MoDo is off today. In “The Making of an Imperial President” The Putz thinks he can explain to us how Barack Obama ended up embracing the executive overreach he once campaigned against. In the comments “Look Ahead” from WA had this to say: “Maybe the assertion of executive authority has something to do with the headless horseman called Congress since it was TP’d in 2010. Dashing from pointless investigations to useless repeal votes to shutdowns, the Congress has abandoned responsibility and role, leaving the President to act on climate change and other pressing global issues.” The Moustache of Wisdom is in Sydney, Australia. He has a question in “Stampeding Black Elephants:” What happens when some 6,000 park rangers, scientists, environmentalists and others gather to brainstorm how to guard and expand the earth’s protected areas? Mr. Bruni looks at “Promiscuous College Come-Ons” and says the hucksterism of schools makes it harder for students to navigate the admissions process with any sanity and real success. Here’s The Putz:
Let me be clear, as he likes to say: I believe that President Obama was entirely sincere when he ran for president as a fierce critic of the imperial executive. I believe that he was in earnest when he told supporters in 2008 that America’s “biggest problems” involved “George Bush trying to bring more and more power into the executive branch and not go through Congress at all.” I believe he meant it when he cast himself as a principled civil libertarian, when he pledged to defer to Congress on war powers, when he promised to abjure privileges Bush had claimed.
I also believe he was sincere when he told audiences, again and again across his presidency, that a sweeping unilateral move like the one just made on immigration would betray the norms of constitutional government.
So how did we get from there to here? How did the man who was supposed to tame the imperial presidency become, in certain ways, more imperial than his predecessor?
The scope of Obama’s moves can be debated, but that basic imperial reality is clear. Even as he has maintained much of the Bush-era national security architecture, this president has been more willing to launch military operations without congressional approval; more willing to trade in assassination and deal death even to American citizens; and more aggressive in his war on leakers, whistle-blowers and journalists.
At the same time, he has been much more aggressive than Bush in his use of executive power to pursue major domestic policy goals — on education, climate change, health care and now most sweepingly on immigration.
Three forces — two external, one internal — might help explain how this transformation happened.
First, public expectations. Across the last century, the presidency’s powers have increased in a symbiosis with changing public expectations about the office. Because Congress is unsexy, frustrating and hard to follow, mass democracy seems to demand a single iconic figure into whom desires and aspirations and hatreds can be poured. And so the modern president, the Cato Institute’s Gene Healy has written, is increasingly seen as “a soul nourisher, a hope giver, a living American talisman against hurricanes, terrorism, economic downturns and spiritual malaise.”
And pressure on this talisman to act, even in violation of laws or norms or Burkean traditions, is ever increasing and intense. When presidents aren’t seen as “doing something,” they’re castigated as lame ducks; when they take unilateral action, as we’ve seen in the last week of media coverage, they suddenly seem to get their groove back. And that’s something that even a principled critic of executive power can find ever harder to pass up.
Second, congressional abdication. This is the point that liberals raise, and plausibly, in President Obama’s defense: It isn’t just that he’s been dealing with an opposition party that’s swung to the right; it’s that this opposition doesn’t know its own mind, collectively or sometimes even individually, and so has trouble bargaining or legislating effectively.
This reality has made it harder to cut major bipartisan deals; it’s made it harder to solve problems that crop up within existing law; it’s made it harder for the president to count votes on foreign policy. All of which creates more incentives for presidential unilateralism: In some cases, it seems required to keep the wheels turning; in others, it can be justified as the only way to get the Big Things done.
Which bring us to the third factor in the president’s transformation: his own ambitions. While running for president, Obama famously praised Ronald Reagan for changing “the trajectory of America” in a way that Bill Clinton’s triangulation did not. And it’s his self-image as the liberal Reagan, I suspect, that’s made it psychologically impossible for this president to accept the limits that his two predecessors eventually accepted on their own policy-making ability.
That transformative self-image has shaped his presidency from the beginning: Obama never really looked for domestic issues where he might be willing to do a version of something the other party wanted — as Bush did with education spending and Medicare Part D, and Clinton did with welfare reform. (He’s had a self-admiring willingness to incorporate conservative ideas into essentially liberal proposals, but that’s not really the same thing.)
But the liberal Reagan idea has shaped his choices more as it’s become clear that certain major liberal priorities — a big climate-change bill, a comprehensive amnesty — are as out of legislative reach as health care reform proved for Clinton and Social Security reform for Bush. Confronted with those realities, Clinton pivoted and Bush basically gave up. But Obama can’t accept either option, because both seem like betrayals of his promise, his destiny, his image of himself.
And so he has chosen to betray himself in a different way, by becoming the very thing that he once campaigned against: an elected Caesar, a Cheney for liberalism, a president unbound.
Yeah, Putzy. I’m just waiting for the massive torch-lit rallies. I guess they’ll start any day now… Schmuck. Now here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:
I participated in the World Parks Congress in Sydney last week and learned a new phrase: “a black elephant.” A black elephant, explained the London-based investor and environmentalist Adam Sweidan, is a cross between “a black swan” (an unlikely, unexpected event with enormous ramifications) and the “elephant in the room” (a problem that is visible to everyone, yet no one still wants to address it) even though we know that one day it will have vast, black-swan-like consequences.
“Currently,” said Sweidan, “there are a herd of environmental black elephants gathering out there” — global warming, deforestation, ocean acidification, mass extinction and massive fresh water pollution. “When they hit, we’ll claim they were black swans no one could have predicted, but, in fact, they are black elephants, very visible right now.” We’re just not dealing with them at the scale necessary. If they all stampede at once, watch out.
No, this is not an eco-doom column. This one has a happy ending — sort of. The International Union for Conservation of Nature holds the parks congress roughly every 10 years to draw attention to the 209,000 protected areas, which cover 15.4 percent of the planet’s terrestrial and inland water areas and 3.4 percent of the oceans, according to the I.U.C.N.
I could have gone to the Brisbane G-20 summit meeting, but I thought this was more important — and interesting. A hall full of park exhibits and park rangers from America, Africa and Russia, along with a rainbow of indigenous peoples, scientists and environmentalists from across the globe — some 6,000 — focused on one goal: guarding and expanding protected areas, which are the most powerful tools we have to restrain the environmental black elephants. How so?
It starts with a simple fact: Protected forests, marine sanctuaries and national parks are not zoos, not just places to see nature. “They are the basic life support systems” that provide the clean air and water, food, fisheries, recreation, stable temperatures and natural coastal protections “that sustain us humans,” said Russ Mittermeier, one of the world’s leading primatologists who was here.
That’s why “conservation is self-preservation,” says Adrian Steirn, the South Africa-based photographer who spoke here. Every dollar we invest in protecting natural systems earns or saves multiple dollars back. Ask the people of São Paulo, Brazil. They deforested hillsides, destroyed their watersheds, and now that they’re in prolonged drought, they’re running out of water, losing thousands of jobs a month. Watch that story.
Walking around the exhibit halls here, I was hit with the reality that what we call “parks” are really the heart, lungs, and circulatory systems of the world — and they’re all endangered.
Onodelgerekh Batkhuu, the director of the Mongol Ecology Center, stops me to explain that Lake Hovsgol National Park in Mongolia, which holds 70 percent of the surface freshwater of Mongolia — 2 percent of the world’s freshwater — and is the headwaters for 20 percent of the world’s freshwater that is in Lake Baikal in Siberia, is now under huge pressure from hoteliers. “How do we get them to understand that the value of that lake staying pristine is more valuable than any hotels?” she asks.
John Gross, an ecologist with the U.S. National Park Service, who has worked in Yellowstone for 20 years, uses a NASA simulation to show me how the average temperature in Yellowstone has been rising and the impact this is having on the snowpack, which is now melting earlier each spring, meaning more water loss through evaporation and rapid runoff, lengthening the fire season. But, hey, it’s just a park, right?
People forget: Yellowstone National Park is “the major source of water for both the Yellowstone and the Snake Rivers,” said Gross. “Millions of people” — farmers, ranchers and communities — “need those two rivers.” Yellowstone’s snowpack is their water tower, and its forest their water filters. Its integrity really matters. What happens in Yellowstone, doesn’t stay in Yellowstone.
Via Skype, I got to interview the heroic Emmanuel de Merode, director of Virunga National Park, a Unesco World Heritage site famous for its mountain gorillas in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Two of his rangers were killed last week — bringing the total to 140 rangers killed since the park was founded — protecting the park from antiregime rebels, marauding bands poaching wildlife or fronting for oil prospectors. “No park in Africa has this diversity of species,” said de Merode, who has been shot several times.
But, again, this isn’t just an outdoor zoo. With just a little investment, explains de Merode, the park’s rivers could provide 100 megawatts of electricity from hydropower, as well as fisheries, eco-tourism and sustainable agriculture that would create thousands of jobs for the poor communities on its border. Indeed, if the war-ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo is ever to be stabilized, it will likely start from Virunga. “You have a core of Congolese [park] rangers who have maintained their work when every other institution [in the country] has broken down,” he said. Virunga has “become an island of stability.” This is a park holding up a country, not the other way around.
Carlos Manuel Rodríguez, Costa Rica’s former minister of environment and energy and now a vice president of Conservation International, explains to me the politics of parks — and the difference between countries that have their forest service under the minister of agriculture and those where the forest service is under the minister of environment or independent. Agriculture ministers see natural forests and parks “as timber that should be chopped down for something ‘productive,’ like soybeans, cattle or oil palm,” said Rodríguez. Forest services and environment ministers “see their forests as carbon stocks, biodiversity reservoirs, water factories, food production plants, climate adaptation machines and tourism sites,” and protect them.
Guess who’s in the first group? Honduras and Guatemala, where many people live on degraded hillsides. Some 50,000 children have been sent from Central America to the U.S. this year — unaccompanied. Where did they come from? Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, Central America’s most deforested states. They cut their forests; we got their kids.
I promised you good news — sort of. It’s how many people are now focusing on the economic and national security value of their ecosystems. But the power that financiers and corrupt politicians still hold in setting the limits on what we can and cannot destroy in nature — as opposed to the scientists and biologists — remains the bad news. As Adam Sweidan put it, in too many places we’ve still got “the vampires in charge of the blood banks.” It has to stop, not so we “save the planet.” The planet will always be here. This is about us.
And now here’s Mr. Bruni:
Between the last application season and the current one, Swarthmore College, a school nationally renowned for its academic rigor, changed the requirements for students vying to be admitted into its next freshman class.
It made filling out the proper forms easier.
A year ago, applicants were asked to write two 500-word essays as supplements to the standard one that’s part of the Common Application, an electronic form that Swarthmore and hundreds of small colleges and big universities accept. This was slightly more material than Swarthmore had previously requested, and it was more than many other highly selective schools demanded.
Not coincidentally, the number of applicants to the college dropped, and its acceptance rate in turn climbed, to 17 from 14 percent, making Swarthmore seem less selective.
This year, it’s asking for just one supplemental essay, of only 250 words.
Swarthmore is hardly alone in its desire to eliminate impediments to a bounty of applicants. Over the last decade, many elite colleges have adjusted their applications in ways that remove disincentives and maximize the odds that the number of students jockeying to get in remains robust — or, even better, grows larger.
In one sense, that’s a commendably egalitarian approach and a sensible attempt to be sure that no sterling candidate is missed.
But there’s often a less pure motive in play. In our increasingly status-oriented society, a school’s reputation is bolstered by its glimmer of exclusivity and by a low acceptance rate, which can even influence how U.S. News & World Report ranks it. And unless a school is shrinking the size of its student body, the only way to bring its acceptance rate down is to get its number of applicants up. So, many colleges methodically generate interest only to frustrate it. They woo supplicants for the purpose of turning them down.
