The Bush Administration, especially in the person of Vice President Cheney, had an expansive view of presidential authority. It was articulated as an interpretation of the Constitution, in particular Article II, which is about the presidency. Truman similarly took an expansive view of presidential authority when he seized the steel industry during the Korean War, but the seizure was overturned by the Supreme Court. (The Bush Administration had a mixed record in the Supreme Court in defending its expansive view of presidential authority, which centered on antiterrorist policy.)
There is a third type of questionable exercise of presidential power, which consists of publicly demanding that a private firm or industry or other entity conform to the President’s desire, without pretending that the President has the legal authority to require such conformity. (This overlaps with but is distinct from the concept of the presidential “bully pulpit”—the President’s power to appeal directly to the people for support of his policies.) In April 1962, for example, President Kennedy publicly denounced U.S. Steel and the other major steel companies for announcing a stiff price increase to offset the cost of a collective bargaining agreement that it had signed with the United Steelworkers union. He backed up his denunciation by threatening an antitrust investigation and made the threat credible, or at least frightening, by having his brother (the Attorney General) dispatch FBI agents to “interview” the top steel executives. The Administration had encouraged the collective bargaining agreement and was incensed at U.S. Steel’s attempt to offload the cost of it on consumers. A price increase is a normal response to higher labor costs, but the President considered it a slap in the face—his face. His public denunciation of the steel industry worked; the industry backed down and the antitrust investigation was called off.
President Obama has used this device of extra-legal presidential intimidation more frequently, probably, than any President. In the spring of last year he told General Motors to fire its chief executive officer, Rick Waggoner. He had no authority to do that, and didn’t pretend that he did. Waggoner went. Last month the President ordered British Petroleum to put billions of dollars into an escrow account for payment of claims for losses caused by the BP oil leak in the
Should a President use the prestige (one might even call it the “moral authority”) of the office, and his ability to command public attention, to obtain compliance with demands made by him on the business community that are not backed by law? I think not, apart from any distaste one may have for bullying. It makes business subject to two regulatory regimes. One is a legal regime, created by Congress and by the regulatory agencies to which Congress delegates a portion of its own constitutional regulatory power. The other is a kind of “people’s democracy” regime, in which government stirs up public anger to force businesses to comply with extra-legal government demands. This second regulatory regime operates without rules, and so subjects business to potentially debilitating uncertainty in the sense of a risk that cannot be quantified. We know from Keynes and other students of uncertainty that a common and often the sensible response to uncertainty is to freeze, in the hope that the uncertainty will dissipate over time, or to take active steps to reduce the uncertainty. Both are options for business faced with the threat of presidential wrath. A business can hire less, invest less, and build up its cash balances as a hedge against adversity. It can also redouble its lobbying and other influence activities in an effort to neutralize or deflect threats of extra-legal regulation. Neither is a healthy response; the first is downright pernicious, especially in a depression or recession, or the early stages of economic recovery. Both are responses that the threat of presidential bullying encourages.
Many of the President’s legislative initiatives, in particular the health reform law, the just-enacted financial regulatory reform law, and the credit card law of last year, have increased the uncertainty of the economic environment for business. These laws really haven’t settled anything; it will take years of regulatory implementation before their full impact can be determined. But in addition business has to deal with the unpredictable exercise by the President of an uncanalized extra-legal authority to bend business to his wishes.
It is no wonder that the economic recovery appears to be progressing so slowly.