Political Animal


April 22, 2013 9:49 AM Why Can’t Barack Obama Be An Action Figure?

By Ed Kilgore

Charles Pierce and others obviously beat me to the punch in mocking Maureen Dowd’s excoriation of the president for a failure of leadership on gun control. But an awful lot of people read the New York Times, and an awful lot of progressives seem to share Dowd’s attachment to the Action Figure model of the presidency. To an embarrassing extent Dowd’s expectations of Obama are based on Hollywood. People a bit more grounded in the real world often compare Obama unfavorably with Lyndon B. Johnson, thought to have imposed civil rights and health care legislation on a reactionary Senate by sheer force of will (I did a revisionist take on LBJ’s dominance of Congress for TNR back in 2009, noting that even this primal politician with an unequalled understanding of Senate rules and an unparalleled willingness to use every lever available to a president had to compromise more often than is now remembered).

Some readers are probably familiar with the Green Lantern Theory, a sardonic approach to the belief that sheer willpower is the essential ingredient in national and especially presidential power, as first developed by Matt Yglesias and elaborated upon by Brendan Nyhan and others. Dowd seems to have devolved this fantasy right down to the level of The Little Engine That Could, or maybe a Don Draper pitch from Mad Men:

There were ways to get to 60 votes. The White House just had to scratch it out with a real strategy and a never-let-go attitude.
Obama hates selling. He thinks people should just accept the right thing to do. But as Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat, noted, senators have their own tough selling job to do back home. “In the end you can really believe in something,” he told The Times’s Jennifer Steinhauer, “but you have to go sell it.”

The problem, of course, is right there in Dowd’s text, though she doesn’t seem to notice it. Unlike LBJ in enacting Medicare or Medicaid, Obama didn’t just face the challenge of getting a majority of the Senate to enact Manchin-Toomey. Yes, LBJ did have to overcome a filibuster in securing passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but aside from all of the external events that helped make that happen, it took decades of efforts along with the blood of countless martyrs. Had LBJ faced a 60-vote Senate every day, even with the vast Democratic margins he enjoyed after his 1964 re-election, it’s unlikely his legacy would be as imposing as we rightly remember it.

So the demise of Manchin-Toomey can lead progressives in one of two directions. We can whine about Obama’s shortcomings or bewail the unholy power of the NRA and long for an action-figure president who can banish opposition with charisma and bare-knuckled exercises of power. Or we can put pressure on Senate Democratic leaders to use their own power to reduce if not abolish the unprecedented ability of obstructionist minorities to impose their views on the rest of us. Regular readers know which route I prefer. Filibuster Delenda Est.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • sjw on April 22, 2013 10:01 AM:

    Dowd herself can have, as you point out, "Peggy Noonenesque" qualities, and there are limits to the LBJ-kickass comparison. Ok. But Dowd's criticism of Obama's leadership abilities is not a new observation even among progressives because it has been a longstanding problem of Obama's. (I have been making this complaint on and off for years now -- most recently in connection with Obama's non-action vis--vis the filibuster.) Ridiculing Dowd will not make the problem disappear, and the collective chant "Obama is too a great leader!" seems rather childish.

  • c u n d gulag on April 22, 2013 10:16 AM:

    In all fairness to us Liberals, and to MoDo, we DID JUST see a President who, even more recently than LBJ, after a national tragedy, used his bully pulpit, and everything at his and his VP's disposal, to twist poltics in the direction he wanted it to go.

    His name was George W. Bush, and despite millions of people protesting in this country, and around the world, his drumming up a war with Iraq, he got enough Democrats to go along to give him his AUMF shortly after 9/11, and we invaded Iraq a little over a year later, despite the protests - in the kind of "in-your-face" move MoDo wishes Obama had done with gun legislation.

    Maybe if W had to face a 60-vote thresh-hold, we Americans might have rebuilt Afghanistan, instead of rushing headlong into Iraq - aka: Bush's Folly.

    We'll never know.

    But the Republicans are now using their right to filibuster, like no minority party ever did in this countries history.

    Normally, when the clock runs out, if one team outscores the other one in a game with a 56 to 44 score, no one says to the team with the 56 points, "Sorry - but you needed to get to 60 points to win. So, try, try, again - if you want to. And if you want to dare to take on the NRA."

    America is now the ONLY democrary in the world, with a 60% requirement to pass any laws.

    This is f*cking insane.

  • Peter C on April 22, 2013 10:19 AM:

    I think Dowd's editorial was stupid and shallow. She imagines conversations with Heidi Heitkamp and Mark Begich, but has not imagined that they were ALLOWED to vote against Toomey-Manchin because the Republicans were going to filibuster en masse. Twisting their arms would not have defeated the filibuster, but it may well have damaged them.

    The problem is that the Senate is broken. Obama didn't break it, though. Dowd is blaming the victim.

  • FlipYrWhig on April 22, 2013 10:23 AM:

    @ sjw : What is Obama supposed to do about the filibuster? Senators like it, so Senators keep it. The end.

  • Mark Rubin on April 22, 2013 10:35 AM:

    This situation brings to mind a frequent complaint I hear from my judge friends, who whine about unprofessional/unethical conduct by lawyers, and want to know why the State Bar does not do more. When I asked the judges whether they have reported the upsetting conduct to the State Bar, I hear a bunch of excuses and a high level of discomfort. Bottom-line: they want someone else to do the difficult work. The same applies here. Presumably, the filibuster change was avoided by Sen. Reid and others because it made them uncomfortable; now, some Senators and the media want to blame President Obama for being deficient. Bullsh*t!

