The latest defense of President Obama's impotent leadership: Presidents don't really have much power, after all. At least, that's my reading of Ryan Lizza's new article in The New Yorker, titled "The Powerless Presidency."
The boring fact of our system is that congressional math is the best predictor of a president's success. This idea is not nearly as sexy as the notion that great presidents are great because they twist arms in back rooms and inspire the American people to rise up and force Congress to bend to their will. But even the presidents who are remembered for their relentless congressional lobbying and socializing were more often than not successful for more mundane reasons — like arithmetic. [New Yorker]
This, of course, is a cop out.
Every leader deals with complex problems of getting people to follow them. Imagine a board of directors that undermines a CEO, or a star NBA player who makes more money than the coach. But truly great leaders succeed in spite of it all.
There's a reason they say "the buck stops here."
But let's consider the specific case for Obama, who, like George W. Bush before him, ran on a message of changing the tone in Washington.
During the 2008 Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton mocked Obama's quixotic promises:
"The skies will open, the light will come down, celestial choirs will be singing, and everyone will know we should do the right thing and the world will be perfect," she said dryly as the crowd erupted.
"Maybe I've just lived a little long, but I have no illusions about how hard this is going to be," Clinton continued. "You are not going to wave a magic wand to make special interests disappear." [CNN]
During that same 2008 primary campaign, Clinton also talked about the importance of a president who can do more than just give a good speech — who can wrangle votes and pass legislation. From Politico:
"Dr. King's dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act," Clinton said. "It took a president to get it done."
Clinton didn't explicitly compare herself to Johnson, or Obama to King. But it seems an odd example for the argument between rhetoric and action, as there's little doubt which figure's place in history and the American imagination is more secure.
"The power of that dream became real in people's lives because we had a president" capable of action, Clinton said. [Politico]
Speaking of LBJ, in Lizza's world, it turns out that Johnson wasn't really the great liberal legislative champion we thought. Revisionist history (Lizza's version, at least) now says that Johnson's days as "Master of the Senate" — where he learned to bribe and cajole recalcitrant members — had little to do with his success in passing landmark liberal legislation as president.
In this view, leadership is a myth and demographics are destiny, even in Congress. "Lyndon Johnson's celebrated legislative achievements were in reality only a function of the congressional election results — not his powers of persuasion," writes Lizza.
I'll leave it to someone else to defend LBJ, but there is little doubt that leadership matters. And not just in terms of inspiring rhetoric (though that's important, too). I'm talking about forging bipartisan compromise and cutting deals.
Consider Woodrow Wilson. Sure, he couldn't get the League of Nations approved, but as A. Scott Berg recalls in a recent New York Times op-ed, "Wilson persuaded Congress that dozens of crucial issues required that politics be 'adjourned.'" This included passage of the 19th Amendment. "The journalist Frank I. Cobb called Wilson's control of Congress 'the most impressive triumph of mind over matter known to American politics,'" Berg writes.
Not a Wilson fan? How about Reagan working across the aisle with a Democratic House to pass tax reform in 1981 and 1986?
While Lizza doesn't buy into presidential leadership, he does want us to know that Obama's promises of "Hope and Change" weren't made in bad faith. Instead, Obama "started his presidency as a true believer," Lizza assures us, but "has now given up on the idea that he has any special powers to change the minds of his fiercest critics." And in Lizza's view, that's "probably a good thing."
Indeed, it has become conventional wisdom among liberals that Obama was genuine about his promises of "Hope and Change," and that he came into office wanting to work with Republicans, but that conservatives quickly let it be known they would not cooperate. This is also revisionist history.
For example: During a meeting with congressional leaders in January 2009 — days after taking the Oath of Office — Obama pointedly told House Minority Whip Eric Cantor this on their differences over the stimulus: "I won. So I think on that one, I trump you."
Clearly, that's not a good way to win friends and influence people.
What about health-care reform? Obama isn't to blame for the failure to secure bipartisan support, but it turns out, neither are Republicans. The AP reported on Oct. 13, 2009:
"When history calls, history calls," said Maine Republican Olympia Snowe, whose declaration of support ended weeks of suspense and provided the only drama of a 14-9 vote in the Senate Finance Committee. With her decision, the 62-year-old lawmaker bucked her own leadership on the most high-profile issue of the year in Congress, and gave the drive to remake health care at least a hint of the bipartisanship that Obama seeks.
At the White House, Obama called the events "a critical milestone" toward remaking the nation's health care system. He praised Snowe as well as Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chairman of the committee, and declared, "We are going to get this done." [AP]
Baucus and Snowe had clearly struck a bipartisan deal. But a few days later, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid undermined Snowe — and guaranteed the bill couldn't get bipartisan support — by insisting on a public option. From CNN:
"It's unfortunate the Senate majority leader decided to take a different path, because he did say it was a pretty good doggone idea with respect to the trigger in September, so I don't [know] what has happened to change his mind," [Snowe] said later.
"It's regrettable, because I certainly have worked in good faith all of these months on a bipartisan basis and, as you know, have been standing alone at this point as a Republican to do so because I believe in good public policy," Snowe added. [CNN]
Where was the president's leadership?
Liberals, of course, are quick to point to a quote from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who said he wanted to make Obama a "one-term president," as proof Republicans never gave him a chance. But as the Washington Post fact checker noted, "McConnell made his remarks in an interview that appeared in the National Journal on Oct. 23, 2010 — nearly two years after Obama was elected president."
Lastly, Lizza makes another interesting claim. He calls the notion that "divided government is inherently good for the country" a "mistaken idea," and writes that "a fundamental fact of modern political life is that the only way to advance a coherent agenda in Washington is through partisan dominance."
Excuse me, but it seems the best modern times of peace and prosperity came during the Reagan and Clinton eras — years of mostly divided government. The last time we had four consecutive balanced budgets, Bill Clinton was president and Republicans controlled Congress. Divided government can work — when the right leaders are at the helm.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- How U.S. special forces are preparing for the worst-case scenario in North Korea
- I hate Ayn Rand — but here's why my fellow conservatives love her
- The 11 worst fast food restaurants in America
- The weird obsession that's ruining the GOP
- Here's the schedule very successful people follow every day
- The secret to Gabrielle Hamilton's amazing grilled cheese sandwiches
- Deficit scolds are the most crazed ideologues in America
- A scientific fact-check of 2001: A Space Odyssey
- 7 language habits that reveal your age
- The biggest lesson Obama failed to learn from Bush
Subscribe to the Week