Every president is criticized, sooner or later, for taking too many days off, for lounging around when we’ve hired him to work. Since the media hates Republicans, that criticism is usually directed at them, but even some liberal publications have noticed that — shock! — Democratic presidents play golf, too.
That criticism, most recently in Amber Athey’s article in The Spectator, is wrong. It misses the bigger, more important issues — and not just because our country would be well served if most presidents did less, not more.
It’s fun to compare the President with Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, but there are three problems with criticizing presidents for escaping to their beach house in Delaware or their ranch in Texas or California.
The first is that presidents are always on the job, wherever they are, whatever time it is. That is the point of the classic advertisement about the 3 a.m. phone call, when the president’s red, bedside telephone rings. It is not a robocall telling him his car’s extended warranty is about to expire.
If an emergency arises, he’ll get the call, whatever time of the day or night. The president is at work every day, including weekends, regardless of his location — and not just for emergencies. He may schedule fewer meetings when he’s away from Washington, but he seldom takes the entire day off. That’s true for all presidents.
Second, every president has a very long work week. Give him a break. He needs a little time for a movie, golf, or playing on the beach with grandchildren. He may spend the afternoon riding a bike on Martha’s Vineyard, as President Obama did, or clearing brush on his Texas ranch, as George W. Bush did, but he still works seven days a week, 52 weeks a year.
Third, we aren’t paying our presidents by the hour, like he’s making milkshakes at Dairy Queen. We elect presidents to make big decisions and get them right. Those decisions fall into two basic categories. One, which really does require a lot of preparation, involves problems that are so important or divisive that lower-level officials simply cannot resolve them. A typical example would be whether to spend more money on naval vessels or food stamps. The national security team will oppose the domestic policy team — and the Office of Management and Budget doesn’t have the clout to decide between them. Only the Oval Office does. To choose intelligently, the president needs to understand the trade-offs and competing arguments. He needs to listen to the protagonists, talk with senators and congressmen and read the briefing materials. That takes time and effort. You can’t do it if you spend every day at the beach.
But a president’s most important decisions don’t require much time with the briefing books. Those are the basic strategic choices that define every presidency. For Biden, those are his decisions to prioritize domestic spending over defense, designate China as America’s greatest threat, stop Trump’s immigration policies and reorient negotiations with China, Russia, and Iran, using an approach starkly different from his predecessor’s. A competent president will update these strategic choices as he sees the outcomes of his earlier decisions and as circumstances change. But the crucial point here is that these strategic decisions, which define his presidency. Those require sober thought but not necessarily hours of detailed work, pouring over staff memos.
What we hire a president to do, ultimately, is make those strategic choices and make the hardest decisions, some dealing with unexpected emergencies. It is these basic choices that give direction to the millions of federal workers throughout the bureaucracies. Ronald Reagan’s presidency was a success because he made the right ones. Jimmy Carter’s was a failure, less because he made the wrong strategic choices than because he became so immersed in policy minutiae that he failed to provide a coherent general direction. He was like a bad pointillist painter, painting only random dots rather than precise ones in service of an overall vision.
Biden’s presidency is developing an overall vision, a very progressive one on spending bills, immigration control, racial issues, law enforcement, gun control, public education and other key issues. I have argued previously that he was not elected on such a radical, progressive vision, that he has pulled a bait-and-switch on the voters. But that switch is less important than the public’s evaluation of how well the new policies work out. How does the government perform on those issues? Has Biden pointed our country in the right direction? The answers to those questions will determine the success of his presidency. It doesn’t matter if he makes the big decisions in Delaware, Camp David or the Oval Office.