January 28, 2013
President Barack Obama (Larry Downing/Reuters)
President Barack Obama (Larry Downing/Reuters)

Ezra Klein made an excellent point about Barack Obama and immigration reform today:

Republicans will fight most anything Obama proposes…This is a frustrating fact of life for the Obama administration — and perhaps even a sick commentary on how our political system works — but it is, nevertheless, a fact: Their involvement polarizes issues. And it’s not unique to them: Presidential involvement in general polarizes issues. By staying out, at least for now, the Obama administration is making it easier for Republicans to stay in.

The political scientist Richard Neustadt said that the power of the presidency really just meant the power to persuade. But by that he didn’t really mean winning debate-style arguments. Yes, that can happen, but usually presidents persuade by bargaining — by capitalizing on all the things presidents can do to convince others that they should do what the president wants them to do.

In this instance, if Klein is correct — and I’m pretty sure he is — the way for Obama to “persuade” is to be as vague about the new bipartisan Senate proposal as he can, at least in public. At the same time, the White House may need to push for specific provisions behind the scenes.

And the dance is probably more complicated than that, because it’s not just presidents who polarize, after all. A full-throated embrace of the bipartisan deal by the “usual suspect” liberal groups could easy scare off Republican support; on the other hand, if they oppose the deal, it could make it hard for mainstream liberals to support it. Assuming that the administration both wants the bipartisan package to be the basis for a bill that passes — but that the president also has preferences on details that are up for grabs — he may have strong preferences on how liberal groups react. And yet the president cannot force them to do what he wants; he can only, yes, persuade them. In doing so, he may call upon whatever trust they have in their past history together, or he may be bargaining with them. After all, each group involved has other things they want from the Obama Administration.

All of which is only to say that the correct steps for the president are usually difficult to find. The president needs the cooperation of all sorts of people (not just Members of Congress) who don’t have to do what he wants; then again, no one else in the American political system has more potential ways to influence (“persuade”) others. And from the outside, not only is it sometimes hard to know what the president should be doing to persuade — but it’s not even always obvious who needs persuading (Members of Congress? Which ones? Interest groups? Again, which ones? Parts of the bureaucracy?).

Oh, and don’t forget: the president has to talk about it, whether he wants to or not. Including in his State of the Union address, coming soon. Fortunately, if there’s one thing that politicians are well-trained to do, it’s saying something without saying anything — an important presidential skill, to be sure.

Of course, no one should feel sorry for the president. It’s just worth remembering that the next time you hear someone saying that the president should solve everything by giving the perfect speech, the odds are very good that there’s a lot more too it than that — and that even the perfect speech may well be counterproductive.