President Clinton, President Reagan. And if you look at them, you can criticize them for lots of things. They by and large worked their will. On this, President Obama did not.

That’s Bob Woodward talking to Diane Sawyer about his new book on Obama and the debt limit showdown.

Both Kevin Drum and Ed Kilgore react by arguing that Things Are Different Today — it’s not right to compare Obama to previous presidents who served during periods in which polarization was less all-encompassing. While there’s obviously something to that, my impression is to just say:


Reagan worked his will? For a year, maybe eighteen months, in which he had a Republican Senate and a conservative majority in the House — yes, mostly, and impressively. After that? Hardly at all. Are there any significant Reagan initiatives pushed through Congress from mid-1982 on? Not that I can think of. Certainly aren’t any federal agencies shut down. Instead of tax cuts, there are a series of tax increases, beginning when Republican Senators worked with Democrats in the House to convince Reagan to accept tax hikes in 1982. After that, his Congressional situation deteriorates — liberals retake the House in the 1982 elections, and Democrats recapture the Senate in 1986. For the last six or seven years, Reagan is playing defense, and frequently losing (remember, just as one example: Iran/Contra only happens because Congress actually shuts down a proxy war the White House wanted). If Reagan worked his will from 1983 on, his will was very different than what we’ve been led to believe.

Clinton worked his will? During the two years of unified Democratic government, Clinton did manage to pass a budget plan, but he was famously defeated on a stimulus bill and even more famously clobbered on health care reform. Later, his famous “victory” over Newt Gingrich in the 1995-1996 budget showdown was certainly a political win and was a lot better for Clinton than many of his supporters feared he would settle for, but it’s laughable to call the final deal a case of “worked his will.” Clinton did get some things from Republican Congresses; they compromised more or less on welfare reform, and he got S-CHIP, and some other stuff…but no one who was paying attention then, or in the 1980s, would think that the White House was overall achieving what the president thought he was elected to do.

The truth is that other than a few very brief periods (FDR in the first couple years, LBJ for eighteen months or so) the president has never “worked his will.” It’s a ridiculous standard to hold Barack Obama to — presidents aren’t supposed to work their will within the US Madisonian system, and they don’t. There’s nothing new about that, and you don’t need a Tea Party crazies explanation to know that Obama wasn’t going to get all he wanted out of Congress. Oh, they certainly made it worse, and may have made the situation somewhat more dangerous (although comparing it to the Cuban Missile Crisis, as Woodward does….er, I already used hogwash, laughable, and ridiculous, so I’m afraid I’m running out). The idea of a president not getting his way, however? That’s just normal politics.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.