The Duty to Take Care: President Obama, Public Administration, and the Capacity to Govern

Date01 January 2011
Published date01 January 2011
President Obama
as a Public
A Midterm
Phillip J. Cooper is a professor of public
administration in the Mark O. Hatf‌i eld
School of Government at Portland State
University. His books include By
Order of the
President: The Use and Abuse of Executive
Direct Action, The War Against Regulation:
From Jimmy Carter to George W. Bush,
Governing By Contract: Challenges and
Opportunities for Public Managers, Public
Law and Public Administration
(4th ed.,
with Claudia María Vargas),
Development in Crisis Conditions: Chal-
lenges of War, Terrorism, and Civil Disorder,
Implementing Sustainable Develop-
ment: From Global Policy to Local Action.
He is a fellow of the National Academy of
Public Administration.
President Obama, Public Administration, and the Capacity to Govern 7
Phillip J. Cooper
Portland State University
President Barack Obama inherited many challenges as
he entered the White House. One of the most important
obligations he faced was the constitutional duty to “take
care that the laws be faithfully executed.” Meeting that
commitment has been rendered more di cult because
Obama seems not to have recognized that the people
and organizations of the executive branch are facing a
crisis in the capacity to govern.  is essay argues that no
matter how talented President Obama may be in public
policy or on the stump, he likely will not accomplish his
constitutional duty unless he engages that capacity crisis.
Few who have entered the presidency have done
so with greater anticipation among the elec-
torate or facing more challenges than Barack
Obama. In addition to the usual pattern of expecta-
tions that the new president would solve problems,
bring about a better life for everyone in America, and
provide leadership and support in the international
arena, there was a set of demands that  owed from
a devastating recession, two major military con icts,
and a national loss of civility with increasingly extreme
partisan and ideologically driven behavior.  ere also
were challenges that  owed from candidate Obama’s
promises of change on a grand scale, presented in
sweeping rhetoric on the campaign trail during a hard-
fought election. As he took o ce, President Obama
faced the consequences of the well-known admonition
that one should be careful what one wishes.
In looking back on the  rst year of the Obama presi-
dency in his book e Promise, Jonathan Alter quoted
the president’s expression of frustration that his
successes during his  rst year in o ce had not been
adequately recognized: “I don’t think people fully
appreciate the degree to which, prior to health care,
we had twelve straight victories in a row” (2010, 428).
is statement typi es a common contemporary view
that the president’s job is to win a series of policy cam-
paigns. But the presidency is more than one individual
seeking to lead a team in a competitive game in order
to score points in the form of policy adoption. It also
is more than a contest whose object is positive public
opinion poll numbers leading to reelection or, for that
matter, a puzzle as to how a president can construct an
image that will shape at least the near-term historical
picture of the occupant of the White House when he
or she leaves o ce.
If the president has not discharged his or her consti-
tutional duty to “take care that the laws be faithfully
executed,” policy victories will accomplish little in
fact, however much may have been promised when
they were adopted.  e president’s popularity will say
little or nothing about the actual state of the Union.
e imagery created in an e ort to shape history likely
will mean nothing of consequence in terms of e ec-
tive public services.
A  nding that the president has carried out his or her
constitutional obligations as chief executive is not
about the celebrity of the occupant of the o ce or
the transitory political contests that are the focus of
media attention. Rather, it is an assessment of how
the president contributed to the institution that is the
presidency; to the executive branch, which the presi-
dent heads; to the federal government, of which that
branch is a part; and to the e ectiveness of the govern-
ment as a whole, not merely in proposing policies but
also in carrying out the purposes and responsibilities
set forth in the U.S. Constitution. One part of that
assessment is, as Chester Newland put it, a question
about whether the government is being managed well
(1983, 1). Another goes to whether the president has
done what is necessary to ensure that the executive
branch has the capacity to implement and administer
the policies created by legislation, administrative rules,
or presidential directives. Yet a third criterion goes to
whether, given the contemporary intergovernmental
complexity of public policy, the national governance
structure has the capacity to conduct the integrated
operations that are necessary to execute the law,
whatever the policy domain may be. If these three
criteria are not met, it would be di cult to conclude
e Duty to Take Care: President Obama, Public
Administration, and the Capacity to Govern

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