I am far from an expert on the presidency, although I do hope for my students' sake that I have a decent understanding of the office and its powers. Like the vast majority of people who teach it, I subject my students to Richard Neustadt's Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents. Students hate Neustadt. I mean, they loathe it. The book is 49 years old, laden with references to names and events of the 1950s for which today's reader has little context. Worse, his dull writing style reads like the owner's manual for an appliance. But we can never get away from Neustadt because he nails the fundamental dilemma of the presidency (and its solution) so completely.

Briefly, the expectations on the modern president are far greater than the powers of the office. There is an "Expectations Gap" wherein the public expects President Obama to fix a lot of things he lacks the power to fix. The president's control over the economy is indirect at best and his role in the legislative process is extremely limited. When Candidate Obama promises health care reform, what he does is paint himself into a corner from which he must find some way to get Congress to provide reform. He can't just do it himself. Most of us realize this.

The academic study of the presidency is largely a matter of explaining how presidents overcome this gap – how to get done what the powers of the office do not allow. Neustadt's answer? (This is where my former students start having flashbacks and chanting the answer without being fully aware of doing so). Persuasion. Presidents have myriad tools at their disposal for persuading Congress to do their bidding. Note well that this is not talking about persuading the public, which is a different animal altogether. He means persuading the people who matter most.

The discomfort with Obama's performance which has been gnawing at me since January 20th has nothing to do with betraying ideology. He simply does not appear to understand how to get things done as President. Congressmen and Senators are persuading him, not vice-versa. I almost wept with joy upon reading the comments of Tom Johnson, who served a President who understood persuasion like no other ("What LBJ Would Do.") He is right. On every single point he is right. Without realizing it, I assume, he is summarizing Neustadt's view of presidential power. It is the power to persuade Congress. We can throw out all of the justifications we want – and I've trafficked in a few on this site, like blaming the spread of right-wing media – but despite all of it, LBJ would get this motherfucker done. And it would be as he wanted it, not as some watered-down piece of compromise legislation.

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This is a picture of LBJ brow-beating a Senator – almost literally – into falling in line with the White House agenda. He was the undisputed master of this, a technique his colleagues came to call "The Johnson Treatment" (insert joke here). But he was not always aggressive. He could flatter, beg, connive, threaten, or whatever else he knew would work on a given member of Congress. His specialty was members of his own party who refused to fall in line – a problem Obama should recognize. More often than not LBJ put the fear of God into them. He laid out in no uncertain terms that the president can be either a guardian angel to a Congressman or the angel of death. His skills at bartering and log-rolling were legendary, but when those failed he had no qualms about being harsh. He made threats that were both clear and credible.

Barack Obama's problem is not "Blue Dog Democrats" – in the Kennedy/Johnson era the Democratic Party had a large southern wing far more conservative than any Blue Dog and most of today's Republicans. Nor is the problem Glenn Beck, the minority party in Congress, or the insurance industry. The problem is that he does not appear to understand how a president gets what he wants. The solution certainly isn't town hall meetings and public relations campaigns aimed at clearing up the misconceptions of the ignorant. The solution, in colloquial and thoroughly gender-insensitive terms, is to stop being a damn pussy. Lay into recalcitrant Reps and Senators around the clock until he has the votes he needs. It is hard work and he needs to do it. He can continue to allow Kent Conrad and Bill O'Reilly to control his agenda or he can choose his priorities and get what he wants.

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Look at the photos. Can you picture Obama doing this? I can't. I wish I could talk to the guy for ten minutes to communicate the fact that he, and no one else, is responsible for the content and fate of health care reform legislation. LBJ might have stayed awake for five days straight, shattered a few friendships, and given himself an ulcer and two heart attacks in the process, but he would get it done. He would get it done because he'd decide that it is important and therefore worth any sacrifice. Following his example would require only an understanding of the powers of the office and the willingness to push oneself to the limit. Which does Obama lack?

15 thoughts on “PERSUASION”

  • Except he didn't, did he? LBJ, the president everyone seems to be thinking of these days, was not even willing to try to get national health care. So, he tinkered around the edges and did manage to get Medicaid and Medicare passed but he was unable to do more than that.

  • LBJ also escalated the American war on Vietnam Laos and Cambodia to hyper-criminality, presided over a truly bitterly divided nation because of that war crime and consequently handed power to Tricky Dick on a plate, retiring a bitter, beaten man.

    Obama is a professor of Law. He will have expected the disruptive republican action (Hillary wouldn't have kept it a secret) known of the traitors in his own party and yet hopefully has an elegant strategy to enact good legislation.
    Most of the drama that has been hyped by the MSM and blogs is hysterical nonsense, perfectly fit for the moronic brutes claiming their 30 seconds of fame in public debate or on Fox.

    That said, you are absolutely correct on the limitations of the office of president. Here's hoping Obama's clevernes can overcome that obstacle, which, given the razor of chaos that America is skating, may be a crucial one.

  • In my rare uncynical moments I remember the Obama who had the skills to win the nomination that everyone thought was Hillary's. That's when I hope that the last 7 months have been part of an incubation period, and that sometime soon this Administration's accomplishments will start to flourish.

