Follow-up on the weak, impotent, helpless presidency

A Treasury official boasts that the WH removed progressive provisions from the financial reform bill

Published June 22, 2010 5:23PM (EDT)

(updated below - Update II [Wed.] - Update III [Wed.])

After I fulfilled Jonathan Chait's plea for a substantive response to his and Jonathan Bernstein's argument that the President is weak and impotent when it comes to influencing Congress and thus not to be blamed for what they do or don't do, he "replies" today by ignoring most of the arguments I made and distorting the rest.  Others have responded to my argument a bit more substantively, but I'm content to let stand the extensive arguments I made yesterday which, in my view, disprove this excuse-making and detail the extensive leverage Obama has over Congress (and which he's used when it was important to him).  But since this "weak Presidency" excuse has become so prevalent, I just want to make three brief, additional points about all of this:

First, just read this -- and focus on the last sentence -- from a New York article last month by John Heilemann about the role the Obama administration played in killing numerous progressive provisions in the financial reform bill:

Geithner's team spent much of its time during the debate over the Senate bill helping Senate Banking Committee chair Chris Dodd kill off or modify amendments being offered by more-progressive Democrats. A good example was Bernie Sanders's measure to audit the Fed, which the administration played a key role in getting the senator from Vermont to tone down. Another was the Brown-Kaufman Amendment, which became a cause célèbre among lefty reformers such as former IMF economist Simon Johnson. "If enacted, Brown-Kaufman would have broken up the six biggest banks in America,'' says the senior Treasury official. 'If we'd been for it, it probably would have happened. But we weren't, so it didn't'."

Please read that last quote again.  How bizarre that a "senior Treasury official" believes that Brown-Kaufman died because the administration wanted it to, but would have been enacted if the White House wanted that outcome.  According to Jonathan Bernstein and Jonathan Chait, anyone who believes that the administration can exert substantial leverage over the domestic policy which Congress enacts is spouting "ignorant nonsense that betrays a deep lack of understanding of how the government of the United States works."  How delusional of this senior Treasury official to think that the administration had the power to make the financial reform legislation more progressive than it is if it wanted that.  It's almost as though he thinks that the White House exerts influence over members of the President's party with regard to what legislation is and is not enacted.  That Treasury official probably just needs to sit in on one of Bernstein's Political Science classes to learn about how the Government really functions:  all that super-sophisticated Bernstein analysis about how weak the President is because it's the Congress that introduces legislation and the President has no vote and thus no leverage.

Second, Chait -- hauling out the decades-old, trite TNR playbook -- says that anyone (such as me) who believes that "Obama secretly opposed the public option. . . is revealing himself as a fanatic."  Hey, Jon Chait:  meet that ignorant "fanatic" Russ Feingold, who said this about the public-option-free health care bill:

Liberals have blamed Lieberman, some publicly and many privately, for forcing Reid to drop the public option, which for many liberals had been a crucial piece of reform. . . .

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), among the most vocal supporters of the public option, said it would be unfair to blame Lieberman for its apparent demise. Feingold said that responsibility ultimately rests with President Barack Obama and he could have insisted on a higher standard for the legislation.

"This bill appears to be legislation that the president wanted in the first place, so I don’t think focusing it on Lieberman really hits the truth," said Feingold. "I think they could have been higher. I certainly think a stronger bill would have been better in every respect."

Just compare what Jon Chait said (anyone who believes that "Obama secretly opposed the public option. . . is revealing himself as a fanatic") to what Russ Feingold said ("This bill appears to be legislation that the president wanted in the first place").  Also, Jon Chait:  meet those "fanatics" at The New York Times, who explained that Obama killed off the public option extremely early in the process because of how opposed to it industry interests were:

For months I've been reporting in The Huffington Post that President Obama made a backroom deal last summer with the for-profit hospital lobby that he would make sure there would be no national public option in the final health reform legislation. (See here, here and here). . . .

On Monday, Ed Shultz interviewed New York Times Washington reporter David Kirkpatrick on his MSNBC TV show, and Kirkpatrick confirmed the existence of the deal.  Shultz quoted Chip Kahn, chief lobbyist for the for-profit hospital industry on Kahn's confidence that the White House would honor the no public option deal, and Kirkpatrick responded:

"That's a lobbyist for the hospital industry and he's talking about the hospital industry's specific deal with the White House and the Senate Finance Committee and, yeah, I think the hospital industry's got a deal here. There really were only two deals, meaning quid pro quo handshake deals on both sides, one with the hospitals and the other with the drug industry.  And I think what you're interested in is that in the background of these deals was the presumption, shared on behalf of the lobbyists on the one side and the White House on the other, that the public option was not going to be in the final product."

On the subject of whether it was the White House which from the start worked to kill the public option, I'm content to let others weigh all of this evidence against Chait's adorably steadfast faith that if the President said he was for the public option and was trying to get it, then by gosh, that means he was, but because he's so weak, his valiant efforts on behalf of the public option tragically failed.

