is a strange institution, ill-suited to the expectations and powers invested in the 20th-century president. How this institution works depends crucially on the president's instincts and on the broader "climate of opinion"–the largely unstated assumptions that determine the options from which a president chooses to respond to new developments. What's a respectable policy? What's a reasonable response? What's ridiculous? What's oppressive? What's naive? The climate of opinion combines moral sentiments about right and wrong, empirical observations about what will work, and a hefty dose of political fashion.

The civilization planners in the Clinton Labor Department, for instance, saw nothing absurd or intrusive about trying to force Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations on home offices. Then word got out about their policy, and the workers who define the cool "new economy" mocked the idea to death. Similarly, political fashion has done wonders for budget balancing and, until recently, for freer international trade. And gas rationing is at least as dead as leisure suits.

More particular presidential (or administration) instincts also matter greatly. During the Bush administration, the economic in-box kept filling up with "competitiveness" questions. Trade protection and technology planning were all the rage among policy intellectuals, who panicked over the declining market share of U.S. memory chip makers. Without immediate government action, said the industrial policy gurus, American electronics companies were going to be wiped out by the Japanese. We would soon have no high-tech sector.

Fortunately, administration instincts ran counter to these experts. Bush policy makers did next to nothing about the competitiveness crisis, and by doing nothing helped make the current boom possible. At great political cost but to enormous economic benefit, the Bush administration also let "restructuring" ripple through the American workplace, despite cries that the government should save those big corporate jobs.

Relying on instincts is dangerous, however, especially when something new appears. Teddy Roosevelt's civilization-planning model encourages presidents and legislators to regulate first and ask questions later. It encourages "bold action" that can stifle the decentralized ideas and individual choices from which true "national greatness" springs. McCain's litanies about an "iron triangle" of "big money and lobbyists and legislation" are not reassuring, since he always omits the actual third side of the proverbial triangle: the regulators. ("Big money and lobbyists" are the same team.) And regulators are the ones, some of them anyway, under the president's control.

An in-box president guided only by an inchoate sense of right and wrong–of duty, honor, and country–will expand the size and scope of government unless the climate of opinion says he shouldn't. That's why George Bush became, in Jonathan Rauch's well-documented epithet, "the regulatory president." He didn't know better and succumbed to peer pressure on environmental and workplace regulations.

"McCain's instinctive support for universal [health care] coverage runs headlong into his instinctive opposition to bigger government," writes The New Republic's Jonathan Chait. "Who knows which principle will be left standing?"

Here, then, lies the task for those who would free our civilization from central plans: We must turn the articulated principles of freedom into unarticulated instincts about what is right and what is wrong, what is real and what is fantasy, what is reasonable and what is inconceivable. In an in-box era, the climate of opinion matters more than ever.