What If Obama Can't Lead?

Two New York Times reporters recently posited for President Obama this grim scenario: Low growth, high unemployment, and growing income inequality become "the new normal" in the nation he leads. "Do you worry," the journalists asked him, "that that could end up being your legacy simply because of the obstruction ... and the gridlock that doesn't seem to end?"

Obama's reply was telling. "I think if I'm arguing for entirely different policies and Congress ends up pursuing policies that I think don't make sense and we get a bad result," he said, "it's hard to argue that'd be my legacy."

Actually, it's hard to argue that it wouldn't be his legacy. History judges U.S. presidents based upon what they did and did not accomplish. The obstinacy of their rivals and the severity of their circumstances is little mitigation. Great presidents overcome great hurdles.

In Obama's case, the modern GOP is an obstructionist, rudderless party often held hostage by extremists. So … get over it. His response to The New York Times is another illustration that Obama and his liberal allies have a limited—and limiting—definition of presidential leadership.

I call it the White Flag Syndrome.

Their argument is best expressed by Ezra Klein of The Washington Post, who posted a thoughtful rebuttal in May to journalists like me who demand more leadership from the White House.

"The problems of American politics today are not overly complicated, or even overly controversial. They're just hard to fix.


The two political parties have polarized. Unlike in the 1960s, when Jesse Helms was a Democrat, and George Romney was a Republican, today's Republicans agree with Republicans, and today's Democrats agree with Democrats. That, plus the zero-sum nature of elections and the rise of an ideological media and interest-group infrastructure that credibly threatens dissenters with primary challenges, has made bipartisan consensus on most big issues structurally impossible.


That's fine. It's how most political systems operate, in fact. But our political system, which is centered around Congress rather than the White House, requires extraordinary levels of consensus to operate smoothly. That leaves us with two choices: Either figure out a way to depolarize the parties or change the rules of the political system so it can operate more smoothly even amid polarization."

Klein wrote that we're not going to depolarize the parties, and thus the goal must to identify what "tweaks and reforms" we can make to the political structure so that it can withstand polarization. That won't be easy, Klein wrote.

"But that work is made harder by pundits who continue to falsely promise that the glowing briefcase of president leadership can fix what ails us. Telling the American people that the only thing missing is the president being more awesome promises them the easy way out. It says that all they need to do to fix our politics is get inspired by a new presidential candidate and then cast a hopeful vote for him or her at the polls. That's terrifically convenient, because that also happens to be the part of American politics that voters most enjoy participating in and that media most enjoys covering."

He accused me and other journalists of adhering to the "Green Lantern Theory"—a belief that U.S. presidents are endowed with superhero powers.

"But since the problem in American politics is not presidential leadership, telling them that the president—whether this one or a new one—can fix it traps voters in an endless cycle of inspiration and disillusionment. They vote for presidents expecting them to be 'uniters,' expecting them to 'change Washington,' and then they're bitterly disappointed when their heroes fail. But on this score, presidents are going to continue to fail because they can't possibly succeed."

Klein is right about this: No president is a superhero. First, as Klein suggests, the U.S. political system faces enormous structural problems that make leadership challenging for any president. Chief among them is sophisticated redistricting that has helped create a polarized Congress packed with lawmakers with no incentive to compromise. Second, government austerity reduces the president's ability to bargain with Congress. Third, the democratization of politics—and of big money in particular—has weakened the party structures. That has weakened a president's powers that stem from his role as the titular party chief. Finally, the modern GOP is less willing than Democrats to compromise. There is something to Obama's complaint that virtually any policy he supports will be met by resistance.

But none of these are excuses for failure. Presidential leadership (or the lack of it) still makes an enormous difference. Here's where I respectfully disagree with Klein and others in his orbit:

1. Voter disillusionment is not caused by pundits who (quoting Klein again) "falsely promise that the glowing briefcase of president leadership can fix what ails us." The greatest guilt lies with presidential candidates who overpromise. Obama explicitly vowed to change the culture of Washington. For two consecutive elections, he toted his glowing briefcase and waved his green lantern to give voters the audacity to hope. He knew the limits of his powers when he ran for the job. When his broken promises feed disillusionment, the president can't shirk responsibility.

2. The extreme sorting-out of the two parties in Congress is nothing new. It was mostly complete after the 1994 midterms, and posed challenges for both Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush. Despite polarization, Obama's two predecessors managed to find common ground with their obstinate opposing parties. Yes, politics is hard today—but no harder than, say, during the Civil War era or the turbulent 1960s.

3. The outsize attention given to the president gives him unparalleled advantages. Obama can make better use of it. He could talk to the media and the public more often with a more compelling and sustained message. He could build enduring relationships in Washington rather than being so blatantly transactional with his time. He could work harder, and with more empathy, on Capitol Hill to find "win-win" opportunities with Republicans. He could make better use of his Cabinet to message and enact policies. In private, he could talk less and listen more. In public, he could set reasonable expectations and meet them. He could pick his fights better. In hindsight, Obama should have gotten much more out of Congress when Democrats controlled both chambers. 

In March, a reporter asked Obama why he didn't lock congressional leaders in a room until they agreed on a budget deal. Obama's answer was based on two assumptions. First, that his opinion is supreme. Second, he can't break the logjam. What a remarkable combination of arrogance and impotence.

"I am not a dictator. I'm the president," he said. "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."

Obama could still do great things. But not if he and his advisers underestimate a president's powers, and don't know how to exploit them. Not if his sympathizers give Obama cover by minimizing his influence. Cover to fail. Not if the president himself is outwardly and boundlessly dismissive of his critics, telling The New York Times, "I'm not concerned about their opinions."

To say the situation is intractable seems akin to waving a white flag over a polarized capital: Republicans suck. We can't deal with them. Let's quit.

I'm afraid they have quit—all of them, on both sides. At the White House and in Congress, most Democrats and Republicans have abandoned hope of fixing the nation's problems. If leadership was merely about speaking to the converted, winning fights and positioning for blame, America would be in great hands. But it's not.