In 2010, I wrote about a presidential leadership typology created by political scientist George C. Edwards. He proposed that presidents always intended to think strategically but the successful ones wound up being good at improvising, handling swerves, and being opportunistic. He calls these presidents "facilitators." Now, no one is going to run for president promising to facilitate this or that, or to make things up as she goes along, or to exploit moments of crises (political, domestic, international, economic.) And Edwards is concerned largely with the legislative arena. But his way of thinking makes a certain degree of sense. It is very difficult to change public opinion. And presidents who try to do so, or who spend time trying to change public opinion, are very rarely able to claim credit for whatever end goal they've aimed towards.
He finds that when FDR, LBJ, and Reagan worked their agenda through Congress, it was because a unique triple alignment of the stars existed: Congress had incentives to pass the presidents' legislation at the time, public opinion was broadly on their side, and the presidents exploited outside circumstances to bring a multiplier effect into the equation.
We know that President Obama likes to think strategically. But when he's gotten things done, has it been simply because the time was right? With health care, it's very hard to make that case. Congress was about 50/50. The pubic was skeptical. And outside circumstances — the economic collapse — should have worked against Obama. But he acted tactically, adjusting the selling of his health care plan to mollify the concerns of those lawmakers whose votes he needed and adjusted the language he used to account for concerns that Americans had about their existing health care plans. To quote moi-meme:
It's interesting that Obama perceives himself as a transformational leader but governs as a facilitating leader. He already has quite a few accomplishments under his belt: the stimulus package (an accomplishment to him), health care, financial regulatory reform, some credit card reform, sanctions against Iran, a reset on relations with foreign powers. Public opinion hasn't shifted much. That's discomfiting to some in the White House, but Edwards's view of presidential power would seem to explain it: what matters more than setting and pursuing an agenda is responding to opportunity and waiting, in essence, for the results of whatever you decide to kick in. It's hard to craft a political strategy on the back of such an externally driven theory. It almost seems as if there is no connection at all between presidential accomplishments in the generic sense — getting bills passed — and public opinion. What DOES drive public opinion is how presidents respond to events.
To be clear, favorable legislative conditions doesn't equal having a majority of Americans want something. And nothing the president did or said about gun control seemed to make a bit of a difference. There was no big shift in the degree to which Americans who support gun control truly want to punish lawmakers who oppose it. If public opinion had changed because of Newtown, then maybe the alignment of interests would have changed. In marginal districts, those who oppose gun control are much more likely to vote on that issue.
When Obama says it's not his job to force Congress to get its act together, what he's saying is that there are limits to the persuasive powers of the presidency, and even, god forbid, limits to Obama's own very fashionable and well-curated personal charisma.