Third, Chait says that although he doesn't "agree with [my] positions on foreign policy and civil liberties" -- the example I used in my reply to him yesterday was Obama's imprisoning detainees which the Government knows to be innocent; does Chait support that? -- he does agree that I "have a valid beef with Obama in these areas" and that "the president has enormous influence over foreign policy and civil liberties issues."  Indeed, the President does, and I welcome that concession, since much (though by no means all) of the liberal discontent with Obama falls within those areas, rendering the "weak presidency" excuse inapplicable at least to those objections (Bernstein's original post contained no such caveats, arguing instead that in general:  "the idea of an 'Impotent, Helpless President' . . . [is] basic American politics" and that "the presidency is a very weak office").  

As I've acknowledged from the start, the President does have some constraints in the area of domestic policy and will not always be able to move Congress to do what he wants.  The complaint has been not that Obama is omnipotent and thus failed to get good progressive bills, but that he did not use his substantial leverage to try (again, just contrast what the White House did on the war supplemental bill).  But the claim that he has virtually no leverage to influence what Congress does on domestic policy is silly, and to see how true that is, just look at the central role the White House played in killing the public option and -- according to its own Treasury official -- is now playing by dictating which progressive provisions will be killed from the financial reform bill and which ones will remain.


UPDATE:  From The Huffington Post's Ryan Grim and Shahien Nasiripour, last week (h/t Presumptuous Insect):

The White House is intervening at the last minute to come to the defense of multinational corporations in the unfolding conference committee negotiations over Wall Street reform.

A measure that had been generally agreed to by both the House and Senate, which would have affirmed the SEC's authority to allow investors to have proxy access to the corporate decision-making process, was stripped by the Senate in conference committee votes on Wednesday and Thursday.  Five sources with knowledge of the situation said the White House pushed for the measure to be stripped at the behest of the Business Roundtable.  The sources -- congressional aides as well as outside advocates -- requested anonymity for fear of White House reprisal.

What's all this business about "fear of White House reprisal"?  What could the weak, impotent White House possibly do to someone that would make them shake in fear?  The Obama White House sure does seem to find a way to muster all the leverage it needs to dictate legislative outcomes -- when it actually wants to.


UPDATE II:  Robert Farley writes:

I haven't really seen anyone claim that the US Presidency is "weak, helpless, and impotent"; Glenn certainly intimates that his interlocutors have this view, but he fails to demonstrate such, and my own cursory reading of the discussion has thus far failed to uncover anyone who holds such a view of the US executive.

Oh, really?  From Jonathan Bernstein's original post on this topic, which started this discussion and which virtually every proponent of this "the-Presidency-is-Weak" theory (including Farley himself) has approvingly cited:

Is the idea of an "Impotent, Helpless President" a joke? No, it's basic American politics. As I usually do, I'll go straight to Richard Neustadt: . . . . Neustadt's classic is all about how the presidency is a very weak office. . . .

Gee, I wonder where I got that idea from.  And you know what the title of Bernstein's post was?  This: "The Presidency Is Weak. Really."  Farley says that he's never encountered anyone who argued that the presidency is weak, helpless and impotent even though Bernstein's post -- which Farley himself cites when disputing (and thus presumably read) -- says exactly that ("Is the idea of an 'Impotent, Helpless President' a joke?  No, it's basic American politics").  

Meanwhile, over at The American Propsect, Mori Dinauer says that my "focus on the abuse of executive power has led [me] to believe presidents have powers they don't" and that I "believe that the president can bend Congress to his will."  Why is it that no matter how many times you say "I am not arguing and do not believe X," someone will come along and say:  "can you believe that he's arguing X?"  How much clearer could I have made it over the course of three posts that I do not believe that the President can bend Congress to his will ("As I've acknowledged from the start, the President does have some constraints in the area of domestic policy and will not always be able to move Congress to do what he wants. . . . 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").

Rather, the argument is that there are substantial tools of leverage the President has to influence what Congress does -- I identified eight separate such tools, and Bernstein himself in a comment yesterday on his site acknowledged that "Greenwald's list of eight weapons the president had is on the right track."  The argument is not that he will automatically win every battle he undertakes, but that he has refused and continues to refuse to employ those weapons in support of much progressive legislation he and his defenders claim he wants, but uses those same weapons aggressively and effectively for the opposite (uncondititional war-funding, stripping out provisions from financial reform which Wall Street dislikes, defeating drug re-importation to ensure that the pharmaceutical industry remains happy, negotiating the public option away at the start of the process to please industry interests, etc.).  One can reasonably argue that there may be good reasons why he chooses to exert (or not exert) his influence in the way he does -- as Matt Eckel does in admirably trying to find middle ground in this debate -- but one cannot reasonably claim that he lacks substantial leverage to influence the legislative process if he chooses to.


UPDATE III:  Here's Politico today on last night's victory of Blue Dog Democratic incumbent Rep. Jim Matheson in Utah over his liberal primary challenger:

He was the beneficiary of late support from Organizing for America, President Barack Obama’s grassroots organization, which used e-mails, text messages, and campaign mailers to urge Democrats pull the lever for the incumbent.

Similar to what they did for Blanche Lincoln, the Obama White House unleashed its OFA Army to help protect a Blue Dog incumbent against a progressive challenger.  Being able to do that, or not do it, or doing it in the other direction (i.e., to support the primary challenger) sounds to me like some pretty substantial leverage to use over members of Congress.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

MORE FROM Glenn Greenwald

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Barack Obama Washington