Political Animal


April 21, 2013 12:08 PM Is the President Missing His Lever?

President Johnson secured the passage of the Civil Rights bill with a dazzling symphony of persuasion, threat, and good old fashioned wheeling-dealing

By Jamie Malanowski

The usually laser-focused Maureen Dowd turned as wifty as Peggy Noonan this morning. In a column entitled “No Bully in the Pulpit,” Dowd aimed to put the blame for the gun control bill’s failure squarely on the president’s lack of leadership. “He has learned how to emotionally connect with Americans in searing moments, as he did from the White House late Friday night after the second bombing suspect was apprehended in Boston. Unfortunately, he still has not learned how to govern. How is it that the president won the argument on gun safety with the public and lost the vote in the Senate? It’s because he doesn’t know how to work the system. And it’s clear now that he doesn’t want to learn, or to even hire some clever people who can tell him how to do it or do it for him.”

Dowd then goes on to suggest things that Obama might have done, and geez, for someone who has worked in the heart of Washington for 30 years, she sure looks like someone who has spent less time roaming the corridors of power than parked on a sofa watching movies and TV.

“Couldn’t he have come to the Hill himself to lobby with the families and Joe Biden?” she asked. Certainly—we saw that “go to the Hill” trick work like magic for President Bartlett on The West Wing. “The White House should have created a war room full of charts with the names of pols they had to capture,” she continues. Like they had in The American President? “Like they had in The American President,” she writes. She suggests that Obama bring Sen. Begich of Alaska to the White House and “hand him a drink, and say, “How can we make this a bill you can vote for and defend?” Something akin to President Hockstader in The Best Man—he was big on the drinking-talking combo.

Dowd goes on the advocate that Obama “fetch your brass knuckles.” It’s excellent advice, but the encounters she imagines Obama having with Senators Heitkamp, Coburn et al, Dowd visualizes a lot of persuasion and very little pounding.

Can presidents pound any more? The best recent account of presidential leadership in the legislative process can be found in Robert Caro’s The Passage of Power. There Caro explains how President Johnson secured the passage of the Civil Rights bill with a dazzling symphony of persuasion, threat, and good old fashioned wheeling-dealing, and if my copy hadn’t decided to go on a walkabout, I’d quote it chapter and verse. He gave in on budget issues to get a concession from Sen. Byrd. He put some NASA research facilities in Indiana (if I remember correctly) to lock down one vote. He seduced, he threatened, but mostly he made deals, gave people jobs, spent federal money on legislators’ cherished projects, and in some places he withheld his largesse, or at least threatened to.

Can a president even do this anymore? Do these levers even exist? We might have good-governed our way into executive impotence. You would think that when it came to spending money, to issuing grants and starting projects, a president would still possess a lot of discretion, and therefore a lot of power. Isn’t there something the University of Kentucky wants that the president could “allow” Mitch McConnell to obtain? It would be nice to see Obama be less rational and even less inspirational and just be cannier. “I am cloaked in enormous power!” Tony Kushner had the president say in the film Lincoln. If it’s cinematic presidents we’re going to be looking at, Horse-Trading Abe may be the man to study.

Jamie Malanowski is a writer and editor. He has been an editor at Time, Esquire and most recently Playboy, where he was Managing Editor.


  • c u n d gulag on April 21, 2013 1:49 PM:

    Uhm... Jamie,
    I don't know which MoDo it is that you think is "laser-focused," but the one writing in the NY Times is only "laser-focused" when she's writing about the Cheney-Bush War Crime Family, and the guys playing "hide-the-mitre" with altar boys in the Catholic Church - the rest of the time, she's about as accurate with her focus, as a rusty blunderbuss.

    And, MoDo, riddle me this:
    How is President Obama showing up in the Senate, wheelin' & dealin, complimentin' and cojolin', where every Reublican in that body has sworn a blood oath to do everything they can to make his Presidency as unsuccessful as possible, going to sway them to his side, when poor old crippled WWII veteran, and former Republican Senator and Presidential candidate, Bob Dole, got wheeled in by his wife, also a former Republican Senator, to ask his former comrades to vote for a bill to ratify the UN's request that everyone follow the US's very own ADA legislation, and the Senate Republicans didn't ratify the resolution, disappointing their old standard-bearer?
    All over the fear that the crackers and morons in their base fear some mythical "Area 21" agenda to take away our greens, woods, irons, and shootin' arn's!

