How presidential power actually works

Yet again, Politico has published a piece arguing that President Obama is a premature lame duck, with little influence in Washington. And yet again, Politico’s proscription relies on a willful misunderstanding of presidential power and its limits.

Here’s how the Politico team that wrote the piece — led by John Harris – understands Obama’s difficulties. First up:

Obama does not instill fear — one of the customary instruments of presidential power.

To anyone familiar with the history of the presidency, this is an odd claim to make. It’s true that presidents have been feared, but it’s not an attribute common to the men most successful at the job. Harry Truman, for instance, has received high rankings from historians for his handling of post-World War II foreign policy, as well as his moves to entrench the domestic reforms of his predecessor. But few would say that he inspired fear among his opponents.

Next:

Obama is not buoyed by the power of ideas…When President Ronald Reagan hit a similar second-term dead zone during the Iran-Contra scandal in 1986, he was still regarded by conservatives as the godfather of a historic movement.

It’s hard to know what the significance of this is supposed to be. Iran-Contra led to a sharp decline in Reagan’s approval with all Americans; his ideas weren’t enough to preempt public anger over the scandal. While Obama’s agenda has stalled, he remains popular with Democrats and self-identified liberals – just as Reagan did with conservatives, according to Politico – which throws a good amount of water on Politico’s use of the comparison.

Politico’s final claim is easiest to debunk:

Obama is standing in a presidential pulpit that recently has proved to be the opposite of bully. So far in 2013, he has tried to harness public opinion to bring Congress to heel on both the budget sequestration and gun control debates. In both cases, Republicans — and in key instances, moderate Democrats — shrugged it off with apparent impunity.

To anyone familiar with the research on presidential rhetoric — and this includes a wide number of reporters, pundits and political observers — this shouldn’t come as a surprise. At best, presidential rhetoric is ineffective. More often, it inspires opposition by polarizing the issue. The fight for immigration reform is a perfect example of the dynamic. By staying out of the debate, President Obama has focused the debate among Republicans on the bill itself, and not his involvement.

More broadly, legislation isn’t passed — and agendas aren’t advanced — on the strength of rhetoric. Rather, the most successful presidents have the advantage of strong congressional majorities. That was true for Reagan, it was true for Lyndon Johnson (who seems to be Harris’ model for success), it was true for Franklin Roosevelt, and it was true for Abraham Lincoln.

If Obama’s agenda is mired in gridlock, it has less to do with his abilities as president, and everything to do with the fact of a divided Congress, and a Republican opposition with little interest in anything approaching compromise.

Jamelle Bouie is a staff writer at The American Prospect, where he writes a blog.

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