Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The State of the Union Address: Reflecting Smith's "Power Game"

"Many people, not understanding how the game is played, are dazzled by political celebrities and feel they have to go to the top: to the president or his right-hand man, to the Treasury secretary, the senator, the committee chairmen... The insiders pay their respects to the person with the title and then work the serious issues with le-celebrated staff people who actually draft policy. The wise game player always paves the way to the higher-ups through the staff person."

This fundamental political axiom in the United States seems to have remained unchanged since The Power Game was published in 1988. Burdened with tasks of fundraising, maintaining a public image, and ensuring reelection, large political figures often spend little time policy-making. Instead, lesser known staff personnel exert a large amount of influence on policy decisions while the figurehead receives most of the recognition. Understanding this paradox helps distinguish washington "insiders" from "outsiders" such as Wyman (in Smith's example). This understanding helps define the power game: knowing the ins and outs of power in Washington.

Watching tonight's State of the Union address, I could not help but think about the power game. While Obama's optimistic message of American exceptionalism was certainly comforting, I found his entire speech to lack substance. That is not to say that these kinds of addresses ever get into specifics, but nevertheless, I was frustrated by the lack of an explanation of "how" to all of Obama's promises. My frustration reminded me of the complexities of power distribution in Washington. It made me wonder who was really behind all these new policy decisions. Most likely influencing Obama were a myriad of advisors, consultants, researchers, staff, etc. These people exerted their power tonight through the President's address. This is just one example of how Smith's notion that lower-level staff people often have significant power in Washington has remained true over the last twenty years.

No comments: