Presidential Power

| Wed Aug. 3, 2011 5:49 PM EDT

I apologize in advance for indulging in a wonky process post yet again today ("more boy talk," as Twitter follower Stella calls it), but I want to repeat a point that I haven't made for a while. It got kicked off by this tweet from Dave Roberts:

My answer: No, he just has the easiest job. McConnell's sole goal for the past two years has been obstruction, something that Senate rules make easy. And the debt ceiling deal was a dog's breakfast of ideas from various sources. McConnell took credit for its final form, but he could do that mainly because, unlike John Boehner, he didn't have to put up with a big tea party contingent and was able to compromise without fear of losing his job.

More broadly, though, is it true that Republicans are just more ruthless and better strategists than President Obama? Matt Yglesias, after noting that the House is refusing to adjourn in order to prevent Obama from making recess appointments (they'll hold a pro forma session every few days), goes there:

I find that my mood around this fluctuates. Mondays and Wednesdays I’m frustrated by lefties who seem to see the unprecedented Republican obstruction the President is dealing with as part of an 11-dimensional chess game through which Obama “really” wants his progressive initiatives to be frustrated at every [turn]. On Tuesdays and Thursdays I think this is the most damning critique of all. In the face of an opposition that’s been relentlessly innovative, the White House has been staggeringly uncreative. Rather than a game of tit-for-tat, the Republicans seem to be inside the administration’s decision loop, heading off their retaliatory options before the President has even exercised them.

Has the White House really been staggeringly uncreative compared to Republicans? We don't have to guess about this. We recently had a Republican president in office for eight years and we can see just what he did. Keep in mind that George Bush was a very partisan animal and was advised by Karl Rove, a man with a major-league reputation for political ruthlessness. So what did Bush do to whip Democrats in line when they opposed him? Let's roll the tape:

  • 2001 tax cuts: passed by reconciliation so no Democratic votes were needed.
  • No Child Left Behind: No arm twisting here. This was a bipartisan bill cosponsored by Ted Kennedy. Bush got Democratic votes by agreeing to give Kennedy a lot of what he wanted.
  • War resolution: No arm twisting here either. After 9/11 Democrats were gung ho to invade Afghanistan and kick some al-Qaeda butt.
  • PATRIOT Act: Ditto.
  • Sarbanes-Oxley: This was basically a Democratic bill. Not only was there no arm twisting, Bush signed it reluctantly.
  • McCain-Feingold: Ditto.
  • Iraq war resolution: No arm twisting again. Lots of Democrats favored this and so did the public.
  • Homeland Security Department: Let's see. Oh yeah, I remember: Bush got his way here by winning the 2002 election and regaining his majority in Congress.
  • 2003 tax cuts: Again, passed via reconciliation. No Democratic votes needed.
  • Medicare Part D: Lots of arm twisting here, but mainly by Tom DeLay against his fellow Republicans. Several Democrats voted for it in the Senate, but let's be honest about this: details aside, it got some Dem votes because it was a piece of liberal social welfare legislation of the kind that Dems have long favored.
  • Social Security privatization: This failed. Bush was unable to get support from his own party, let alone coerce any support from Democrats.
  • Immigration reform: Ditto, more or less.

Contrary to his reputation, Bush mostly succeeded by pressing a moderate, and sometimes even liberal, agenda. Tax cuts aside, which he passed solely primarily with Republican support, the only real ruthlessness he showed toward Democrats on behalf of a conservative priority was the campaign hardball he played to add a union-busting provision to the Homeland Security bill. That was about it for presidential toughness. Ironically, the biggest show of ruthlessness during the Bush years was in the appointment of judges, but the ruthlessness there was wielded by Orrin Hatch, who made it easier to confirm conservative judges by peremptorily changing the blue slip rule in a remarkably cynical display of naked power politics. Democrats responded by filibustering a bunch of judges, which was also pretty unprecedented, and the whole thing eventually got resolved by a group of centrist senators called the Gang of 12. In this case, both sides displayed some ruthlessness, but not President Bush. He was just about the only person not really involved.

I'm not trying to make it sound like presidents are powerless. They can set agendas, they have control of executive orders, they have a pretty free hand in foreign policy, they can sway public opinion, they can lead their own party, and they can bargain with the other party.1 But Richard Neustadt taught us a long time ago that, especially on domestic issues, presidential power is distinctly limited. There's just not that much in the way of ruthless arm-twisting that they can do these days, and while Obama may not be as creative on this score as he ought to be, neither was Bush. That's more a reflection of political reality than it is of the character of either one of them.

1On the specific issue of the debt ceiling, the obvious thing Obama could have done differently was to insist that it be included as part of the lame duck deal last year. But for all the grief he's gotten over this, it's worth keeping in mind that Obama got a helluva lot out of that deal. In the end, he got a food safety bill, passage of the START treaty, a stimulus package, repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, and a 9/11 first responders bill. Maybe it would have been worth risking all that over inclusion of a debt ceiling increase, but that's hardly an open-and-shut case.

What's more, Obama also won passage during his first two years of a stimulus bill, a landmark healthcare bill that Democrats had been trying to pass for the better part of a century, a financial reform bill, and much needed reform of student loans. And more: a firm end to the Bush torture regime, the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, a hate crimes bill, a successful rescue of the American car industry, and resuscitation of the NLRB. Oh, and he killed Osama bin Laden too.

Sure, we all could have wished for more. Everyone has different hot buttons, and I particularly wish that financial reform had been stronger and that Obama had somehow managed to get cap-and-trade across the finish line. I'm also unhappy with the extension of the Afghanistan war and Obama's Bush-like policies regarding national security and civil liberties. Still and all, in two years Obama has done more to enact a liberal agenda than George Bush did for the conservative agenda in eight. That's not bad, folks. All things considered, I'd say Obama is the most effective politician of the Obama era. And the Bush era too.

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