Last week Charlie Savage had an interesting follow-up to his well-known 2007 questions to the presidential candidates about their views on executive power. The most important line in Savage’s story is that Barack Obama’s “record in office shows how circumstances and the assumption of power can alter views expressed in a campaign.” Indeed. Views about presidential power expressed on the campaign trail are mainly designed to win votes. For reasons I explain at length in a new book out in March, once in office presidents assume responsibilities and face constraints that render their campaign views about the presidency almost entirely irrelevant. Barack Obama is now a famous example of this phenomenon. But he is hardly the first. George W. Bush came to office with the expectation that he held modest views of executive power. Candidate Bill Clinton berated George H.W. Bush’s Haitian interception and detention policy but quickly embraced it as President. There are many other examples throughout our history.
John F. Kennedy gave a famous explanation of the mismatch between pre-presidential pledges and presidential actions in a December 1962 White House interview. When asked by a reporter how his pre-presidential expectations of the presidency matches his experiences in office, Kennedy answered:
I would say that the problems are more difficult than I had imagined them to be. The responsibilities placed on the United States are greater than I imagined them to be, and there are greater limitations upon our ability to bring about a favorable result than I had imagined them to be. And I think that is probably true of anyone who becomes President, because there is such a difference between those who advise or speak or legislate, and between the man who must select from the various alternatives proposed and say that this shall be the policy of the United States. It is much easier to make the speeches than it is to finally make the judgments . . . .
Barack Obama, like Kennedy and many of his predecessors, learned this lesson on the job.