The weak, helpless, impotent presidency

The latest excuse from Obama defenders defies basic political reality

Published June 21, 2010 9:22PM (EDT)

(updated below [Reply to Chait])

As I noted earlier today, there is a newly minted Obama apologist meme that has been created and is being disseminated by Obama-defending pundits far and wide:  namely, liberals are blaming Obama for too much because the Presidency is actually quite a weak and powerless office, and he's powerless to do most of what liberals advocate.  This claim was articulated by Jonathan Bernstein in response to my post documenting how Barack Obama -- by supporting Blanche Lincoln rather than remaining neutral or supporting her primary challenger -- likely swung the election in her favor.  I argued that the central role Obama played in Lincoln's race illustrates that Presidents possess substantial means for influencing members of Congress.  In describing my argument as "ignorant nonsense that betrays a deep lack of understanding of how the government of the United States works," Bernstein did not bother to address, let alone refute, that extremely formidable presidential leverage that Obama just used to help Lincoln win in Arkansas.  

Instead, he broadly asserted that "the idea of an 'Impotent, Helpless President' . . . [is] basic American politics," that "the presidency is a very weak office," and that Obama has no real leverage to influence Democratic members of Congress to support legislation he wants.  Since then, a whole slew of Obama defenders have cited Bernstein's "Impotent Helpless Presidency" excuse to argue that progressives expect too much of Obama and that their criticisms of him are unfair, irrational and unwarranted.  Today, Jonathan Chait complains that I have only derided and mocked but not responded in detail to this argument.  That's basically true, as I find the argument self-refuting, but permit me to change that by responding in detail now.

Initially, this issue arose in the context of the health care debate, when progressive critics were complaining that the Obama White House was doing nothing to ensure passage of the public option.  In response, Obama defenders insisted that the fault lay not with Obama, but with Democratic members of Congress over whom Obama had no leverage.  All year long, they told their readers not to blame Obama for the lack of a public option because there was just nothing the helpless, powerless leader could do.  Except now it is conclusively clear that Obama never wanted the public option from the start -- Russ Feingold said as much, and The New York Times revealed that Obama secretly negotiated away the public option in deals with industry representatives very early on in the process.  Thus, critics who were complaining that Obama was publicly claiming to want to the public option while ensuring it would not be enacted were correct, while those who kept telling their readers that the fault lay with Democratic members of Congress -- not Obama -- were engaged in pure apologia.  

More broadly, after 8 years of Bush/Cheney, the very idea that the Presidency is a weak and largely powerless office is laughable on its face.  It's Barack Obama -- not the U.S. Congress -- who is detaining innocent people without trials, targeting U.S. citizens for due-process-free assassinations, secretly ordering covert wars via Special Operations Forces, ordering a "surge" in the nine-year-old war in Afghanistan, and launching cruise missile strikes with cluster bombs in Yemen.  The more honest commentators who are invoking this "weak presidency" defense on behalf of Obama -- such as Matt Ygleisas, Ezra Klein, and Scott Lemieux -- acknowledge its basic inapplicability to Terrorism and foreign policy, which accounts for a substantial part of the liberal critique of the Obama presidency.  And, for that matter, many of the positive steps Obama has taken -- changes in drug policy, an improvement in tone with the Muslim world, release of the OLC torture memos -- were also actions taken unilaterally using the power of the Presidency.

Apparently -- to hear Bernstein, Chait and their "weak presidency" excuse-makers tell it -- the country, once every four years, spends twenty-four straight months completely fixated on who is going to be elected to a weak and powerless office.  What a strange thing to do.  And we probably all owe George Bush and Dick Cheney a huge apology for blaming so many of America's problems on them when -- as it turns out -- they really had very little power over our political system (and were Bernstein, Chait and friends chiding Democrats during the Bush presidency for excessively blaming Bush and Cheney for problems that they couldn't possibly solve [or cause] given their powerless positions?).  And all Democratic anger at Ralph Nader for helping to elect Bush and defeat Al Gore surely must be misplaced, since the presidency is just a weak and impotent office without much influence anyway.  And I guess all that stuff about the "imperial presidency" we heard so much about over the last decade was pure fantasy; it turns out the office is so weak it barely has any purpose beyond the purely symbolic.  Who knew? 

This "weak presidency" excuse-making rests on an incredibly naïve, Schoolhouse-Rock-level understanding of our political system.  Yes, it's theoretically true -- just like we learn in the Sixth Grade -- that the Congress is the body that introduces and enacts laws, while the President has no vote in that process.  But the reality is that the President has vast and unfettered control over a sprawling Executive Branch.  More important, he presides over the Democratic Party and exerts extreme influence over its fund-raising infrastructure on which virtually every Democratic incumbent relies.  The means he has to exert influence over members of Congress when it's important to him -- as he just demonstrated in the Blanche Lincoln race and in other instances -- are numerous and formidable, as set forth below.

