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Obama the Bargainer

How to lose friends and alienate Congress

Feb 11, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 21 • By JAY COST
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The recent inaugural festivities would have seemed more than a little strange to the Framers of the Constitution, had they been on hand to see the show. After all, here was their “republic” unified in celebration of vast executive powers being vested in a single human being. Did they not wage a bloody war to overcome such 17th-century notions?

Obama the bargainer

And yet, the republic bequeathed by the likes of Madison and Jefferson prizes the inaugural ceremony. It is the most important rite in what Gene Healy of the Cato Institute calls “the cult of the presidency,” which is a decidedly bipartisan affair. Liberals celebrated Obama’s power, conservatives bemoaned it, but all acknowledged it.

What then is this power, exactly? The answer is scarcely to be found in the Constitution itself. Article II is shorter than your average newspaper column and spends most of its time reviewing the complicated procedures by which the chief executive is to be selected.

The presidency has come to mean much more than the measly powers granted its occupant by the Constitution; the job of the modern president is to fill the spaces left between the various articles and sections and clauses of the founding document. What our system disperses among branches, states, localities, parties, and interest groups, the president brings together, coordinating their efforts for the national good.

This is a virtually impossible task, for the formal powers of the president do not meet the informal expectations we the people have set for him. As Harry Truman predicted in the summer of 1952, when it was clear that Dwight Eisenhower would succeed him, “He’ll sit here and he’ll say ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen. Poor Ike—it won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll find it very frustrating.”

As usual, the ornery Missouri-farmer-turned-haberdasher hit the nail on the head. Commands simply won’t cut it, for many of the people whom the president would command need not heed him. Members of Congress, judges, cabinet department heads, even leaders of the military have their own mandates that do not require ironclad fealty to the president.

Instead, a president succeeds by persuading others to do what he wants. As presidential adviser Richard Neustadt once put it, the job of the president

 is to induce them to believe that what he wants of them is what their own appraisal of their own responsibilities requires them to do in their interest, not his. Because men may differ in their views on public policy, because differences in outlook stem from differences in duty—duty to one’s office, one’s constituents, oneself—that task is bound to be more like collective bargaining than like a reasoned argument among philosopher kings.

Thus, with the festivities finished and the glow of the inauguration fading, it is fair to ask: Just how powerful will President Obama be in his second term? In other words, how successful will he be at persuading the diverse agents of our government to do what he wants them to do?

If the lessons of his first term guide our expectations for the second, then the most likely answer is: not very.

At first blush, this assertion might sound absurd. A weak President Obama? Proof of the contrary is in the pudding: The massive stimulus, the health care bill, and financial reform were all epic in their scope and ambition. Surely both left and right agree—whether they celebrate or bemoan the fact—that Obama is a very strong, liberal president.

But presidential power—the ability to persuade—has many sources, some external, some internal. The external sources are all reducible to “the political context.” How many seats does the president’s party control in Congress? What is the status of the opposition party? What was the relative strength of the president and his party in the last election? What is his job approval rating? And so on. All of these factors set the boundaries for how easily the president can persuade others.

In 2009 and 2010, President Obama enjoyed a very favorable political context. Today, the political context is more favorable to him than it was in 2011, but markedly diminished from the heady days of 2009. So, for instance, President Obama can call for action on “climate change” until he is blue (or, perhaps, green) in the face, but the political environment—including arguably the most conservative House of Representatives since the 1920s—means he lacks the power to make it happen.

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