The powerless presidency

posted at 8:01 am on March 7, 2013 by Jazz Shaw

There’s been a lot of discussion (and frankly, not much else) these days about how nothing seems to be getting done in Washington. A fair bit of the conversation has focused on how it is that a transformational, post-partisan leader like Barack Obama has thus far somehow failed to bring everyone together over a Coke And A Smile to join hands and take care of the people’s business. At long last an answer has been proposed by Ryan Lizza at the New Yorker. At a recent news conference, a reporter dared to ask why the President hasn’t managed to accomplish more in terms of bipartisan cooperation. The POTUS responded, “Well, Julie, give me an example of what I might do.”

Cue Lizza, who siezed on the opportunity to explain that Presidents just don’t have much power to begin with, don’t ya know…

Obama’s slightly testy response is worth considering. I don’t remember a President ever publicly expressing a similar sentiment. All Presidents come to appreciate the limits of the power of their office, and there are reams of quotes from Presidents privately expressing disdain for Congress’s unwillingness to bend to their will. But rarely do they ventilate such thoughts in public.

The tendency of many Washington pundits, especially those who cover the White House, is to invest the Presidency with far more power that the Constitution gives it.

This left Matt Lewis a bit gobsmacked.

This, of course, is a cop out.

Every leader deals with complex problems of getting people to follow them. Imagine a board of directors that undermines a CEO, or a star NBA player who makes more money than the coach. But truly great leaders succeed in spite of it all.

There’s a reason they say “the buck stops here.”

Matt goes on to provide some examples of Presidents who have held office with divided power between the parties, including the counter-intuitive pairing of Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan. While we are free to argue the merits of what each President accomplished and how well it served the nation, it’s difficult to argue that they did at least get something done. Thus far, there has been no moment of crossing the raging river and binding the warring factions together under this White House.

But is there an argument left for Lizza to claim that it’s somehow “different this time?” Perhaps everything is just more extreme these days. The Tea Party is too far Right and Pelosi’s welfare state warriors are too far Left, yes? Things were far more genteel in “the good old days” and deals could be made. Who can blame Obama for being unable to get this unruly brood to play with the same set of Lincoln Logs?

Sorry, but I lived through “the good old days” and they weren’t all that good in terms of cordial relations on the Hill. There were always a collection of serious workers mixed with warriors and clowns. If anything has changed it’s the technology, where the activists elements of each party are better able to keep tabs of every utterance and gesture of elected officials. They may be running scared more than they were back in the day, but they still have room to stand and fight. If the President can’t manage the task under current conditions, he probably shouldn’t have run on a claim that he could.


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