None of this is to say that the President is omnipotent.  It's certainly possible that he could truly devote himself to inducing the Congress to do something he wants, but fail.  The fact that the President fails to get something he wants is not proof that he failed to try.  The complaints have never been that the Obama White House failed to force Congress to enact progressive legislation it claimed it wanted, but rather, that they never really tried using the substantial leverage and influence they have, thus illustrating that they never really wanted it in the first place.  To claim that they have no such leverage is to ignore reality:

(1) The Obama White House has proven empirically that they have leverage over recalcitrant members of Congress.  When progressive House Members were refusing to vote for Obama's unconditional war-funding bill, this is what happened (though the White House, unsurprisingly, denied it):

The White House is playing hardball with Democrats who intend to vote against the supplemental war spending bill, threatening freshmen who oppose it that they won't get help with reelection and will be cut off from the White House, Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) said Friday. "We're not going to help you. You'll never hear from us again," Woolsey said the White House is telling freshmen.

Though it seemed very unlikely at the beginning of the process, the White House succeeded in whipping enough progressive votes to secure approval for this war package.  That's what the President can do when he actually cares about a particular bill, such as war-funding.

(2) As Obama just proved in the Arkansas race, his endorsement carries significant sway with large numbers of Democratic voters, including in conservative states.  As The Washington Post documented, Obama's endorsement of Lincoln is likely what enabled her victory.  In 2006, the Democratic establishment's actual neutrality in the Connecticut Senate race -- paying mere lip service to supporting Democratic nominee Ned Lamont but doing nothing meaningful to help him win -- is what helped Joe Lieberman to win that race.

Lieberman and Ben Nelson are up for re-election in 2012, and Lincoln is this year.  Does anyone actually doubt that an Obama threat to support a primary challenge against any Democratic incumbent, to encourage Democratic fund-raisers to send their money elsewhere, or to refrain from playing any role in their re-election, would influence their votes on matters important to the White House?  Again, that's not to say it would guarantee compliance, but the fact that the White House did exactly that on the war-funding vote, but not on the public option, reflected their priorities.

(3) There is a huge and critical Democratic Party fund-raising apparatus that relies on the White House for access, influence, jobs and a whole variety of other benefits over which the President exerts great influence.  Is there anyone in D.C. who doubts that the most important priority of virtually every progressive and liberal political group -- to say nothing of major corporate donors -- is to stay in good standing with the White House?  If the White House subtly directs the major Party fund-raisers and its money apparatus to refrain from supporting a particular incumbent who impedes Obama's agenda, that would be a serious impediment to that incumbent's re-election bid.

(4) Using his control over his Party, the President exerts substantial influence over the various perquisites which Senators have.  It was Obama's decree that Lieberman should retain his Homeland Security Chairmanship despite his support for John McCain which led to his keeping that important position.  In 2004, after Arlen Specter suggested he might impede Bush's anti-abortion nominees to the Supreme Court, he had to beg and plead to keep his position as Judiciary Committee Chairman.  There are countless ways for a Party -- and its leader, the President -- to severely diminish the influence and power a recalcitrant member wields.

(5) One of the principal aspects that make the "weak presidency" claim so laughable is that the post-World-War II presidency has done virtually nothing but expand in power.  The President controls virtually the entire Pentagon and intelligence industry, and all administrative agencies, with very few limits.  That includes a massive amount of jobs, contracts, access, and projects the White House single-handedly directs, and the President can expand or cancel a whole slew of pet projects for various members of Congress and their home states or districts.

(6) It is extremely common for the White House to horse-trade with members of its own party to secure support for legislation it wants.  It can and does trade appointments, concessions on other bills, pork projects in the Executive Branch's discretion, and favors for political allies in exchange for a certain vote; conversely, it can threaten to impose all sorts of political costs on incumbents using those same measures.  Again, anyone whose understanding of the political process has advanced beyond Saturday morning cartoons recognizes this is the case.

(7) With regard to matters such as the BP spill, which many Obama defenders have cited to argue that liberals are unfairly criticizing the weak and impotent President, it is the Executive Branch which exerted full control over the approval of BP's off-shore leases and which has serious statutory authority to exert real control over the response to the spill. 

(8) Because the President is far and away the dominant political actor, he can exert far more influence on our political debates than anyone else using the proverbial "bully pulpit," and can bring substantial pressure to bear on incumbent members of Congress through that advocacy and public pressure.

Let's repeat:  to argue that the President has substantial leverage over members of his own Party is not to claim that he can exert total control.  Even when he tries his hardest, he's likely to lose in some instances (although you can count on one hand the instances when Bush/Cheney failed to control members of their Party).  But this debate first arose in the context of the stimulus package (when the White House never tried to secure a greater amount of funds), and then reached its peak in the health care debate (when the President not only failed to try to win support for the public option, but actively worked against it from the start).  Whatever else is true, to posit that the Presidency is some sort of weak, powerless, impotent office -- all as a means of claiming that no problems can be laid at Obama's feet, because his office is barely above that of a functionary when it comes to Congress -- is patently absurd, and it's Obama himself who, when actually motivated, has proven that to be the case.

* * * * * 

Note the revealing irony that Chait, while complaining that I failed to address the "substance" of this "weak presidency" excuse, completely ignored -- as in:  pretended it did not exist -- the argument I made:  that cases such as Obama's knowing imprisonment of innocent detainees is purely his own doing, and reveals the moral and political bankruptcy of the claim that progressive criticisms of Obama are grounded in unrealistic views of his power.  Obama defenders like Chait studiously ignore abuses like this one because they do not want to defend such things (who would?) but also do not want to acknowledge the profound flaws of this President and the vast power he asserts.


UPDATE:  My reply to Jonathan Chait's response is here.

By Glenn Greenwald

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