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.
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.
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?Tags: political science