May 9, 2013

Norm Ornstein has a terrific column out today asking people to please, please stop believing in a mythical version of the presidency. One nice bit:

Indeed, the theme of presidential arm-twisting again ignores history. Clinton once taught Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama a lesson, cutting out jobs in Huntsville, Ala. That worked well enough that Shelby switched parties, joined the Republicans, and became a reliable vote against Clinton. George W. Bush and Karl Rove decided to teach Sen. Jim Jeffords a lesson, punishing dairy interests in Vermont. That worked even better — he switched to independent status and cost the Republicans their Senate majority. Myths are so much easier than reality.

What’s important to realize about this is that all of the focus on the myths has consequences.

First of all, pretending that the president is all-powerful means that the press, and ultimately voters, tend to ignore the considerable responsibility that others within the system really have. Each member of the House and each senator should be held responsible for every vote they cast and every action they take — not treated as evidence of whether the president has done his job properly. That goes, too, for all of the other important players — bureaucrats, party leaders, state officials and more. The choices they make are real, and they matter.

What’s more, mythologizing the president leads to letting him off the hook for those things he really can and should be held responsible for. If we pretend that all Barack Obama has to do is give the right speech or cut the right deal and, say, the gun and immigration bills will fly right through Congress, then of course any critique of his presidency will be built around what he does right or wrong on those things. But that misses the perhaps more mundane, but still very important, things that presidents actually do, whether it’s appointing judges and executive branch officials or managing the bureaucracy. Or, to be sure, negotiating with other important officials — but even there, false assumptions about presidential magic can get presidents unfairly criticized for not getting Congress or the bureaucracy to do whatever he wants — while at the same time preventing a careful look at just how well he actually bargained, given the real context and constraints he was working under.

Mythical presidents with magical powers are tempting. But they’re not really democratic, and at any rate they’re not real. We can do better on this one, folks.