  • jjm on April 22, 2013 10:42 AM:

    I'm sorry Dowd is getting so much attention for this piece of nonsense. Obama is a very strong president and if you believe the GOP is not afraid of him, you're fools. They know he can outsmart them, and he is a master politician. Gun reform does not end here: it is just beginning.

  • jonh on April 22, 2013 10:46 AM:

    If Bill Clinton, our "First Black President", was Sydney Poitier, and Obama is Bill Cosby, maybe for our next black president we can get Samuel Jackson. What would you give to have the President on a Sunday morning show calling the House Majority Leader a motherf***er?

    And then have Very Serious People tsk-tsk about incivility? Politics can, at least, be entertaining.

  • Zorro for the Common Good on April 22, 2013 11:30 AM:

    There's also the fact that Dowd doesn't even mention that Senate passage was only half the battle. It would have also needed to be passed by the GOP House, which apparently would have required even more "will" from Obama.

  • Bobby Goren on April 22, 2013 11:44 AM:

    I too think pundits are too had on Obama. He's either not showing leadership by being too meek or because he comes out too boldly and "hurts" GOP feelings. It's a lose-lose with some of the chattering class and all of the bloviating class.

    Still, it does kinda make you pine for LBJ's physicality like this wonderful photo of Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas getting "the treatment."


  • Steve P on April 22, 2013 11:49 AM:

    What do you want her write about? WELFARE REFORM?

    Her words. Dunno--maybe she suffered some brain damage while she was "dating" Aaron Sorkin, but she's always had a very broad trivial streak. She had the gall to write an apology to her long-dead father, a DC cop, for telling her expensive friends that he was "in DC government" rather than admit his base role. What kind of idiot puts that in print without expecting to be never taken seriously again?

    And speaking of filibusters--
    every time the nets want a clip to illustrate one, it's always Jimmy Stewart as Mr. Smith. It's not just the fact that the Dixiecrats filibustering desegregation aren't as photogenic, no matter how more honest they are as a depiction of the act. It's a really sh*tty movie. Capra had a grade school mentality that makes Sorkin look like Henry Adams.

  • gdb on April 22, 2013 1:08 PM:

    Most everyone misses the point. The roots of BHO's failures are in early 2009... not ending the filibuster as job 1 and then advocating a too-weak stimulus as "just right" and advocating complicated insurance reform instead of health care reform. And constantly praising and advocating Republican policies.. Those chickens will yet come home to roost and haunt Dems in 2016. Especially if the economy goes south or recovers poorly,possibilities more likely than not..

    Characterizinbg BHO as strong is like characterizing Chamberlain as Churchillian. He was idolized at the time for Czechoslovakia ("Peace in our time"), but not in time by historians looking back. BHO is the James Buchanan of our time, i.e., highest goal is to act as "Compromiser in Chief". That's fine with reasonable opposition--- but not intractable opposition.

  • gdb on April 22, 2013 1:19 PM:

    BHO is not responsible for the filibuster. But he did nothing to try to end it. Nada, Zip, Zero. And as a Senator, he should have recognized its destructive power.
    He had the votes in 2009 to end it. And did nothing. Maybe Neville couldn't predict the consequences of Munich in 1936-37--- or Buchanan giving up state arnenals to Rebels in 1860-61. And the latter never really changed his policies (neither has BHO). History has been unkind to all of them. And rightly so, IMO.

  • Quaker in a Basement on April 22, 2013 1:29 PM:

    LBJ also wrote off all the states of the former Confederacy in passing the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts. You want to talk "divisive"? LBJ was divisive.

  • Snarki, child of Loki on April 22, 2013 2:21 PM:

    Obama should use the "power of his office" to get a gun safety bill passed?

    Okey dokey....time for drone strikes on gun shows, then, since they're CLEARLY nests of illegal terrorist-supplying activities.

    Well, the evidence is just as good as what passes for evidence for all those other drone strikes, so what the hell.

    Alternately, the NRA could hold a (metaphorical?) gun to Congress, to get them to pass a gun safety bill.

  • Bruce S on April 22, 2013 2:48 PM:

    One prime example of Dowd's self-contradictory idiocy was her taking Obama to task for sending Joe Biden to deal with the Senate. I mean what the hell could Veep Biden possibly know about horse-trading or personalities in the Senate? He's only spent 36 years there (to LBJ's 12.) Almost as ludicrous was her thing about "more charts" like Aaron Sorkin had in his screenplay where the President got what he wanted from Congress. That's how "serious" she is.

    Dowd runs with "clever" word-play, alliteration, snark - she's clueless otherwise. And she seems fueled mostly by pettiness.

  • brewmn on April 22, 2013 3:16 PM:

    This point was made upthread, but it bears repeating, since a couple of lefty whiners still don't understand how government works: Obama has ZERO ability to abolish the filibuster. As in Zip. Zilch. Nada. None.

    Blaming Obama for failing to end the filibuster is like blaming Antonin Scalia for the Iraq War. Learn some basic civics before spouting off, please.

  • Scott Ferguson on April 22, 2013 3:52 PM:

    To invoke cloture in the 1960s, one needed 67 votes (2/3s). It was changed to 60 (3/5s) later on.

    In the 50s and 60s, filibusters were almost never used except against civil rights legislation.

  • westomoon on April 26, 2013 9:51 AM:

    It's Dick Cheney's legacy -- somehow, we have all slid into thinking the American President should be an absolute monarch, and any President who doesn't act like one is a slacker.

    The Founders designed our government so that Congress is "first among equals". Congress -- both houses -- has chosen to be broken. There is nothing any President can do about it.