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May 09, 2013 3:04 PM Busting the Green Lantern Myth Once and For All

By Ed Kilgore

If there was any doubt left that the spasm of punditry about Obama’s inability to “work his will” on Congress like his predecessors was fundamentally lazy, the American Enterprise Institute’s very authoritative Norm Ornstein pretty much lays the subject to rest in a column at National Journal:

[A]t nearly every speech I give, someone asks about President Obama’s failure to lead. Of course, that question has been driven largely by the media, perhaps most by Bob Woodward. When Woodward speaks, Washington listens, and he has pushed the idea that Obama has failed in his fundamental leadership task—not building relationships with key congressional leaders the way Bill Clinton did, and not “working his will” the way LBJ or Ronald Reagan did.
Now, after the failure to get the background-check bill through the Senate, other reporters and columnists have picked up on the same theme, and I have grown increasingly frustrated with how the mythology of leadership has been spread in recent weeks. I have yelled at the television set, “Didn’t any of you ever read Richard Neustadt’s classic Presidential Leadership? Haven’t any of you taken Politics 101 and read about the limits of presidential power in a separation-of-powers system?”
But the issue goes beyond that, to a willful ignorance of history. No one schmoozed more or better with legislators in both parties than Clinton. How many Republican votes did it get him on his signature initial priority, an economic plan? Zero in both houses. And it took eight months to get enough Democrats to limp over the finish line. How did things work out on his health care plan? How about his impeachment in the House?
No one knew Congress, or the buttons to push with every key lawmaker, better than LBJ. It worked like a charm in his famous 89th, Great Society Congress, largely because he had overwhelming majorities of his own party in both houses. But after the awful midterms in 1966, when those swollen majorities receded, LBJ’s mastery of Congress didn’t mean squat.
No one defined the agenda or negotiated more brilliantly than Reagan. Did he “work his will”? On almost every major issue, he had to make major compromises with Democrats, including five straight years with significant tax increases. But he was able to do it—as he was able to achieve a breakthrough on tax reform—because he had key Democrats willing to work with him and find those compromises.

All the “successful” presidents had either overwhelming margins in Congress or oppositions willing to work with them. Obama had the first for two years, and managed to get quite a bit done. He’s never, even for a moment, had the second, a problem that has been greatly exacerbated by the unprecedented phenomenon of a de facto 60 vote requirement for passage of major legislation in the Senate.

And so, says Ornstein:

[I]t is past time to abandon selective history and wishful thinking, and realize the inherent limits of presidential power, and the very different tribal politics that Obama faces compared with his predecessors.

Got that, Woodward? Hear what he says, MoDo? Are you listening, Mr. Brooks? OK: cut out the crap and stop expecting this or any other president to be a super-hero.

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.

Comments

  • epicurus on May 09, 2013 3:10 PM:

    Once again, the nail squarely on the head has been hit. A huge part of this problem was the myth-making during eight horrible years in Washington. Bush was "The Decider," and all of his lickspittles since have pretended that the Presidency is an Emperor's chair. FYI, it's not; I, for one, have actually read (and understood!) the Constitution. While he is given an immense amount of power, there are those two other pesky branches which can effectively "check and balance" any dictatorial conspiracies by a sitting President. Since the Congress has been taken over by crazy people, not so much. And as you correctly pointed out, our bleating "media giants" have gone right along with the scam. Also, too, Barnum was right.

  • MuddyLee on May 09, 2013 3:22 PM:

    Thanks for this post, Ed. Woodward shouldn't have guru status FOREVER because of his Watergate reporting. He seems to be more of a celebrity/media "star" now than a reporter. In regard to MoDo and David Brooks, give me "unknowns" who know how to recognize "compost" when they see it rather than people who want to be "stars". This is why I prefer getting news from public radio (most of the time I've never seen the person and can't even remember their names), this blog, and TPM. Content and the quality of analysis should trump celebrity. So YES to Ornstein and NO to Woodward et al.

  • mudwall jackson on May 09, 2013 3:40 PM:

    but hey, what about all those powerful tv and movie presidents who are able to push the right legislative buttons and get things done, mr. ornstein? what about president bartlett who i believe had a very successful administration?

    on a more serious note, how does obama exert leadership on congress when a significant segment of that branch (republicans) either fundamentally disagrees with him, is determined to do him in even on those issues when their viewpoints do align with his, has absolutely no interest in governing and is plain, flat out crazy?

  • Rabbler on May 09, 2013 3:56 PM:

    Can a person have credibility and have anything to do with AEI?
    Is this the first time AEI has ever been quoted positively at PA? I guess theoretically it could happen every 12 hours. Ed is breaking new ground in the fight for false equivalence and bipartisanship.

