In 1990, before the age of e-mail, William Schneider called George H.W. Bush "the in-box president." He was a caretaker rather than an ideologue, ready to handle whatever crisis hit his desk. This was seen as a limitation. Voters, the theory went, didn't just want a good steward. They wanted a president with a vision.
Twenty years later, the inbox has changed, and so has the presidency. The presidential inbox is overcrowded, misleading, and full of unwelcome surprises. In the last week alone, the president has faced three unexpected emergencies: The latest round of disclosures by WikiLeaks, a North Korean attack, and an outcry over TSA screening procedures.
How should a president respond to a job that is increasingly an endless series of emergencies? He has to decide what can benefit from his attention and what's a media creation or a trick of the opposition that will waste his time. On the other hand, too much restraint is a risk: A president—and this president, in particular—must quickly reflect and answer the public mood or else face the political charge that he doesn't "get it."
Life-hacking experts counsel us not to look at e-mail first thing in the morning. That way we can focus on what's important. A president doesn't have that luxury. He may start the day with a fixed agenda, but what he finds in the inbox almost always blows him off course. (The spam in the presidential inbox is more serious, too. Requests for money from failing countries don't just come from Nigeria, but also Greece, and Ireland, and …)
So, today, for example, President Obama delivered a planned announcement about a freeze in federal pay. But the real business of the day for him and his White House aides was emergency meetings and phone calls related to the WikiLeaks disclosures and North Korean belligerence.
This never stops. The president's time is like your family budget. You can look at the last few months and say: We would have been on budget if it hadn't been for October's leaky roof and September's broken dishwasher. Both were unexpected, and because they were, you think you can continue spending according to your plan. Then you realize that there will always be something—if not a broken dishwasher, then a broken arm, or a WikiLeaks disclosure, or a North Korean artillery bombardment. You've got to sock away money every month for the unexpected development. They're always going to happen, so don't pretend you're going to have that money to spend on a flat-screen television.
So a great deal of the president's time is inevitably taken up by emergencies about to happen or emergencies thwarted. What we are reminded of from the WikiLeaks disclosures is how much goes on behind the scenes that we never see—secret news that North Korea is shipping missiles to Iran, hints from the Saudis that they will help us stop Iran from building a nuclear bomb, or more proof that Pakistan's uranium is barely under lock and key. Diplomacy is complicated, requiring Obama to play a direct role in persuading foreign countries to align themselves with our interest and, now, a direct role in limiting the collateral damage from the leaks.
At the same time, the public wants the president to be immediately and deeply engaged in everything from ongoing disasters to the latest flash controversy. He must show quick outrage about AIG bonuses. He's got to get down to the Gulf to watch over the BP oil spill. He must show voters that he cares about their economic pain and frustration.
We see the presidency as a universal gripper, able to pick up any issue and handle it—Obama must speak to the TSA pat-downs, pardon the Thanksgiving turkey, give direction and guidance to the tax debate. But he can't do all of that effectively. In some cases he has no expertise (as in the BP oil spill). Sometimes, as in the fight over tax cuts, even those things that could benefit from his sustained help can't get it because he simply doesn't have the time.
The recent TSA scanning flap is a perfect demonstration of how when the president makes the right call, he increases his political exposure. Though the scanner controversy was a media sensation, it wasn't an issue worthy of a lot of a busy president's time. The Obama White House mostly treated it that way. Aides worked behind the scenes to justify the measures, but there was not a big presidential intervention. It turned out to be a Y2K-style nonevent. But discernment can quickly turn into aloofness. If the Thanksgiving weekend had gone caddywompusbecause of a snarled transportation system, the president would have been blamed. He would have been on the hook not just for the misery, but the whole thing would have been a ready-made symbol for a larger critique about incompetent government overreach. The president should have seen this coming. That he didn't is a sign, once again, that he's just too out of touch.
It is surprising that the president didn't rush into the TSA situation if only because in the wake of the 2010 election, the demands that the president pay more attention have increased. The conventional wisdom has emerged that the president has not sufficiently connected with voters in his first term. That process (if it is even possible) takes a lot of time, and yet Obama is raising expectations that despite all obligations he can add more. In his post-election self-diagnosis, he has embraced the conventional wisdom and promised to get out into the country more in order to speak to voters.
When is he going to find the time? There is always going to be another WikiLeaks emergency. There is always going to be a misbehaving North Korea or a bomb plot that we never hear about but that occupies the president's time. The expectations for presidential action must be reconfigured. The president may still have to pretend that he can do everything, but in truth he has to make wise choices in a frantic world, because the president never gets to Inbox Zero.