Why we shouldn't idolize the president

Peter Weber

The presidency doesn't come with magical powers, and worshipping the office can have serious consequences

Bob Woodward at The Washington Post and New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd have made something of a cottage industry out of belittling President Obama for failing to "lead," defined broadly as getting Congress to do what he wants it to. Americans are apparently receptive to this argument: In a Pew poll released Wednesday, 49 percent of respondents say that Obama is "able to get things done," down from 57 percent in January.

Well, "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," says Norman Ornstein in National Journal. But it's largely bunk, "and I have grown increasingly frustrated with how the mythology of leadership has been spread in recent weeks." Haven't any of these columnists and reporters studied basic civics and political science? asks Ornstein:

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.... 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....

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. [National Journal]

Like his predecessors, Obama "managed to get quite a bit done" when his party controlled Congress for the first two years, says Ed Kilgore at Washington Monthly. And like his predecessors — but more so, given the unprecedented lack of cooperation he's getting from Republicans — he's finding it harder to get stuff done when the opposing party controls at least one chamber of Congress. It's called the balance of powers, and it means everyone should "stop expecting this or any other president to be a super-hero," says Kilgore.

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All that may be true, says Jonathan Bernstein at The Washington Post, but it's more important to note that worshipping the presidency has consequences. "First of all, pretending that the president is all-powerful means that the press, and ultimately voters, tend to ignore the considerable responsibility that others within the system really have." Senators, House members, governors, and key bureaucrats all have power, and should be held to account for how they use it, Bernstein says:

What's more, mythologizing the president leads to letting him off the hook for those things he really can and should be held responsible for... whether it's appointing judges and executive branch officials or managing the bureaucracy..... False assumptions about presidential magic can get presidents unfairly criticized for not getting Congress or the bureaucracy to do whatever he wants — while at the same time preventing a careful look at just how well he actually bargained, given the real context and constraints he was working under.

Mythical presidents with magical powers are tempting. But they're not really democratic, and at any rate they're not real. We can do better on this one, folks. [Washington Post]

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