The Law: Barack Obama and Budget Deficits: Signs of a Neo-Whig Presidency?

By Farrier, Jasmine | Presidential Studies Quarterly, September 2011 | Go to article overview

The Law: Barack Obama and Budget Deficits: Signs of a Neo-Whig Presidency?


Farrier, Jasmine, Presidential Studies Quarterly


You know, the President is elected to lead.

--Speaker John Boehner (R-OH, Epstein 2011)

... we're still waiting for the president to lead.

--Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY, Calmes 201 la)

[Obama's FY 2012 budget proposal] ... it's what I call an abdication of leadership

--Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI, Allen and Allen 2011)

... if you look at the history of how these [budget] deals get done, typically it's not because there's an Obama plan out there; it's because Democrats and Republicans are both committed to tackling this issue in a serious way.

--Pres. Barack Obama (U.S. White House 2011b)

Introduction: Presidential Place in the National Budget Process

The Modern Presidency has been missing in action on the federal budget. Faced with a deficit crisis of historic proportions, all eyes are on President Barack Obama to pave the way to fiscal health. Yet he has repeatedly evaded the gazes. While vowing in early 2009 to cut the deficit in half in his first term, Obama signed bills over the next two years to cut taxes and increase spending. After commissioning a deficit panel in 2010, he has not thrown his weight behind any of its specific fiscal, entitlement, and budget process reform policy proposals. And halfway through fiscal year (FY) 2011, the government was running on two-week continuing resolutions. Why has this visionary presidential candidate repeatedly demurred from budgetary leadership?

Most obviously, the president's modest institutional posture is a strategy to navigate the challenging policy and political landscape. First, the nascent economic recovery may require years of demand stimulation by the government. Second, long-standing public opinion incoherence on fiscal policy (how to reduce spending, pay for popular and expensive programs, and balance the budget simultaneously) has continued to paralyze congressional as well as executive leadership as they translate campaign promises into new law. Third, the president is seemingly hesitant to take big political risks as he absorbs the results of the 2010 midterm election (backlash against his perceived expansionist agenda after 2008) and looks ahead to 2012 (likely backlash against Republicans' perceived reductionist agenda after 2010). Acknowledging these pressures on the president, this paper will largely focus on how these actions change the orientation of the presidency toward the more Whiggish side of the power spectrum.

In avoiding a firm fiscal agenda, and opting instead to goad Congress into playing the leading role in budget policy formation, Obama is speaking and behaving in a way that echoes an older conception of presidential place. Sometimes called the "constitutional" theory of the presidency, a Whig president demonstrates self-conscious institutional sensitivity to the separation of powers system through deferential rhetoric and action. This premodern theory stands in contrast to the "stewardship" (Theodore Roosevelt) and "prerogative" (Franklin Roosevelt) models of presidential power (Genovese 1976; Stokes 1976). For example, in an oft-cited description of such institutional thinking (not necessarily echoing nineteenth-century Whig Party economic views), William H. Taft rebuked his predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt, for misunderstanding the office.

The true view of the Executive function is, as I conceive it, that the President can exercise no power which cannot be fairly and reasonably traced to some specific grant of power or justly implied and included within such express grant as proper and necessary to its exercise. Such specific grant must be either in the Federal Constitution or in an act of Congress passed in pursuance thereof. There is no undefined residuum of power which he can exercise because it seems to him to be in the public interest. (Taft 1916, 139-40).

Of course, Taft's vision was on the verge of extinction even in his own time. …

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