The Presidential Claim to Ignorance: Is it Ever Valid?

“President Obama’s ‘I don’t know’ Strategy – and its Limits”

So declares the title of an article that echoes the general frustration that “‘I don’t know’ has become a regular refrain for this White House.”

Should we criticize the president for his “not knowing” or validate the presidential claim to ignorance?  We must realize how much the president can reasonably know about his administration, to determine exactly how responsible he is for the decisions of those who serve under the executive.

When considering the responsibilities of a president, I am reminded of President Truman’s farewell address, which puts the presidential job description in perspective.  Harry S. Truman (1945-1953), the first president to deliver a televised farewell address, gave us a sort of ‘sneak peek’ into the life of a president.

He emphasizes the strain of a relentless presidential schedule:

“Since I became President, I have been to Europe, Mexico, Canada, Brazil, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, Wake Island and Hawaii.  I have visited almost every State in the Union.  I have traveled 135,000 miles by air, 77.000 by rail, and 17,000 by ship.  But the mail always followed me, and wherever I happened to be, that’s where the office of president was.”

People criticize the scandalous nature of frequent presidential “vacations.” But, in a manner of speaking, though the president leaves the Oval Office, he never truly leaves his presidential desk.

Truman also presents the exhausting presidential way of life:

“And all these emergencies and all the developments to meet them have required the President to put in long hours—usually 17 hours a day, with no payment for overtime.  I sign my name, on average, 600 times a day, see and talk to hundreds of people every month, shake hands with thousands every year, and still carry on the business of the largest going concern in the whole world.  There is no job like it one the face of the earth…”

Truman certainly allows us to sample the burden of the presidential position.  But he is not asking for a pity party; he is asking that the people remember just how demanding the presidency is.  Truman wants to push the people not to relentlessly criticize the president’s positions, but partner with his presidential successor (Eisenhower) in his struggle to carry the weight of domestic and foreign affairs.

I don’t want to say that criticizing the president’s claim to ignorance is necessarily bad, but that sometimes the president does have a legitimate claim to ignorance.  Truman’s farewell demonstrates just how valid such a claim can be.  The president has so many responsibilities, people, and urgent decisions weighing on his shoulders that it would be unrealistic to think that he knows absolutely everything that happens within his executive jurisdiction.

But does a valid claim to ignorance eliminate presidential responsibility?

Absolutely not; the president is still responsible for all the official actions and policies of his administration.

As evidence, consider the debate among the founders to determine whether the American presidency should be one person or multiple people.

Some thought that the presidency should consist of an odd number of collaborative leaders, kind of like the bench of United States Supreme Court Justices.  Under this system, we would vote for, say, 3 leaders, each with their own area of expertise and party alignment to ensure balanced, experienced, deliberative executive leadership.

The main problem with this multiple-actor presidency idea was the utter lack of accountability.  If a bad decision is made, who do you blame?  Do you kick them all out of office?  Since the presidency collaborates secretly, do you simply make an educated guess about which president is responsible for bad decisions?  Maybe it was a 2-1 vote; do we still punish all of them?

The single-man presidency solves this problem.  Blaming is a mode of accountability.  And if executive decisions go awry, there is only one person we can blame, the president.  The founders chose a unitary presidency, partly so that we can blame him for bad decisions.

So, just how valid is a presidential claim to ignorance?

Claims to ignorance send us a strong signal:  the president wants us to think he is not responsible for a bad decision that was made.  He is communicating that he was so burdened with other presidential demands, that he cannot be held responsible for a specific flaw we want to blame him for.

I think we can do more than draw attention to a specific flaw.  We can do more than seek a rhetorical response from the president.   We can keep the president accountable.  Accountability does not mean criticism of his claims, but of his conduct.  Give the president’s speeches the benefit of the doubt, but keep him strictly accountable for his actions.  The power of his words shouldn’t matter as much as the prudence of his decisions.

In the case of ignorance-claiming, the president claims no responsibility for an imprudent action.  This is an exciting opportunity to witness the president’s prudent decision-making at its finest: how he reacts to exposed failure within his administration.  It is not what he says in response, but what he does in reaction to the failures of those under his superintendence, that really counts.

When the president says, “I didn’t know.”  We should respond, “Now that you know, what shall we do?”  It provides a space for decisive presidential leadership and our more meaningful partnership.

Don’t endlessly propound his blameworthiness, but assess the ways he compensates for and adjusts to the past failures in his administration.  Executive limbs answer to him alone; the executive head answers for their failures and glories in their successes.  Don’t get stuck on assessing how he answers “I don’t know” but who he becomes now that he knows.  Does he get stuck in the presidential claim to ignorance, or does the president assume decision and responsibility in spite of this ignorance?