Throughout American history, most presidents had small personal staffs. They steered through political waters as amateurs, relying on experience, instinct and conversations with friends.
Then candidates and presidents hired professionals to help them navigate public opinion. By the time Theodore White began his “Making of the President” series in 1960, the strategists, who had once been hidden, came into view. Every successive administration has taken power away from Cabinet agencies and centralized more of it with those political professionals who control messaging from within the White House.
This trend is not just in politics. We have become a consultant society. Whether you are running a business or packaging yourself for a job or college admissions, people rely on the expertise of professional advice-givers.
Technical advisers are hired to be shrewd. Under their influence, the distinction between campaigning and governing has faded away. Most important, certain faculties that were central to amateur decisionmaking — experience, intuition, affection, moral sentiments, imagination and genuineness — have been shorn down for those traits that we associate with professional tactics and strategy — public opinion analysis, message control, media management and self-conscious positioning.
A nice illustration of this shift came in the April 20 New York Times Magazine in the form of Jo Becker’s book adaptation, “How the President Got to ‘I Do’ on Same-Sex Marriage.” It is the inside story of how the president’s advisers shifted the White House position on gay marriage, from one the president didn’t really believe in — opposition to same-sex unions — to one he did.
Not long ago, readers would have been shocked to see how openly everyone now talks about maneuvering a 180-degree turn on a major civil-rights issue. It would have been embarrassing to acknowledge that you were running your moral convictions through the political process, arranging stagecraft.
Today we’re all in on the game. The question is whether it is played well.
There were two sorts of strategists described in Becker’s piece. One group, including the former Republican Party leader Ken Mehlman, has ardent supporters of same-sex marriage who tried to craft the right messaging. Mehlman told Obama to talk about his daughters when he announced his new position.
The other strategists were in charge of the president’s political prospects. Under their influence, the substance of the issue was submerged under the calculus of coalition management: who would be pleased and displeased by a shift. As usual, these strategists were overly timid, afraid of public backlash from this or that demographic.
The person who finally got the administration to move just went with his heart. Vice President Joe Biden met the children of a gay couple and blurted out that same-sex marriage is only fair. He went on “Meet the Press” and said the same thing.
Biden violated every strategist rule. He got ahead of the White House message. He was unscripted. He went with his moral sense. But his comments shifted the policy. The president was compelled to catch up.
Edmund Burke once wrote, “The true lawgiver ought to have a heart full of sensibility. He ought to love and respect his kind, and to fear himself.” Burke was emphasizing that leadership is a passionate activity.
It begins with a warm gratitude toward that which you have inherited and a fervent wish to steward it well. It is propelled by an ardent moral imagination, a vision of a good society that can’t be realized in one lifetime. It is informed by seasoned affections, a love of the way certain people concretely are and a desire to give all a chance to live at their highest level.
In every White House, and in many private offices, there seems to be a tug of war between those who want to express this messy amateur humanism and those calculators who fear uncertainty and who distrust that which is not scientific. The calculators are given too much control.
The leadership emotions, which should propel things, get amputated. The shrewd tacticians end up timidly and defensively running the expedition.
David Brooks’ column is distributed by the New York Times News Service.