    To MoDo, at least the one who opines in the NY Times, she never met a Democratic President she couldn't label as some sort of wuss.

  • Mark-NC on April 21, 2013 1:50 PM:

    I went a few rounds on this stupidity with Doug Thompson over at "Capital Hill Blue". He was stating the same thing - that Republicans didn't fall in line because Obama had no experience and didn't know how to play ball.

    I called horseshit on his BS. As I stated it, if Obama let the minority party write the bills completely, then Obama liked one of the bills - they would vote against their own bill.

    Assholes are assholes plain and simple. The sad part is that they are trying to find a door in the floor of the sewer so they can get even nastier.

  • jjm on April 21, 2013 2:16 PM:

    What dreck! Criticize Obama from the 'left' on behalf of the "right"...

    Obama has made the difference where it counts: with the people. I cannot imagine that his highlighting of this issue will not ultimately result in saner electorate.

  • Bob Hall on April 21, 2013 2:17 PM:

    Both Ms Dowd's column and your post are not only politically naive in the extreme but also encapsulate all the conventional wisdom leadership myths. LBJ enjoyed overwhelming Democratic majorities when he worked his legislative "magic."

  • zandru on April 21, 2013 2:33 PM:

    "The usually laser-focused Maureen Dowd"

    Well, really, that's all you need to read. The astuteness of MoDo is matched only by the handsomeness of Mitch McConnell, the common sense of Louie Gohmert, the honesty of Paul Ryan, the fiery temper of Harry Reid, ...

    Captcha observes facileW springs. Yeah, it's in today's Parade mag...

  • Penon on April 21, 2013 2:46 PM:

    Judging an administration's success on how well it duplicates the work of Aaron Sorkin. Amazingly basic Dowd, and not much point to fisking it.

    In any case, Jamie, a bit of advice: If you wish to produce analyses of other writers' work that's worthy of the effort to read, try to get the names of the characters mentioned in it correct. The proper spelling for the fictional president's name is Bartlet. The second T flags a newbie to West Wing lore.

  • mk3872 on April 21, 2013 3:48 PM:

    LOL! Dowd's column actually uses fictional presidents from TV shows and movies to explain how Obama can magically transform the party of "NO" until a legislative partner!

    Oh, to have a quality pundit media class in our wonderful country ...

  • emjayay on April 21, 2013 3:49 PM:

    I kind of like Maureen because she's a bit wacky and I appreciate that in a newpaper columnist. (I read the SF Chronicle in its heydey.) But just because she has an occasional column in the Post I don't take her as a serious analyst. She really should stay away from this sort of stuff. (I was going to say "proscriptive" but it turns out it doesn't mean what I thought and I don't have another word for it.)

    I guess Obama could offer some Senators postmaster positions or something.

    Probably the best way to influence Congress these days is to meet with a bunch of top lobbyists and ask them what they want in exchange for supporting what you want, and have your party support that stuff. Except Congress already supports all that stuff.

  • Pat McDowell on April 21, 2013 3:55 PM:

    Mo as usual has gone out of her way to bash President Obama. I would like to tell her one thing even a Canadian knows...the US Senate does NOT represent the American people. Each state gets 2 senators so Alabama and California are equal. The number of smaller population red states means that even with a majority, the Democratic Party has an uphill battle, what with the resulting Blue Dog Democrats.

    One more thing, the Democratic Party still has a range of members from small c conservatives to moderates and progressives, where the GOP only has the Tea Party and those they will primary. The GOP no longer has a soul, they have sold it to the handful of billionaires for the illusion that they still live in the 50's..

  • rrk1 on April 21, 2013 3:59 PM:

    As C U N D says, Dowd never met a male Democrat, president or otherwise, who wasn't a wuss in her estimation. Her rants are predictable and tiresome.

    And whatever Obama likes or supports, as Mark -NC writes, will instantly be disowned by the petty, adolescent, Rethugs even if they espoused it themselves the day before.

    That said, Obama knows what governing is, but his super-rational above-the-fray approach hasn't helped him. Not that ego-stroking, carrot-and-stick wheeling-and-dealing with the wingnut Rethugs would make that much difference. The good ol' boy comity of the Senate is history, and Obama could never be in that club no matter how long he served. An LBJ he could never be even if he had the majorities Johnson had in the mid-60s.