    Remember, the Kennedy/Johnson Administration started in 1960. Kennedy addressed the American people on the civil rights issue on television in June, '63. Johnson signed it into law 13 months later. Yes, he was personally responsible for corralling a lot of Senate support. But he couldn't have done it without Humphry on the Democratic side, and Dirksen on the Republican side.

    On June 17, the Senate voted by a 76 to 18 margin to adopt the bipartisan substitute worked out by Dirksen in his office in May and to give the bill its third reading. Two days later, the Senate passed the bill by a 73 to 27 roll call vote. Six Republicans and 21 Democrats held firm and voted against passage. In all, the the 1964 civil rights debate had lasted a total of 83 days, slightly over 730 hours, and had taken up almost 3,000 pages in the Congressional Record.


    So -although Johnson might have been the paradigm for lining up the troops, the Johnson model for passing important legislation is to get bipartisan support.

    Clearly, that is not going to happen now, My sincere hope is hat after the Republicans have used up all their rope hanging themselves, the rest of the country can move forward.

    Also, we have no idea what's going on behind the scenes. I'm not going to give up on Obama for at least a couple of years.

    JzB the optomistic trombonist

  • Grumpygradstudent says:

    Isn't this what Rahm Emmanuel was supposed to help him with? Everybody knew that Obama's lack of experience was a legitimate liability for exactly this reason, but I was assuming (or at least hoping) that he would surround himself with badass people to help him navigate the dealmaking jungle. That's what happened with his campaign, which was one of the most competent of all time. Apparently, he's either not listening (which I find hard to believe), or his badasses aren't as badass as I hoped. Makes me wonder how Hilary would be fairing differently.

  • First… the author is talking about (I believe) the period when LBJ was Senate Majority Leader, not his accomplishments as president. That was when he was most famous for getting senators to fall in line behind legislation (as I understand it). So perhaps this missive is best aimed at Harry Reid?

    (Reid, BTW, an affirmed pussy, IMO.)

    Nevertheless, I agree. Less Kumbaya, more cracking the whip. Tell these senators "If you don't vote for this, expect not only no support from us the next time you're up for election, but our support for whomever is primarying against you." Whatever it takes.

  • Waldo, his other failings are not relevant. This is about his understanding of the legislative process.

    I am, for the record, referring to his time in the White House, although most of his skills as a whip-cracker simply carry over from his Majority Leader days.

    Sasha, 1964 was quite a different time. The idea that people who worked would not have employer-provided health insurance was virtually inconceivable, so the emphasis was on people who didn't work – the dirt poor and the elderly.

  • oldfatherwilliam says:

    Someone above asked my question a'ready. Where is Rahm, the legendary muscle-and -threat guy? He's invisible, of course, as he's supposed to be, but where are the flying monkeys? All this attempted courting of the public thru Town Halls was always predictably counterproductive bullshit.

  • arguingwithsignposts says:

    As a commenter at Balloon Juice noted, LBJ was also pushing through this legislation immediately following the JFK assassination, which put the nation into shock from which the city of Dallas still has not recovered.

    Sort of what Bush did post-9/11. While the economy tanking was certainly a national catastrophe, it did not have the visual/emotional impact of those events. LBJ's legislative accomplishments should also be looked at in light of that. The comparisons between LBJ and Obama are incomplete at best.

  • As cynical as it may be, it seems that Obama's problem is overestimating the American public. His line of thought seems to be that if we just make sure to EXPLAIN things, people will listen and understand; even if they disagree, it will be on the basis of a rational ideological difference, rather than because "HOLY SHIT GLENN BECK SAYS THEY HAVE DEATH PANELS!"

    This, of course, is precisely why we have representatives rather than strict democracy; it's a representative's job to be more educated on the issues than the average American, and to represent their constituents' concerns while acting in the best interest of their constituents. That's where the LBJ treatment comes in. Like others, I'm wondering where Rahm Emmanuel is, since that was his job.

    Obama seems to be okay with playing the political game of watering down your proposal until it sounds good but is meaningless enough that you can get bipartisan support, but he can't play the kind of game that's actually going to get shit done.

  • Although I don't think the health care issue has been handled perfectly, I'm a bit perplexed at how anybody can be making armchair quarterback judgements on Obama's success until this whole thing is, well, over.

    It's entirely possible that he has been cracking the whip internally and without that, we wouldn't even have the 40-some-odd hard core public option Senators. We just don't know yet.

    I'm not saying he's at the level of LBJ (or even Ed), but I am saying that he may be doing better than anybody realizes yet. This stuff isn't supposd to be publicly known yet.

    It hasn't even been a year and the economy is already turning around, which three months ago everybody was saying Obama Failed It. I'm not ready to criticize him yet.

    Besides, do we really want another LBJ escalated fiasco like the Nam? With the good comes the bad, etc. Bush's Excellent Adventures in the Middle East was enough for me.

  • I was (to all appearances, mistakenly) heartened when he chose Rahm, specifically because I thouhgt it indicated that Obama understood what was going to be required to get anything useful out of Congress.

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