Is the President Missing His Lever?

President Johnson secured the passage of the Civil Rights bill with a dazzling symphony of persuasion, threat, and good old fashioned wheeling-dealing

The usually laser-focused Maureen Dowd turned as wifty as Peggy Noonan this morning. In a column entitled “No Bully in the Pulpit,” Dowd aimed to put the blame for the gun control bill’s failure squarely on the president’s lack of leadership. “He has learned how to emotionally connect with Americans in searing moments, as he did from the White House late Friday night after the second bombing suspect was apprehended in Boston. Unfortunately, he still has not learned how to govern. 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. And it’s clear now that he doesn’t want to learn, or to even hire some clever people who can tell him how to do it or do it for him.”

Dowd then goes on to suggest things that Obama might have done, and geez, for someone who has worked in the heart of Washington for 30 years, she sure looks like someone who has spent less time roaming the corridors of power than parked on a sofa watching movies and TV.

“Couldn’t he have come to the Hill himself to lobby with the families and Joe Biden?” she asked. Certainly–we saw that “go to the Hill” trick work like magic for President Bartlett on The West Wing. “The White House should have created a war room full of charts with the names of pols they had to capture,” she continues. Like they had in The American President? “Like they had in The American President,” she writes. She suggests that Obama bring Sen. Begich of Alaska to the White House and “hand him a drink, and say, “How can we make this a bill you can vote for and defend?” Something akin to President Hockstader in The Best Man–he was big on the drinking-talking combo.

Dowd goes on the advocate that Obama “fetch your brass knuckles.” It’s excellent advice, but the encounters she imagines Obama having with Senators Heitkamp, Coburn et al, Dowd visualizes a lot of persuasion and very little pounding.

Can presidents pound any more? The best recent account of presidential leadership in the legislative process can be found in Robert Caro’s The Passage of Power. There Caro explains how President Johnson secured the passage of the Civil Rights bill with a dazzling symphony of persuasion, threat, and good old fashioned wheeling-dealing, and if my copy hadn’t decided to go on a walkabout, I’d quote it chapter and verse. He gave in on budget issues to get a concession from Sen. Byrd. He put some NASA research facilities in Indiana (if I remember correctly) to lock down one vote. He seduced, he threatened, but mostly he made deals, gave people jobs, spent federal money on legislators’ cherished projects, and in some places he withheld his largesse, or at least threatened to.

Can a president even do this anymore? Do these levers even exist? We might have good-governed our way into executive impotence. You would think that when it came to spending money, to issuing grants and starting projects, a president would still possess a lot of discretion, and therefore a lot of power. Isn’t there something the University of Kentucky wants that the president could “allow” Mitch McConnell to obtain? It would be nice to see Obama be less rational and even less inspirational and just be cannier. “I am cloaked in enormous power!” Tony Kushner had the president say in the film Lincoln. If it’s cinematic presidents we’re going to be looking at, Horse-Trading Abe may be the man to study.

Jamie Malanowski

Jamie Malanowski is a writer and editor. He has been an editor at Time, Esquire and most recently Playboy, where he was Managing Editor.