    The one senator he needs to take by the lapels, LBJ style, is Harry Reid. One doesn't get the impression they talk very often.

    Obama is empathetic, but he's not warm and fuzzy even at his most eloquent. He radiates distance and aloofness. We see it here in the summer when he spends his short August vacations on Martha's Vineyard. He hardly interacts with us locals in stark contrast to Clinton.

  • esaud on April 21, 2013 4:21 PM:

    Dowd is part of the problem. The Republican party is totally off the rails, and all she can come up with is ... Obama is the problem? I mean, can't she come up with any snark about LaPierre or Limbaugh or McConnell?

    Dowd is symptomatic of all that is wrong with the Village. She dares not speak ill of a Republican, lest she get uninvited from whatever crappy cocktail circuit she travels.

    What a ditz.

  • T-Rex on April 21, 2013 4:46 PM:

    First, I hate Captcha. Second, does anyone even take Maureen Dowd seriously anymore? Remember, this was the woman who was instrumental in helping Karl Rove to spread some of the most vicious lies about Al Gore in 2000, and she ginned up the story of his "bragging" that he was the inspiration for "Love Story" out of an offhand remark he made at an event when she wasn't there. It's not worth rehashing again, but what Gore said was a) meant just as an amusing little bit of trivia, not a grand boast, and b) was true.

    And then there was her performance in 2008. From the column when she compared Hillary Clinton to a dominatrix, we knew what we were in for. The male candidates were sissies, femmes, "diffident debutantes," "comely," blah blah, and Hillary was a butch. Every single prediction she made turned out to be dead wrong. Hillary would steamroll her way to the nomination because Obama didn't have the guts to fight! Well, um, okay, Obama got nominated but he was such a wuss he invited Hillary to speak at the convention and she would certainly hijack it out from under him and steal the nomination. When that didn't happen, Hillary would connive with John McCain to defeat Obama, and then in 2012 it would be Hillary versus the brilliant, charismatic Sarah Palin. Yeah, right. Why does anyone still take this lazy-headed, nasty shrew seriously about anything?

  • Bobbo on April 21, 2013 4:54 PM:

    Dowd is laser-focused on trivia and body language. She is a courtier at the Palace of Versailles whispering her nasty little remarks into Marie Antoinnette's ear.

  • Jack Lindahl on April 21, 2013 5:24 PM:

    "The usually laser-focused Maureen Dowd"

    Huh? For the life of me, I can't understand the purpose of having Maureen Dowd taking up space in a major newspaper. Of course, with Tom Friedman and Ross Douhart as her co-opinionators, the bar is pretty low. But still ...

  • Martin on April 21, 2013 5:42 PM:

    I don't understand this ..... an excellent post but you end up agreeing with Dowd and completely undercutting your argument by asking whether Obama could be "cannier." You seem to be aware that the problems are structural, right? LBJ had big majorities to work with.

  • JR on April 21, 2013 7:21 PM:

    MoDo is simply parroting the centrist Beltway "wisdom" that, if only Obama were more of a social animal, everyone in Congress would fall in line behind him. What I really think is going on? The Beltway glitterati are pissed that Obama doesn't want to hang out with them.

    When the Obamas arrived in DC, daughters and First Mother-in-Law in tow, the DC social elite expected the new First Couple to regularly extend their presidential glamour to local dinners and cocktail parties. Imagine their surprise to discover that the First Family's values are actually conservative - the early evening hours, including dinner, are reserved for family. How boring - even foreign - to the likes of Dowd!

  • alix on April 22, 2013 1:53 AM:

    I think LBJ was a great negotiator. However, one of the tradeoffs for the Civil Rights Act was escalation in Vietnam. I'm not really sure that's the sort of trade Dowd would agree with now.
    But then, really, she's talking about a DC that never existed anyway. If she thinks anyone can negotiate in good faith with McConnell and get anything, well, she should run for president.

  • mudwall jackson on April 22, 2013 3:32 AM:

    "LBJ had big majorities to work with."

    well yes and no. obviously he had democratic majorities in both houses. but a goodly portion of those democrats came from southern states. these days, thanks in large measure to the legislation that lbj pushed through, we refer to them as republicans.

