The Helplessness of Presidents (and Governors, and Mayors...)

Without public managers, chief executives are helpless.
January 16, 2007
By John D. Donahue  |  Contributor
John D. Donahue is a GOVERNING contributor. He is the Raymond Vernon Lecturer in Public Policy, faculty chair of the Harvard Kennedy School Case Program and the SLATE teaching initiative.

Its extended overture finally behind us, the presidential election season is underway at last. Soon enough, the herd will be thinned to two, and then to one. But for now the large crowd of contenders forms a loud, dissonant chorus singing a single theme: "If elected I will..." -- with multiple variations: If elected I will secure the borders. I will provide health care for all. Improve the schools. Chasten our enemies. Spur breakthroughs in clean-energy technology. Lock up predators. Strengthen the economy. And on and on.

Cynicism about politicians is a time-honored American tradition, and many people dismiss all this as nothing more than campaign candy tossed to the crowds. At some level, though -- and not too deeply buried -- these people actually mean what they say. There is plenty of pandering and poll-tested positioning behind each candidate's list of promises, to be sure, and elected officials do both more and less than what they advertised on the stump. But there is something honest in their pledges of intent to make change happen. If you aren't serious about making a difference, there are much easier ways to gratify your ego than running for high office.

Except that presidents, and most chief elected officials at the state and local levels, don't actually do much on their own. They make speeches. They run meetings. They sign pieces of paper. If anything happens after the speeches, the meetings and the signings -- health care provided, predators locked up, whatever -- it's because public managers make it happen.

Sometimes managers directly work the levers of bureaucracy. Increasingly, though, they operate by sending influence rippling through intricate networks of organizations within and beyond government. Without public managers, chief executives are helpless. The best of them know this when they start. The rest of them learn it, by and by. Soon after November, some of these people will likely be coming your way for guidance.

Anyone elected to high office in America, at whatever level, is automatically one of the world's luckier politicians. They inherit an infrastructure of public institutions, populated by committed professionals, able to bring about a range of remarkable results in response to the will of the people. Most of the world is missing either the managerial capacity, the blessing of democracy, or both. If the next president is luckier than average -- and more to the point, smart -- he or she will be able to secure leverage over this infrastructure and tune it to serve his or her priorities. Then, things will happen. Otherwise, they will not.

Some leaders, some of the time, almost seem able to shift the world single-handedly. Abraham Lincoln, with his strategic instincts and his astonishing prose, may have come closest, and most often, to autonomous agency. But most of the time, he was as helpless on his own as all the rest. In September 1863, a Confederate surge in the West reversed the hard-won momentum from Gettysburg. Battered Union forces in Tennessee wired that they could hold out for 15 or 20 days. It would take 40 days for reinforcements to arrive by road. Edwin Stanton, Lincoln's passionately determined secretary of war, asked for an emergency meeting of the Cabinet. There Stanton told a skeptical president and his Cabinet that he could reinforce Tennessee by rail within a week. Doubt outweighed hope. But there was no other option, and Lincoln let him try. Stanton didn't sleep for two days, and he didn't go home until 23,000 troops, with all their supplies, were rolling toward Chattanooga with time to spare.*

Without Stanton -- and the now-anonymous managers below him who commandeered trains, coordinated schedules, assembled provisions, and worried about track gauges -- Tennessee would have fallen. Without him and all the other effective agents surrounding the chief executive, Lincoln would be remembered, if at all, as a good-hearted man with a flair for words who tried to save the Union but couldn't.

Americans will be riveted by the presidential race and all the other campaigns playing out over the months to come. That's altogether fitting. But those of us who are in on the secret should give a quiet cheer, amid all the hoopla, for the public managers who make it mean something. Without them, this would be an empty cacophony, all booming gongs and clanging cymbals, instead of the consequential celebration of democracy that it is.

* Stanton's management triumph is described in Doris Kearns Goodwin's terrific book, "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln" (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), pages 556-560.