Why Can’t Barack Obama Be An Action Figure?

Charles Pierce and others obviously beat me to the punch in mocking Maureen Dowd’s excoriation of the president for a failure of leadership on gun control. But an awful lot of people read the New York Times, and an awful lot of progressives seem to share Dowd’s attachment to the Action Figure model of the presidency. To an embarrassing extent Dowd’s expectations of Obama are based on Hollywood. People a bit more grounded in the real world often compare Obama unfavorably with Lyndon B. Johnson, thought to have imposed civil rights and health care legislation on a reactionary Senate by sheer force of will (I did a revisionist take on LBJ’s dominance of Congress for TNR back in 2009, noting that even this primal politician with an unequalled understanding of Senate rules and an unparalleled willingness to use every lever available to a president had to compromise more often than is now remembered).

Some readers are probably familiar with the Green Lantern Theory, a sardonic approach to the belief that sheer willpower is the essential ingredient in national and especially presidential power, as first developed by Matt Yglesias and elaborated upon by Brendan Nyhan and others. Dowd seems to have devolved this fantasy right down to the level of The Little Engine That Could, or maybe a Don Draper pitch from Mad Men:

There were ways to get to 60 votes. The White House just had to scratch it out with a real strategy and a never-let-go attitude.

Obama hates selling. He thinks people should just accept the right thing to do. But as Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat, noted, senators have their own tough selling job to do back home. “In the end you can really believe in something,” he told The Times’s Jennifer Steinhauer, “but you have to go sell it.”

The problem, of course, is right there in Dowd’s text, though she doesn’t seem to notice it. Unlike LBJ in enacting Medicare or Medicaid, Obama didn’t just face the challenge of getting a majority of the Senate to enact Manchin-Toomey. Yes, LBJ did have to overcome a filibuster in securing passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but aside from all of the external events that helped make that happen, it took decades of efforts along with the blood of countless martyrs. Had LBJ faced a 60-vote Senate every day, even with the vast Democratic margins he enjoyed after his 1964 re-election, it’s unlikely his legacy would be as imposing as we rightly remember it.

So the demise of Manchin-Toomey can lead progressives in one of two directions. We can whine about Obama’s shortcomings or bewail the unholy power of the NRA and long for an action-figure president who can banish opposition with charisma and bare-knuckled exercises of power. Or we can put pressure on Senate Democratic leaders to use their own power to reduce if not abolish the unprecedented ability of obstructionist minorities to impose their views on the rest of us. Regular readers know which route I prefer. Filibuster Delenda Est.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.