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The Myth of Presidential Leadership

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The theme of presidential leadership is a venerated one in America, the subject of many biographies and an enduring mythology about great figures rising to the occasion. The term “mythology” doesn’t mean that the stories are inaccurate; Lincoln, the wonderful Steven Spielberg movie, conveyed a real sense of that president’s remarkable character and drive, as well as his ability to shape important events. Every president is compared to the Lincoln leadership standard and to those set by other presidents, and the first 100 days of every term becomes a measure of how a president is doing.

I have been struck by this phenomenon a lot recently, because at 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.

For Obama, we knew from the get-go that he had no Republicans willing to work with him. As Robert Draper pointed out in his book Do Not Ask What Good We Do, key GOP leaders such as Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan determined on inauguration eve in January 2009 that they would work to keep Obama and his congressional Democratic allies from getting any Republican votes for any of his priorities or initiatives. Schmoozing was not going to change that.

Nor would arm-twisting. On the gun-control vote in the Senate, the press has focused on the four apostate Democrats who voted against the Manchin-Toomey plan, and the unwillingness of the White House to play hardball with Democrat Mark Begich of Alaska. But even if Obama had bludgeoned Begich and his three colleagues to vote for the plan, the Democrats would still have fallen short of the 60 votes that are now the routine hurdle in the Senate—because 41 of 45 Republicans voted no. And as Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., has said, several did so just to deny Obama a victory.

Indeed, the theme of presidential arm-twisting again ignores history. Clinton once taught Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama a lesson, cutting out jobs in Huntsville, Ala. That worked well enough that Shelby switched parties, joined the Republicans, and became a reliable vote against Clinton. George W. Bush and Karl Rove decided to teach Sen. Jim Jeffords a lesson, punishing dairy interests in Vermont. That worked even better—he switched to independent status and cost the Republicans their Senate majority. Myths are so much easier than reality.

All this is not to say that leadership is meaningless and the situation hopeless. Obama has failed to use the bully pulpit as effectively as he could, not to change votes but to help define the agenda, while his adversaries have often—on health care, the economy, stimulus, and other issues—defined it instead. Shaping the agenda can give your allies traction and legitimize your policy choices and put your opponents on defense. And any of us could quibble with some of the strategic choices and timing emanating from the White House. But it 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.

Norm Ornstein is a correspondent for The Atlantic, a contributing editor and columnist for National Journal, and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research.

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