It’s a cynical numbers game that further darkens the whole admissions process, a life juncture that should be exhilarating but is governed these days by dread.
It depersonalizes the process, too. Ideally, colleges should want students whose interest in them is genuine, and students should be figuring out which colleges suit them best, not applying indiscriminately to schools that have encouraged that by making it as painless (and heedless) as possible.
“Colleges are actively saddling themselves with a whole group of applicants about whom they know little and who, in turn, know little about them,” Lauren Gersick, the associate director of college counseling at the Urban School of San Francisco, told me. “You have a whole bunch of people fumbling along and freaking out.”
In a story in The Times last weekend, Ariel Kaminer observed that it’s not uncommon these days for an anxious, ambitious student to submit applications to 15 or more schools. Kaminer rightly cast this as a consequence of the overheated competition for admission to the most elite ones. Students spread their nets wider in the hopes of a good catch, and the Common Application abets this.
But so do the schools, which hawk themselves more assertively than ever. They fly in counselors like Gersick and give them elaborate sales pitches. They send their own emissaries out into the world, armed with glossy pamphlets. They buy data to identify persuadable applicants and then approach them with come-ons as breathless as any telemarketer’s pitch.
A recent email that Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute sent unbidden to one high school senior invited him “to apply with Candidate’s Choice status!” (The boldface letters and the exclamation point are Rensselaer’s, not mine.)
“Exclusively for select students, the Candidate’s Choice Application is unique to Rensselaer, and is available online now,” the email said, after telling its recipient that “a talented student like you deserves a college experience that is committed to developing the great minds of tomorrow.”
“The marketing is unbelievable, just unbelievable,” said Kay Rothman, director of college counseling at the NYC Lab School, in Manhattan. “There are places like Tulane that will send everyone a ‘V.I.P.’ application.” She told me that she routinely had to disabuse impressionable students of the notion that they’d won some prized lottery or been given some inside track.
A certain amount of outreach and promotion is necessary, even commendable.
“I don’t think colleges are guilty for marketing their product,” Kathleen McCartney, the president of Smith College, said when I spoke with her last week. “Colleges need to explain to students what their product is about.”
And there can be other rationales for what looks like a loosening of application demands. Smith and several other similarly prominent colleges no longer require the SAT or ACT, and McCartney said that that’s not a bid for more applicants. It’s a recognition that top scores on those tests correlate with high family income and may say more about an applicant’s economic advantages — including, say, private SAT tutoring — than about academic potential.
Jim Bock, Swarthmore’s dean of admissions, said that by lightening the essay load for its current applicants, the college was less concerned about boosting its overall number of applicants than about making sure candidates of great merit didn’t miss out on Swarthmore and vice versa. He mentioned the hypothetical example of a high school student from a low-income family who works 10 or more hours a week and doesn’t have ample time to do different essays for different schools.
“Sometimes asking too much is asking too much,” he said in an interview on Friday.
But will Swarthmore’s applicants this year give quite as much thought to its suitability for them, to whether it’s the right home? I’m betting not.
When it’s a snap for a student to apply to yet one more college and each school is simply another desirable cereal on a top shelf that he or she is determined to reach, there’s inadequate thought to a tailored match, which is what the admissions process should strive for. It’s what the measure of success should be.
That was the feeling expressed by a group of counselors and consultants in a thread of Facebook comments last July about colleges doing away with supplemental essays.
One of them, Laird Durley, wrote that students insufficiently motivated to write something extra for a school “probably shouldn’t go to those schools anyway,” and he rued the extent to which simply gaining admission to a school with a fancy name — any school with a fancy name — ruled the day.
“It is harder than ever to sell ‘fit’ as opposed to ‘logo affixing,’ ” he wrote, adding that “what you will learn there” has taken a back seat to a different consideration: “Look at my brand!”