Built on Facts

Being an Absentee President

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.

Make Treaties
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.


  1. #1 Eric Lund
    November 7, 2009

    While I agree with your overall point, I think you are underestimating the amount of time that goes into presidential briefings. Sometimes situations arise that require the President’s immediate attention, and this is easier if the President already has some idea about the situation. Also, while the military should handle details of military activity, there are many things the military might do that require the President’s approval.

    Another important point is that the President must be on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. He can of course do other things in the meantime, but he must be prepared to drop everything when an emergency arises, not continue to read “My Pet Goat” to an elementary school class for several minutes after being notified that an aircraft has hit a prominent building. (Same goes for state governors. My objection to Gov. Sanford of SC visiting his Argentine girlfriend is not that it’s an extramarital affair but the fact that he slipped out to Buenos Aires without telling his staff where he was going.)

  2. #2 Rob
    November 7, 2009

    While I don’t condone Bush’s seeming complacent obtuseness after the jet hit the World Trade Center, I’d like to know what Eric thinks he could have done that would have made a scintilla of difference.

  3. #3 Carl Brannen
    November 7, 2009

    I agree with Matt. This also applies to highly paid executive positions in industry. Most of their decisions have to do with important items like “what color should we repaint the executive bathroom?” The actual work is done by the underlings.

    For that matter, the US (and every major corporation) has procedures in place for how to make quick decisions if the President is unavailable. Most of the time this doesn’t leak out to the public, as when Reagan was shot.

    As far as Bush’s reaction to the WTC attack, it is important that the President not appear to be afraid or emotional. I have no doubt that they have aides regularly come up to them with new information and the vast majority of the time the correct action is to continue with what you’re doing.

    If the correct action would have been to quit the speech and run away, then the message from the aide should have been “we have to stop this right now because the US is under attack”. Instead, the aide presumably gave an information only message and the president, like pretty much anyone else, would take some time to digest and understand the message.

    And as someone who’s given speeches, the middle of a speech is not exactly the right time to rely on someone to take in new information and react quickly to it. That said, I don’t think Bush was a genius, my point here is that his reaction to the WTC news is not necessarily much different from normal.

    If the aide really thought that the President could take the time during the middle of a speech to think out an appropriate reaction to sudden news like that, then the aide was an idiot and should have been fired.

  4. #4 CCPhysicist
    November 8, 2009

    @3: Don’t forget who chooses the underlings. That was one of the main points Matt made.

    BTW, 9/11 proved that a cell phone call from a SS agent could launch fighter aircraft “weapons free”, completely circumventing the entire command and control system that Cheney thought he was running. Also, we know what Card told Bush when he got the word about the second plane. It was fully appropriate that he tell the President that the US was under attack. There was nothing idiotic about that decision.

    @2: I’m not Eric, but I think the President could have done something about 10/12 rather than making the conscious executive decision, documented in the 9/11 report, to ignore that direct attack on the US.


    One can never predict what might have happened had Bush managed to push back enough to get the CIA and DoD to actually go after bin Laden (something Clinton failed to pull off when they refused to follow his order to attack Al Qaeda after the attacks on our embassies). Would his command and control been disrupted? Would we have actually paid attention when one of the 20 conspirators was arrested?

    Maybe, and that is all it would have taken.

    That executive policy stuff actually matters.

  5. #5 Stephen
    November 8, 2009

    If you chain him to a desk for 4 years that man isn’t going to be making very good decisions let alone what would happen to his kids and wife. He is trying to remain as normal as possible for the family and him self. I seriously doubt that keeping him on the job constantly 24/7/365 would help that to much.

  6. #6 The Chemist
    November 8, 2009

    I agree with you.

    Of course what you’re saying is right, the president shouldn’t be micromanaging. That said, some crises call for the president to bring work home. Lincoln (my favorite president for a large number of reasons) did go to the Library of Congress and checked out a large number of books on military strategy and defense. Of course this was an emerging crisis and Lincoln wanted to make sure his generals and admirals were on point and that he could understand what was happening. (One of the reasons he’s my favorite president is that when faced with a problem he immediately looked for a book on it, a habit I share.)

    Of course any president can always technically be doing more. Whether it’s Obama making phone calls and shoring up support for his health care efforts or calling in some people from West Point to look at alternate strategies. Still you don’t want the man to drop dead from all the work. Give him his R&R.

    Remember meanwhile that Mussolini left the lights on in his office at night so that people would assume he was always at the grindstone- hardly the case of course.

  7. #7 Jeff Ollie
    November 8, 2009

    In this day and age, what makes you think an absentee president is possible? What you don’t see in that video of the President “relaxing” (any President) is the phalanx of Secret Service, White House, and military personnel that follow the President around wherever he goes and makes sure he is able to communicate immediately with just about anyone. So even out on the golf course, I’m sure that the President is seconds away from a cell phone…

  8. #8 Matt Springer
    November 9, 2009

    Exactly so Jeff, being a rarely-working president is even more easy in that respect, since you can be in East Nowhere, Montana and still be able to be up-to-the-instant on any important happenings that require your attention.

    CC: Long story short, I’m of the opinion that Osama was more of a figurehead and probably not very directly involved in the 9/11 planning at all. The anger and revenge vowed against Osama shortly after 9/11 would probably have more fairly been directed against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Not that Osama deserved anything but being splattered by a JDAM, simply that he probably wasn’t “the” man behind 9/11. In any case I’d bet dollars to doughnuts Osama is dead and has been so since 2003 at the latest.

  9. #9 Joe
    November 11, 2009

    I think this underestimates one of an effective President’s key responsibilities – balancing the appointees, and being sufficiently briefed to do so.

    Even with excellent appointees, the departments of state and defense and the commander on the ground will likely have different opinions on how to handle the wars, because different steps will effect their missions differently. And the President must decide between those options.

  10. #10 Ibrahim UCAK
    November 21, 2009

    Ben Türkiye’den takip ettiğim kadarıyla OBAMA dünya için bir şans. Amerika Birleşik Devletleri, dünyanın en büyük süper gücü ve şu anki başkanı bu gücün etkisini kullanarak dünyaya barışı yayabilecek bir lider. OBAMA’yı Türkiye olarak destekliyoruz.
    (As far as I’m from Turkey to follow OBAMA a chance for the world. United States, the world’s largest superpower and the current president of the effect of using this power to spread peace to the world a leader. Support OBAMA as Turkey.)

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