Busting the Green Lantern Myth Once and For All

If there was any doubt left that the spasm of punditry about Obama’s inability to “work his will” on Congress like his predecessors was fundamentally lazy, the American Enterprise Institute’s very authoritative Norm Ornstein pretty much lays the subject to rest in a column at National Journal:

[A]t nearly every speech I give, someone asks about President Obama’s failure to lead. Of course, that question has been driven largely by the media, perhaps most by Bob Woodward. When Woodward speaks, Washington listens, and he has pushed the idea that Obama has failed in his fundamental leadership task—not building relationships with key congressional leaders the way Bill Clinton did, and not “working his will” the way LBJ or Ronald Reagan did.

Now, after the failure to get the background-check bill through the Senate, other reporters and columnists have picked up on the same theme, and I have grown increasingly frustrated with how the mythology of leadership has been spread in recent weeks. I have yelled at the television set, “Didn’t any of you ever read Richard Neustadt’s classic Presidential Leadership? Haven’t any of you taken Politics 101 and read about the limits of presidential power in a separation-of-powers system?”

But the issue goes beyond that, to a willful ignorance of history. No one schmoozed more or better with legislators in both parties than Clinton. How many Republican votes did it get him on his signature initial priority, an economic plan? Zero in both houses. And it took eight months to get enough Democrats to limp over the finish line. How did things work out on his health care plan? How about his impeachment in the House?

No one knew Congress, or the buttons to push with every key lawmaker, better than LBJ. It worked like a charm in his famous 89th, Great Society Congress, largely because he had overwhelming majorities of his own party in both houses. But after the awful midterms in 1966, when those swollen majorities receded, LBJ’s mastery of Congress didn’t mean squat.

No one defined the agenda or negotiated more brilliantly than Reagan. Did he “work his will”? On almost every major issue, he had to make major compromises with Democrats, including five straight years with significant tax increases. But he was able to do it—as he was able to achieve a breakthrough on tax reform—because he had key Democrats willing to work with him and find those compromises.

All the “successful” presidents had either overwhelming margins in Congress or oppositions willing to work with them. Obama had the first for two years, and managed to get quite a bit done. He’s never, even for a moment, had the second, a problem that has been greatly exacerbated by the unprecedented phenomenon of a de facto 60 vote requirement for passage of major legislation in the Senate.

And so, says Ornstein:

[I]t is past time to abandon selective history and wishful thinking, and realize the inherent limits of presidential power, and the very different tribal politics that Obama faces compared with his predecessors.

Got that, Woodward? Hear what he says, MoDo? Are you listening, Mr. Brooks? OK: cut out the crap and stop expecting this or any other president to be a super-hero.

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.