Obama Has No Magic 'Leadership' Wand

A reminder that Obama can't unilaterally bend political opponents to his will.

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President Barack Obama

Punditry is divided into two classes these days: those blaming President Obama and his perceived failure to "lead" for the gridlock that has consumed our government and those who believe that since the president has to deal with a coequal branch of government, blame should spread beyond that end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Count Norm Ornstein among those who support the latter, arguing that Washington's problems extend beyond Obama's leadership or lack thereof. He writes in this week's National Journal ( h/t Ed Kilgore):

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. And it took eight months to get enough Democrats to limp over the finish line. How did things work out on his health care plan? How about his impeachment in the House?

No one knew Congress, or the buttons to push with every key lawmaker, better than LBJ. It worked like a charm in his famous 89th, Great Society Congress, largely because he had overwhelming majorities of his own party in both houses. But after the awful midterms in 1966, when those swollen majorities receded, LBJ's mastery of Congress didn't mean squat.

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. But he was able to do it—as he was able to achieve a breakthrough on tax reform—because he had key Democrats willing to work with him and find those compromises.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

That last qualifier – a willingness to compromise – is key in the Obama context. Remember that for many conservatives compromise means "Democrats joining Republicans to roll back the size of government," as failed Senate candidate Richard Mourdock once put it. Or as then-House Republican Policy Committee chairman Tom Price put it last year, "Compromising is one thing as long as you're compromising and moving in the direction of your principles. If you're compromising and moving away from the direction of your principles, I'm not sure it's a compromise." Actually, for those of you keeping score at home, moving away from your principles is the very definition of compromise: You give up some of what you want and the other side does likewise.

But compromise is terrifically unpopular with the conservative base currently ascendant in the GOP. Ideological purity is valued over, at times, even winning elections: Recall then-Senator Jim DeMint's 2010 declaration that he'd rather have "30 Marco Rubios in the Senate than 60 Arlen Specters," referencing moderate Pennsylvania senator Specter and then-Tea Party idol Rubio. (Given Rubio's apparent interest in passing an immigration reform bill rather than mindlessly grandstanding, DeMint might now rephrase that remark to favor 30 of Ted Cruz or Mike Lee over 60 Rubios.)

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

As Ornstein points out, Republican leadership charted a no-compromise path even before Obama took office. And recall that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in October of 2010, "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president."

The notion that – to borrow some terminology from baseball quants – Obama's "value over replacement president" is low because a competent president would be able to wave his magic "leadership" wand and persuade large numbers of Republicans to make deals is a beltway fantasy. (This is what many bloggers have come to call the Green Lantern theory of presidential leadership, after the DC Comics hero whose power derives in part from his sheer willpower.) As Jonathan Chait wrote after Obama's last press conference:

It's hard to argue against this kind of analysis because, like gut-based electoral forecasting, it's not quite coherent enough to rise to the level of wrong. "Leadership" is a real thing — but it's a quality used to describe the way you rally your underlings or your peers. You don't use "leadership" against your opponents!

Now as Ornstein also points out – his full column is worth a read – that doesn't mean Obama has done a faultless job. As I wrote last week, the fact that voters agree with him overwhelmingly on the specifics of policy and loathe congressional Republicans but still trust the two sides roughly equally on abstract policy matters ("Who do you trust more to make the right decisions about…") is a signal of the deep communications failure of this White House. But it's not a failure in isolation – it has to be understood in the context of an opposition unwilling to be led.