The new memoir from former CIA Director and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has been aptly described as a vindication of just about everything the president’s critics on the right have been saying about his policy in Iraq and Syria.
So naturally Panetta is now a marked man. Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, for example, is shocked—shocked!—at Panetta’s “stunning disloyalty,” and he even extends his surprise to the milder criticisms of Obama offered by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. (Mia Farrow went further, casting Panetta as Judas to Obama’s Jesus.)
There is an obvious hypocrisy here. Everyone loves leaks and tell-alls and criticisms from embittered former insiders—when these things are directed at a politician they don’t like. When they’re directed at your guy, they’re vicious and opportunistic and “stunning disloyalty.” And of course it is a measure of the media’s sycophancy toward this president that anything less than hagiography is considered an attack.
Yet Milbank stumbles toward the real explanation of this “disloyalty,” pointing out that “Panetta, Gates, and Clinton didn’t owe their careers to Obama. Clinton was a rival, Gates was a Bush holdover, and Panetta is a Democratic eminence grise. Loyalty didn’t trump book sales—or Clinton’s need to distance herself from Obama before a presidential run.” So these people can turn against the president and throw him under the bus for a change, because they’re not dependent on him, and they have their own independent reputations and ambitions to worry about.
Rather than being some kind of problem, that is precisely the way things are supposed to work. What Milbank is missing is the whole point of the “advice and consent” provisions of the Constitution, which requires the president to seek the approval of the Senate for his appointments to prominent executive positions, particularly the kind of cabinet-level offices held by Panetta, Gates, and Clinton.
This was something America’s Founding Fathers borrowed from the English system of government, where it originated as a way to limit the power of the king. Over many centuries of struggle between Crown and Parliament, the Parliament realized that, for all his power, the king is only one man. He cannot run every aspect of the government directly, so he needs to act through his ministers and advisors. If Parliament can exercise some degree of control over whom he appoints to these posts, they can effectively limit what the king is capable of doing. Eventually, the British system ends up with a member of Parliament elected as the monarch’s Prime Minister, who runs the government on his own, with the monarch as a mere figurehead.
America’s Founders didn’t want to completely take away the power of the chief executive, but they did want to keep it limited. Hence the “advice and consent” provisions. Ideologically, the need for congressional approval serves as a reminder that these officials do not serve the president. They serve the people of the United States. As a practical matter, if a president wants to get his appointees approved by Congress, he has a much better chance if he chooses known and established political figures, they type who had reputations and careers before the president came along and who will continue to have their own interests and agenda after he is gone. Which, of course, gives those appointees some independence from the president.
Each one of these appointees knows that he doesn’t just answer to the president. He will also have to justify his actions in his future career, particularly after the president is out of office and has gone home. So he’s only going to be willing to go so far to accommodate the agenda of the president.
Does the president want to collect tax revenue? Then he has to collect it through a Secretary of the Treasury approved by Congress. Does he want to go to war—or stay out of one? Then he has to do so with a Secretary of Defense approved by Congress. Does the president want to loosen up on illegal immigration, or crack down? He has to do it (alas) through the Secretary of Homeland Security, approved by Congress. And he has to do it knowing that any one of these people might later have an incentive to rat him out for being corrupt, indecisive, overly political, or for any other fault.
If we’re seeing an unusual number of such indictments from former officials, it might just be that Obama has an unusual number of faults—which seems more than plausible, given the results of his administration.
To blame it on lack of “loyalty” misses the point. Our system is designed to discourage the kind of sycophants and yes-men who will be endlessly loyal to the president. Think about what the executive branch look like if it were populated only by people who owed their careers to Obama. This is exactly what Obama has been fitfully trying to do, going around the cabinet secretaries by appointing “czars” who answer only to the president and are creatures of his will. They will be loyal, all right. And that’s the problem.
Ours is not supposed to be a system of personal loyalty to the president. It never has been, and to expect it is an affront to the whole American political system.