Of late president Obama has taken a little bit of heat for his frequent (and mostly male) golf outings. Before him, president Bush took the same sort of heat for his golf and vacations. If you were willing to dig a bit through the news archives, I’d bet you could find similar tut-tutting about previous presidents taking time off. It’s a common theme for criticism of just about any important federal officeholder – it’s no coincidence that so many congressional “fact-finding” missions are to tropical paradises or European vacation spots. In that case it’s a criticism I vigorously share, as the taxpayer dime ought not be spent ferrying already rich congressweasels around the globe. What they do on their own dime I don’t worry too much about.
But the president comes in for special criticism no matter who pays for his downtime, in view of the fact that his job is so critical and demanding. Critical I’ll grant, but contra the received opinion I’d like to argue that in fact it’s easily possible to be an perfectly effective president while spending shockingly little time behind the Resolute desk. In fact for much of early American history presidents did just that – ie, very little. The presidency and the country have both changed, but in my opinion even today the president simply doesn’t have to do much to do perform his job with great competence. Now I don’t expect that any modern president will actually take as little time as I’m going to suggest; the very type of person who is attracted to the job and can campaign effectively is necessarily the kind of person who’s willing, able, and eager to manage as much as possible. But he doesn’t have to be. Let’s go down the list of his constitutional responsibilities:
Sign or Veto Laws
How many of these does congress generate each week? I don’t know, but given the glacial pace at which anything of consequence gets done in congress it can’t be many. I believe it’s a few hundred per year. The president has ten days to sign or veto each bill, so there’s nothing wrong with just knocking out the previous week’s bills over a Monday morning. No need to read them in their entirety – God knows congress doesn’t bother. Working with official summaries, your various adviser’s opinions, and the opinion of your constituents ought to be enough to decide the fate of a piece of legislation.
Take Oath of Office
Takes about a minute.
Be Military Commander-in-Chief
A huge responsibility, to be sure. But the president’s job here is to set overall policy and strategic objectives at the highest levels. Getting involved in the details is both inefficient and actively a bad idea (Most famously in history, Hitler’s terrible mis/micromanagement of his armed forces was a huge boon to the Allies). Given the fact that the president has a full-time civilian SecDef (with a huge staff) whose only job is to manage the military, the National Security Council, the Joint Chiefs, and a huge stack of generals and other military officials to translate strategic objectives into concrete plans, being CinC should be something the president could do each Monday after bill signings and before lunch.
Appoint Government Officials
The president has to appoint the cabinet and various other officials. This is also an important responsibility, but it’s something that’s pretty much done after the first week or two in office at least for the cabinet. The scores of lower officials that continually have to be appointed might be a pain, but that can easily (and in practice is) delegated to the cabinet and other advisers and then signed off on.
Obviously the president doesn’t actually write these. If he needs a treaty he tells the Secretary of State what he wants, and then subject to senate approval it happens. Treaties don’t happen much anyway, so if there happens to be one in the pipeline give it an hour after lunch for progress reports and making any needed changes.
State of the Union
We think of it as a speech, but it is not thus mandated and in fact plenty of presidents just wrote up a SotU letter and mailed it to congress. So if you happen to have one coming up and want to actually do the speech, pencil in another after-lunch hour for practice and revisions with the speechwriters.
Ancillary Executive Duties
These amount to a few procedural matters with respect to congress, executive appointments as already dealt with above, and most importantly “receive Ambassadors and other public Ministers; he shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed”. The ambassador stuff is easy: the State Department does all that. Faithfully executing the laws is obviously highly critical, but as chief executive this boils down to making sure your subordinates are doing their jobs with competence and fairness. So we’ll say from 2-5 pm Monday grill your cabinet officials and lower agency officials (and heck, even random lower employees and the general public they affect) about the way their agencies are doing their jobs. Bring down the hammer when poor governance is spotted.
And that’s that. Assuming your staff is even marginally committed to their jobs you can do your job perfectly well working one day a week, maybe less. Now sure you’re neglecting the statecraft presidents like to do: visiting dignitaries, traveling the country giving speeches, campaigning for your party, wheeling and dealing with recalcitrant congresscritters, and all that. But will the wheels actually come off the country if those things don’t happen? I seriously doubt it.
So go ahead Mr. Obama, golf to your heart’s content.