    Moderation in the face of extremism is no virtue.

  • KK on May 09, 2013 4:10 PM:

    Not sure what you are saying Rabbler. Orhenstein is highly regarded and respected and is quoted everywhere. Yes he works for AEI now but he is no hack. They still have a few real scholars in that joint. Emphasis on a few.

  • c u n d gulag on May 09, 2013 4:29 PM:

    The MSM can't say publically that the Republican Party is now a party of Reactionaries, Nihilists, and Anarchists, who are possibly Traitors, and who have no room to negotiate because of their rabid, sociopathic, racist, misogynistic, xenophobic, and/or homophobic, base.

    The handful of corportations who own the assorted mediums, have too much invested in the status quo, and are paying the salaries of their MSM reporters and pundits, and have a lot invested in their cowardice, complacency, and complicity, to maintain that status quo.

    And so, both parties have to seem reasonable, with the Democrats as the unreasonable party to fit the existing meme's, always in search of Brodia bipartisanship, which basically means that the Democrats always have to fold, if there's to be any movement at all.

    Our "Fourth Estate" is hopelessly broken.
    It makes me want to drink a fifth, every night.

  • Honeyboy Wilson on May 09, 2013 4:31 PM:

    Two facts:

    1. Obama isn't going to get anywhere with these Republicans.

    2. Obama is at his strongest on the campaign trail.

    The upshot: Obama needs to nationalize the 2014 election. He needs to be in full time, 24/7, campaign mode. Every speech needs to start and end with "Don't let the Republicans nullify your election of me as President. Give me a Congress that will let me get the job done".

  • Buzzed on Beans on May 09, 2013 4:50 PM:

    Rabbler, you need to google Norm Ornstein and find out who the hell he is before you open your pie-hole and make an ass of yourself.

    Oops. Too late.

  • buddy66 on May 09, 2013 4:58 PM:

    This is why I read PA. What boggles the mind is how little the beltway pundits seem to know about how the legislative process works (or not). Kilgore has a clearer view from Monterey, California than any of those D.C. drunks on the schmooze and booze circuit.

  • Celui on May 09, 2013 5:01 PM:

    Ornstein says it well, and forcefully. We do like to invent leadership myths and then re-invent them as we see need. Every President has experienced this, and more, if his term(s) include economic downturns. In Obama's terms, he has never had (not even once) the willingness of the GOT to work with him. And, remember also, no President can rule by force of will; something about separation of powers in that thar document.
    Gulag: I'll join you in that fifth. Bushmill's to start, OK?

    This is too good not to mention: Craptcha:: enough, whorsige

    I'll leave that one to your imaginations.

  • Buzzed on Beans on May 09, 2013 5:40 PM:

    monoceros4, you have read too much FireDogLake if you believe the garbage you just posted. Unlike racial segregation, which was a policy of the military, DADT was a law passed by Congress. Ima type reeeaaaal sloooooow so you can undersrtand...Overturning a policy can be achieved with an executive order, overturning a law can only be achieved by one of two ways: It can be struck down as unconstitutional by a federal court, or Congress can overturn it.

    For all the whining you left wingnuts did about Bush behaving like a dictator, you sure are disappointed that Obama doesn't act the same way.

  • registeredguest on May 09, 2013 5:42 PM:

    Peggy Noonan needs to be on the list with Woodward et al. She's played the "he hasn't led" card many times.

    I remember David Corn trying to educate her on Mann and Ornstein's column "Let's just say it: The Republicans are the problem" and her response was Oh, boo hoo, boo hoo after she complained on This Week about Obama leading.

    And I'd prefer never to hear the anecdote about Tip O'Neil and RR again.

  • Buzzed on Beans on May 09, 2013 5:57 PM:

    monoceros4, you have read too much FireDogLake if you believe the garbage you just posted. Unlike racial segregation, which was a policy of the military, DADT was a law passed by Congress. Ima type reeeaaaal sloooooow so you can undersrtand...Overturning a policy can be achieved with an executive order, overturning a law can only be achieved by one of two ways: It can be struck down as unconstitutional by a federal court, or Congress can overturn it.

    For all the whining you left wingnuts did about Bush behaving like a dictator, you sure are disappointed that Obama doesn't act the same way.

  • T2 on May 09, 2013 6:11 PM:

    They can't let a black person be shown a an equal. End of story.

  • low-tech cyclist on May 10, 2013 1:00 PM:

    "When Woodward speaks, Washington listens"

    Still?? Holy cow.

    What does it take for Washington to start ignoring this discredited hack?