Obama doesn’t have as much power as you think

The Fix is a big fan of Joel Achenbach and his blog Achenblog.  Joel writes about space, the environment, politics and whatever else he wants to write about because he’s that good. We asked him to write a political week in review piece for The Fix every Friday. This is that piece.  Make sure to follow all of his work here and follow him on Twitter too.

President Barack Obama pauses as he speaks to reporters about the fiscal cliff in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, Friday, Dec. 21, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)(Charles Dharapak/AP)
(Charles Dharapak/AP)

I’ve got real presidents and fake presidents on the brain, and wondering if maybe even the real ones are semi-fictional. What I mean is: I think we imagine that presidents have powers that they don’t actually have (like running the economy, for example). Where they do clearly have power, it’s not obvious to me that they have as much as we project upon them. To be sure – and I was hoping to make it through an entire paragraph without the to-be-sure phrase but just couldn't stifle it — the president is more than the Wizard of Oz, more than a little man behind the curtain. But he’s probably not as “great and powerful” as we think. The modern presidency is something of a media invention, partly out of convenience – we need a protagonist, a character through which to tell the story of American politics.

You may have seen in our story on the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner that our reporter (the intrepid Amy Argetsinger) pulled actor Michael Douglas (star of “The American President”) aside and asked him to tell us the difference between Hollywood presidents and real presidents. “We know how the script ends,” Douglas said.

What we didn’t know when we went after Douglas was that, later in the evening, President Obama would give Douglas and his imaginary presidency a shout-out as part of a riff fending off criticism from Maureen Dowd.

Recall that Dowd had skewered Obama a couple of weeks ago for not knowing “how to govern.” She wrote:

“How is it that the president won the argument on gun safety with the public and lost the vote in the Senate? It’s because he doesn’t know how to work the system. …The White House should have created a war room full of charts with the names of pols they had to capture, like they had in ‘The American President.’ Soaring speeches have their place, but this was about blocking and tackling.”

So here’s Obama at the dinner:

“Maureen Dowd said I could solve all my problems if I were just more like Michael Douglas in ‘The American President.’ And I know Michael is here tonight.  Michael, what’s your secret, man?  Could it be that you were an actor in an Aaron Sorkin liberal fantasy?  Might that have something to do with it?”

Dowd reloaded. In her most recent column, she wrote:

“…it is his job to get [Congress] to behave. The job of the former community organizer and self-styled uniter is to somehow get this dunderheaded Congress, which is mind-bendingly awful, to do the stuff he wants them to do. It’s called leadership. He still thinks he’ll do his thing from the balcony and everyone else will follow along below. That’s not how it works.”

This line of criticism of Obama echoes my colleague Scott Wilson, who wrote a penetrating essay in 2011 that argued that Obama is not very good at old-fashioned arm-twisting – the people side of politics that LBJ was so good at:

“Obama is, in short, a political loner who prefers policy over the people who make politics in this country work. …Which raises an odd question: Is it possible to be America’s most popular politician and not be very good at American politics?”

It’s also worth noting that the Washington political structure has changed to become more innately polarized, with more safe seats and landslide seats in Congress, and almost no one in the middle anymore. Everyone plays to the base, looking ahead to the next primary challenge. Passing any legislation at all, other than naming a post office, is difficult. How can you reach a Grand Bargain when the system is structured to make such a bargain political suicide for most elected officials?

But back to the not-quite-so-great-and-powerful president: The dirty secret of Washington is that power, or more precisely influence, is distributed, and not just among the three branches of government. There’s a reason there are all these trade associations and K Street lobbyists and nonprofit groups. They all have influence. So do the governors and state legislators. So do the captains of industry. So does the media. And although “the Executive Branch” is taken to mean the presidency, the bureaucracy has its own inertial power, such that, even with that top layer of political appointees, the bureaucracy doesn't function immaculately as an instrument of the person in the White House (ask any president).

No one – not even John Roberts — has as much influence and power as the president. But if you were to break political influence in Washington (never mind the USA) down by percentages, the president would have – well, make an estimate. Your number is as good or better than mine. I’ll go with 17 percent, and no one else above single digits, except maybe Cillizza.

Ideology and partisanship so color the discussion about Obama that any assessment of his political skill will be assumed to be an extension of a policy bias (a sentence that I understand if no one else possibly could). But maybe someday there will be historians who will be able to say, objectively, based on all the data, that Obama was, or was not, an effective president. In the meantime, let’s remember that he’s got three and three-quarters of a presidential term still to go. He may yet learn a few tricks. He might get better at this presidency thing.

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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