If Barack Obama expected any sympathy for his lament yesterday that he’s not the Green Lantern, as Greg Sargent put it on Twitter and in his blog yesterday, he’d be looking at people like Dana Milbank and Maureen Dowd for support. Greg certainly tried his best to defend Obama’s assertion that the President can’t make Congress bend to his will:
The reason all these explanations don’t weigh on the Green Lanternites is the basic process/ideological imbalance identified above. It’s okay for the nonpartisan writer to criticize a president for failing to exert his will (a process judgment), but it’s not okay for the nonpartisan writer to fault Republicans for failing to agree to move in the direction of the policy a president wants (an ideological judgment). Today, for instance, Ron Fournier, to his credit, conceded that Obama was right in describing the limits on his powers. But he added: “Even if you concede to Obama every point of his Tuesday news conference, a president looks weak and defeated when he shifts accountability to forces out of his control.”
Perhaps this is how the public will view Obama; perhaps it isn’t. What is clear, however, is the basic imbalance here. While neutral commentators often hold up compromise, abstractly, as the Holy Grail, the process/ideology dichotomy makes it much easier for those commentators to fault the president for failing to work the process effectively enough to secure compromise than to pillory the opposition for being ideologically uncompromising.
Ahem. For the past several years, we have heard next to nothing from the national media about Republicans except for their supposed obstinacy and refusal to compromise. That was true even when John Boehner offered significant revenue in 2011 to end the tax rate/budget standoff, and when it was Obama who moved the goalposts and forced the adoption of the White House’s sequester. Maybe the problem here is that the national media has talked that point to death, and at some point they have to go back to the President and wonder why he’s not finding ways to lead rather than just complain from the sidelines.
Besides, which party has actually passed budgets for the last three cycles through their control of a chamber of Congress, and which party has refused to do so and prevented any regular compromise as a result? And where was President Obama on that problem? He hardly urged Harry Reid to get the Senate to do its job, and in fact was two months late with this cycle’s budget proposal.
So far, though, Greg’s argument isn’t carrying much weight with his Washington Post colleague, Dana Milbank. Dana is still under the illusion that Presidents should be judged on their ability to lead:
If there was a common theme to the president’s many troubles, it was an uncooperative Congress. “Right now things are pretty dysfunctional up on Capitol Hill,” he observed. As an example, he mentioned the legislation — signed into law by Obama — to end flight delays caused by the sequester’s furloughs of air-traffic controllers by shifting money from airport repairs and improvements. “In order to avoid delays this summer, we’re going to ensure delays for the next two or three decades,” he said.
“Why’d you go along with it?” Karl asked.
Some in the room chuckled. Obama didn’t. “You seem to suggest that somehow these folks over there have no responsibilities, and that my job is to somehow get them to behave,” he said. “That’s their job. . . . I cannot force Republicans to embrace those common-sense solutions.” He instead spoke of creating “a permission structure” for Republicans to do what he wants.
Obama is correct about the dysfunction, and the difficulty of passing even uncontroversial bills. But his stance was frustratingly passive, as if what happens in Congress is out of his hands. It’s the president’s job to lead, and to bang heads if necessary, regardless of any “permission structure.” Obama seemed oddly like a spectator, as if he had resigned himself to a reactive presidency.
Maureen Dowd is even less sympathetic:
“But, Jonathan,” he lectured Karl, “you seem to suggest that somehow, these folks over there have no responsibilities and that my job is to somehow get them to behave. That’s their job. They are elected, members of Congress are elected in order to do what’s right for their constituencies and for the American people.”
Actually, it is his job to get them 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.
And Dowd pointed out that on Gitmo, Obama isn’t even engaged at a level to where he understands his own policies:
Asked about the hunger strike, the former constitutional law professor in the White House expressed the proper moral outrage at holding so many men “in no-man’s land in perpetuity.” But it sounded as though he didn’t fully understand his own policy. …
It’s true that Congress put restrictions on transfers of individuals to other countries with bad security situations. But, since 2012, Congress has granted authority to the secretary of defense to waive those restrictions on a case-by-case basis. The administration hasn’t made use of that power once. So it’s a little stale to blame Congress at this point.
Salena Zito hit the nail on the head in a commentary which Dowd echoes here. Obama is much more interested in campaigning rather than the hard work of governing. His recent dinners with Senators made headlines as a “charm offensive,” but that’s only because Obama hasn’t bothered to personally engage with the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue in any consistent and regular manner until more than four years into his presidency.
The whole “buck stops anywhere but my desk” act has grown very stale, but it seems to be the only defense Obama knows.
Update: Jeff Dunetz provides a little more video from the press conference: