Last week, Maureen Dowd criticized President Obama for failing to convince Republican senators to support gun regulation. Obama’s White House, she claimed, should be run more like Andrew Shepherd’s White House in “The American President,” Aaron Sorkin’s 1995 romantic comedy. No, really, she said that:
The White House should have created a war room full of charts with the names of pols they had to capture, like they had in “The American President.”
Over the weekend, the President mocked this idea, in a question asked to Andrew Shepherd himself (Michael Douglas):
Michael, what’s your secret, man? Could it be that you were an actor in an Aaron Sorkin liberal fantasy? Might that have something to do with it?
Then a few days later, Dowd doubled down, citing yet more Hollywood characters (Daniel Day-Lewis’ Abraham Lincoln and Jeremy Irons’ Pope Alexander VI from “The Borgias”) that Obama should be emulating. (She’s improving — President Lincoln and Pope Alexander were real people.) And she argued that regardless of the fact that Republican members of Congress are elected by and accountable to very different electorates than the ones that put Obama in office, he should still be able to dictate their voting behavior:
It is his job to get them to behave. The job of the former community organizer and self-styled uniter is to somehow get this dunderheaded Congress, which is mind-bendingly awful, to do the stuff he wants them to do. It’s called leadership.
No, you don’t need to be a political scientist to see how silly Dowd’s argument is. And if you want to read more on this, I strongly recommend Mike Wagner’s excellent summary.
But what I wanted to mention was that her metaphors fail even on their own terms. Andrew Shepherd’s war room memorably counted votes in the wrong direction; Shepard’s legislative priorities were losing support as the President’s popularity tanked. Regardless of his leadership skills, political fundamentals were causing him to lose ground. And yes, he gave a stirring press conference and felt energized as he promised to make his unpopular programs even more liberal, but we never see whether this had any effect on their success. The one positive outcome of his stirring speech was that he got the girl. And that’s good! That’s how a rom-com should end! But we have no idea whether his bills actually passed.
Aaron Sorkin’s other big contribution to politics (and, apparently, to Maureen Dowd’s world view) was, of course, “West Wing.” And that show featured numerous examples of the President trying to exercise leadership and shame Republicans into supporting him. He had some great rhetoric, but guess what? Very little of it worked. As Ian Millhiser noted, Jed Bartlet had a pretty mediocre record as a President: “He consistently favored symbolic cultural victories over real opportunities to make life better for American families.” So even in Sorkin’s fantasy world, rhetoric and leadership doesn’t necessarily get you the public policy outcomes you want.
And what of the Abraham Lincoln we saw in Spielberg’s film? The contrasts between his presidency and Obama’s are pretty important, in large part because the institutional role of the President has changed so much since the 1860s. Lincoln did very little persuading or shaming in his efforts to push through the 13th Amendment. His main efforts, as the movie nicely documents, involved the use of patronage jobs, something that nineteenth century presidents could award to supporters but twenty-first presidents really can’t.
All this is to say that movies aren’t necessarily bad guidelines for real-life politicians. But the politicians should pay closer attention to the plots than Maureen Dowd does.
[Cross-posted at The Mischiefs of Faction]