The power of the bully pulpit

There’s been a lot of talk lately about Obama’s (non-)use of the bully pulpit in pressing his agenda, especially in the wake of his administration’s embarrassing defeat on gun control. Maureen Dowd kicked things off on Sunday:

How is it that the president won the argument on gun safety with the public and lost the vote in the Senate? It’s because he doesn’t know how to work the system. And it’s clear now that he doesn’t want to learn, or to even hire some clever people who can tell him how to do it or do it for him.

It’s unbelievable that with 90 percent of Americans on his side, he could get only 54 votes in the Senate. It was a glaring example of his weakness in using leverage to get what he wants. No one on Capitol Hill is scared of him.

Even House Republicans who had no intention of voting for the gun bill marveled privately that the president could not muster 60 votes in a Senate that his party controls.

That got the ball rolling. Yesterday, The New York Times Michael D. Shear and Peter Baker reported on the same theme:

Senator Mark Begich, Democrat of Alaska, asked President Obama’s administration for a little favor last month. Send your new interior secretary this spring to discuss a long-simmering dispute over construction of a road through a wildlife refuge, Mr. Begich asked in a letter. The administration said yes.

Four weeks later, Mr. Begich, who faces re-election next year, ignored Mr. Obama’s pleas on a landmark bill intended to reduce gun violence and instead voted against a measure to expand background checks. Mr. Obama denounced the defeat of gun control steps on Wednesday as “a shameful day.”

But Mr. Begich’s defiance and that of other Democrats who voted against Mr. Obama appear to have come with little cost. Sally Jewell, the interior secretary, is still planning a trip to Alaska — to let Mr. Begich show his constituents that he is pushing the government to approve the road.

The trip will also reinforce for Mr. Begich and his colleagues a truth about Mr. Obama: After more than four years in the Oval Office, the president has rarely demonstrated an appetite for ruthless politics that instills fear in lawmakers. That raises a broader question: If he cannot translate the support of 90 percent of the public for background checks into a victory on Capitol Hill, what can he expect to accomplish legislatively for his remaining three and a half years in office?

But Jonathan Chait isn’t having any of it:

During Bill Clinton’s first two terms, a Democratic senator from a red state (Richard Shelby of Alabama) defected on key votes. Clinton tried the “ruthless” approach of punishing Shelby by denying him these sorts of discretionary executive branch perks — first limiting his tickets to a ceremony honoring the Alabama football team, then threatening to move some NASA jobs out of his state. The tactic was universally seen to have backfired.

Did it really backfire? Probably not. Shelby voted the way he did because he assessed his own beliefs and interests. But that is the beauty of ignoring structural factors for stories about people: You can always tell a new one. If the president was nice, he should have been mean. If he was mean, he should have been nice. (Unless he prevailed, in which case his shrewd politicking saved the day!)

Obama faces a House controlled by far-right Republicans, and a Senate majority not sufficient to break what has become a routine supermajority requirement. And note that despite his national majority, Obama carried only 48 percent of House districts and 52 percent of the states, short of the threshold for passing laws in either chamber, which suggests that even a perfect effort to apply his popularity to any given issue is insufficient to pass a law.

Chait has a point. But I think there are two questions at play here simultaneously. One relates to Obama’s seeming unwillingness to get his hands dirty and shake some senators down, LBJ-style. The other is essentially a structural problem: when the vast majority of Americans support a legislative measure and it fails to succeed, one must ask whether our system is designed correctly for modern governance.

The answer to that question is almost assuredly no. The very fact that many news organizations now refer to votes that fail to obtain a supermajority in the same way they report on ones that don’t even receive a simple majority — as if the two scenarios equally demonstrate the bill’s unpopularity — is proof that the grinding inefficiency of Congress has permeated all aspects of our political activity. Broken institutions are so commonplace we don’t even notice them anymore.

This part is not Obama’s fault. But ironically enough, what the president’s team excelled at during his presidential campaign — setting the tone of the conversation early and defining his opponent before he had a chance to introduce himself to the broader public — his administration has abjectly failed at now. Virtually every major proposal Obama has introduced since he took office has been exaggerated, demonized, castigated, and lied about incessantly — only now and then provoking long-overdue and (by that point) completely ineffective responses in defense. So there is something to the bully pulpit theory. But it has less to do with what Obama should do today, now that gun control has lost anyway, and more to do with what he should have done years ago.

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About Jay Pinho

Jay is a data journalist and political junkie. He currently writes about domestic politics, foreign affairs, and journalism and continues to make painstakingly slow progress in amateur photography. He would very much like you to check out and if you have the chance.

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