  • mudwall jackson on April 22, 2013 3:56 AM:

    and one more point. when it comes to twisting arms, there really is little any president can do other than muster whatever public sentiment maybe out there that favors what he's trying to get through.

    assuming obama is willing to negotiate a deal with mitch what does mitch have to gain from going along? pretty much nothing. the fact of the matter is he has more to lose from playing with the president than he could ever gain by accepting anything obama could ever offer.

    same with alaska's begich. if anything, it gives him street cred to oppose the president on a high profile issue. and what can the president, or harry reid for that matter, to punish begich for his vote? next to nothing. find a primary challenger to run against him? and risk losing the seat to the republicans? cut off campaign funding? refuse to make campaign appearances on begich's behalf when he runs for reelection? exactly how many votes did obama get in alaska?

  • Cranky Observer on April 22, 2013 7:45 AM:

    I strongly suspect that Lyndon Johnson used blackmail as well. A technique that is not as effective today (e.g. Vitter), and of course not moral then either.


    somenten made - 1st try

  • Just Dropping By on April 22, 2013 8:27 AM:

    The usually laser-focused Maureen Dowd turned as wifty as Peggy Noonan this morning.

    -- the Hell?? Have you time traveled from the late 1990s or something? Dowd's columns over the past decade are only marginally less of a trainwreck than Noonan's on any given day.

  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on April 22, 2013 8:36 AM:

    Well, if the GOP weren't so hellbent on doing not a damn thing to further the Obama Administration's goals, wheelin'-an-dealin' and bumping shoulders with the GOP would be a fabulous idea. (But how many times has Obama hosted GOP congress-critters at the White House for something or another???)

    Before Obama could even finish the last syllable of his first oath of office, the GOP were already plotting and planning to make him a one-term resident. And now that he's a two-term president, it's how to make his tenure the most unproductive in the history of the USofA.

    As some have said above, the GOP has taken the stance that they have nothing to gain by working with Obama. Their too busy posturing to prevent the primary-from-the-Right, which often entails being against something even when they were for it but only because Obama supports it now.

    These people don't even give a shit about there own constituents. Look at how the GoOper Govs are turning down Federal money for transportation (Florida) and expanding health care access to their own citizens. Obama has been offering them plenty of goodies that they will not accept just because they don't want to look like they're getting too cozy with Obama.

  • RimKitty on April 22, 2013 9:59 AM:

    Are you kidding me? Offering advice from a TeeVee show, where they get to write how the story ends? I have read very few of Dowds columns, mostly lead there from posts like this, and found her mostly to be "wanking off in public" if you excuse the expression. Once in a while there is a good line, but she usually sounds more like a nasty advice columnist that didn't get laid last night.

    If we go by her assessment of what Obama should do and hasn't done, we should definitely blame the Jewish people for Hitlers reign of terror because they weren't good deal makers.

  • clarence swinney on April 22, 2013 11:04 AM:

    2009 and 2010 Budget Outcomes Skewed By the Recession
    Due to one of the worst economic downturns since the Great Depression — and the policies enacted to combat it —  2009 and 2010 tax and spending levels diverged from recent patterns. Preliminary data show that plunging federal revenues amounted to less than 15 percent of GDP in 2009 and 2010, the lowest levels in decades. The efforts to prevent collapse of the financial system and to deal with the failure of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the automatic expansion of programs like unemployment insurance and food stamps (which always grow during economic downturns to meet rising need), and spending from the February 2009 stimulus package together pushed federal outlays to more than 24 percent of GDP in both years. As a result, deficits reached record levels.
    It will take the economy several years to fully recover, and during that time federal revenues and expenditures will continue to differ from historical experience. However, the composition of the budget in 2010 largely resembles recent federal spending patterns.
    As the graph shows, the remaining 19 percent of federal spending goes to support a wide variety of other public services. These include providing health care and other benefits to veterans and retirement benefits to retired federal employees, assuring safe food and drugs, protecting the environment, and investing in education, scientific and medical research, and basic infrastructure such as roads, bridges, and airports. A very small slice of this remaining 19 percent — about 1 percent of the total budget — goes for non-security programs that operate internationally, including programs that provide humanitarian aid.
    While critics often decry “government spending,” it is important to look beyond the rhetoric and determine whether the actual public services that government provides are valuable. To the extent that such services are worth paying for, the only way to do so is ultimately with tax revenue. Consequently, when thinking about the costs that taxes impose, it is essential to balance those costs against the benefits the nation receives from public services.