There’s been a lot of chatter about President Obama’s comments at last week’s press conference that he can’t use a “Jedi mind-meld” to convince Republican leaders to agree with him on the budget. Most of the commentary has concerned a) Obama’s inappropriate conflation of Star Wars and Star Trek terminology (although see here) and b) debates over whether the president does or does not have special leadership powers that allow him to change the minds of other politicians. (On the latter point, kudos to Ezra Klein and Ryan Lizza — and more generally to Jon Bernstein — for setting the record straight.)

But to me, the question prompting these comments created an even greater disturbance in the Force. Here’s his exchange with CNN’s Jessica Yellin:

Q Mr. President, to your question, what could you do — first of all, couldn’t you just have them down here and refuse to let them leave the room until you have a deal? 

THE PRESIDENT: I mean, Jessica, I am not a dictator. I’m the President. So, ultimately, if Mitch McConnell or John Boehner say, we need to go to catch a plane, I can’t have Secret Service block the doorway, right? So —

Q But isn’t that part of leadership? I’m sorry to interrupt, but isn’t —

THE PRESIDENT: I understand. And I know that this has been some of the conventional wisdom that’s been floating around Washington that somehow, even though most people agree that I’m being reasonable, that most people agree I’m presenting a fair deal, the fact that they don’t take it means that I should somehow do a Jedi mind-meld with these folks and convince them to do what’s right. Well, they’re elected. We have a constitutional system of government. The Speaker of the House and the leader of the Senate and all those folks have responsibilities.

I’m trying hard to understand just what Yellin meant by her questions. If you look at the video, yes, there was some laughter in the room when she asked about not letting the Republicans leave the room, but I don’t think that laughter came from her. I think she meant this, and her point about leadership, quite sincerely.

So what did she mean? Did she mean that the President should literally invite the Speaker of the House into the Oval Office and physically prevent him from leaving until an accord is reached, violating the law and the Constitution in the process? Are we to believe that that’s what Reagan or LBJ would have done? Is holding people against their will part of “leadership”?

Or did she mean this figuratively? If so, what would that mean? After all, if you only figuratively prevent people from leaving the room, you’re not really preventing them from leaving the room. Which means that if they decide it’s not in their interest to be in that room, they can leave. Which is exactly where we are right now.

I understand that political scientists (like presidents) can sound condescending when doing things like explaining the separation of powers to experienced reporters, and it’s fair game to call us on that. But I’m trying very hard to come up with a charitable interpretation of Yellin’s question and coming up short. Could we maybe come up with a definition of leadership that doesn’t involve illegal detention?

[Originally posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Seth Masket

Seth Masket is an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver.