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Thankfully This Time, the Green Lantern Theory of Presidential Power is Wrong

[ 38 ] March 20, 2012 |

Since this failure to bring Congress aboard involves Obama trying to achieve abysmally and unnecessarily conservative ends, I’m pretty sure that this time I’m not going to get much of a “but if Obama really wanted a terrible fiscal policy “grand bargain” he would have used the magical powers of the Bully Pulpit to ram it through, so obviously he didn’t really want it” pushback from those who would ordinarily provide it.

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  1. Anonymous says:

    As soon as ObamaCare is struck down by the Supremes, what will be left of Obama’s legacy when he leaves in January, 2013?

    Lily Ledbetter? Lol.

    • Malaclypse says:

      Wait, are you saying he has not left us permanently prostrated before our enemies? Fucking hell, Reagan said it took the better part of a decade to recover from Carter! Where’s our decadent effete liberal?

    • Malaclypse says:

      And, what happened to the Dramatic Exit? Poor follow-through, son.

    • Hogan says:

      Osama bin Laden: still dead.

      • Slocum says:

        Had to basically pay the defense and security industries trillions in order to destroy two countries to do it.

        But a man’s gotta do, what a man’s gotta do.

    • mpowell says:

      As much as I feel that I probably don’t agree with many of the underlying priors in this comment here, I do believe there are still huge question marks surrouding Obama’s legacy and simply the magnitude of his impact. If Obamacare does go down (and it hasn’t even fully taken effect yet!) that’s a major loss. And from a strictly policy perspective, there was no need for the risk. We are stuck relying on ‘trust our judgement’ claims for Obama’s team about what was necessary to get something through congress. Let me say that I have always been pretty suspicious of those claims.

      • wengler says:

        I think the only thing to judge him and future Presidents on is whether or not they did something to stop the rich becoming richer and the poor becoming poorer.

        Income and capital inequality is the root problem in our society. If this was the measure, Obama is performing very badly.

        Also FDR would win.

        • Ronnie P says:

          In fairness, FDR didn’t have to pick up the pieces after his fellow Dems had spent a decade or two convincing everyone that income inequality was not a cool thing to talk about.

      • Scott Lemieux says:

        The risk was, in fact, completely necessary. No mandate, no health care reform.

      • “We are stuck relying on ‘trust our judgement’ claims for Obama’s team about what was necessary to get something through congress.”

        At least where healthcare reform is concerned, this seems very much not correct, given that we also have plenty of statements and actions from members of Congress to use as evidence as well. For example, the “strong” public option couldn’t even secure a majority in the more progressive and majoritarian House, and of course there were Joe Lieberman’s very public pronouncements that he was just out to piss off the hippies. Now, perhaps it was possible that all of this was hokum, but for the sake of drawing conclusions it seems like we ought to take it at face value at least until someone presents a plausible theory of how Obama/Reid could have persuaded Lieberman to support a public option (to say nothing of Nelson, Bayh, etc.)

        • mpowell says:

          I’m talking about not structuring the mandate as a tax (which leaves it vulnerable to bogus SCOTUS threats) and the silly budget window manipulation delaying many of the benefits of the plan.

    • wengler says:

      I thought you were off shooting the planet in the face.

    • Socraticsilence says:

      One less Osama than Bush left us with?

  2. actor212 says:

    Scott, I think Chait misses a larger point here, altho I didn’t click thru to the WaPo article to see if they covered it.

    The sense I get is that Obama correctly read the state of the Republican Congressional caucus and knew Boehner couldn’t deliver anything and basically tested that theory knowing any deal with the President would get shot down.

    • Mike D. says:

      I have the same sense. Advantage is you come out looking like you really were looking for a Grand Bargain, which, merits aside, is good politically among non-hippies.

      • joe from Lowell says:

        To put a slightly finer point on it, the advantage is that your opponents look like they are too extreme and intransigent to strike a Grand Bargain.

        Matt Yglesias loves to make the point that two-party politics is a zero-sum game. If you know down your opponents, it’s the same thing as building yourself up. Even if you damage yourself a little, if you damage your opponents more, you end up ahead. Look at what happened to the Republicans’ approval numbers (and, therefore, their ability to push their narrative) during and after the debt ceiling fight. That, not putting a halo on Obama, was the advantage.

        Look at how the contraception-coverage fight has played out over the past month and a half. Have you seen anyone applauding the Democrats for being right? No, they’ve been bashing the Republicans – but it amounts to the same thing.

    • joe from Lowell says:

      I think the problem is that the same people who haven’t been able to figure out how such a strategy works, also aren’t able to recognize it when it’s happening.

  3. Incontinentia Buttocks says:

    The non-foolish, non-Green Lantern bully pulpit theories is that the President can bring about incremental changes over time in either public opinion or voting behavior on Capitol Hill by speaking out publicly on issues.

    By calling this version “non-foolish,” I really don’t mean to argue that it’s correct; it might in fact be wrong. But nobody actually believes that Presidents can automatically accomplish anything they put their minds to (which would, presumably, be the Green Lantern theory of Presidential power). And really, that largely imaginary theory is the only thing that this story really disproves.

    As for the equally foolish 11th-dimensional chess argument that Obama knew exactly how this would turn out so he did this for [insert inscrutable reason] rather than for the apparent reason of accomplish a goal utterly anathema to his liberal base…I’ll believe it when I see a scrap of evidence that the White House was thinking this way last year.

    Over the last several months, we’ve had a number of journalistic accounts of the inner workings of the Obama White House. To the best of my knowledge, not a single one of them has suggested that the inner discussions of the administration during 2011 were aiming for the kind of thing that actor212 suggests above.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      But nobody actually believes that Presidents can automatically accomplish anything they put their minds to (which would, presumably, be the Green Lantern theory of Presidential power).

      A slight exaggeration, but “Obama could have gotten Bayh, Lieberman, Nelson et al. to vote for robust single payer if he wanted to” is not a strawman. It’s a terrible argument, but it’s not a strawman. (Or, even sillier, “Obama could have ended the filibuster if he wanted to.”)

      • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

        It’s only barely not a strawman, Scott. Most people who argue that Obama should have pushed for single payer don’t suggest that he would have gotten single payer, but merely that he would have gotten something better than he ended up with (e.g. a PO). This argument may also be wrong, but it doesn’t rely on Green Lanternism.

    • joe from Lowell says:

      As for the equally foolish 11th-dimensional chess argument that Obama knew exactly how this would turn out

      Now that’s the straw man here.

      It doesn’t require knowing exactly how a gambit will turn out in order to launch one. It’s about positioning, and what you do with your position depends upon what develops over the course of the game.

    • chris says:

      accomplish a goal utterly anathema to his liberal base

      If a massive expansion of health care coverage and subsidies for the poor is utterly anathema to someone, I don’t know that they qualify as liberal, let alone part of Obama’s base.

  4. dms says:

    You’ll have to excuse me, because I’m currently staring down my 58th birthday, and I have drunk heavily for the last two decades.

    I’ve read this post several times; I read the Chait article; and I still don’t get your point.

    So, explain it to me like I’m a child.

    BTW, the phrase should be “to ram it thRough,” not “to ram it though.”

    • david mizner says:

      His argument, I think, is that Obama wanted to cut Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid but couldn’t bend Congress to his will. That is, it’s the flip side of the (reasonable though mostly straw man assaulting ) argument that Obama could push liberal bills through. Here he failed to push a conservative “compromise”through, so Scott says, I told ya so!

      Leaving aside the larger point that I address below — that this reporting leaves Obama exposed as a New Deal-slaughtering terror — what this really shows is what we already knew; that it was the extremism of the GOP that saved the social safety net. Both Pelosi and Reid had signed on to help kill Social Security and Medicare, not to mention the Democratic Party. That Scott would take this already-known but astounding story and focus on a tangential, esoteric argument about presidential power is, uh, strange.

  5. david mizner says:

    Pretty funny, this post.

    For most of us, the argument at the heart of bully pulpit-green latern argument is over Obama’s liberalism or lack thereof, with one side arguing that his failure to fight for liberal bills shows his essential conservatism (or neoliberalism) and the other side saying that it tells us nothing about his ideology; he was a liberal doing the best he could.

    Here we have definitive proof of Obama’s essential conservativism, so yes, it vindicates one side in this debate, and it ain’t Obama’s defenders.

    • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

      I think Scott’s argument is roughly that, to the extent that this story vindicates the view that Obama is a no progressive, it also suggests that it wouldn’t make a difference is he were one.

      The intellectual book-end to this is actor212′s revival of the 11th-Dimensional Chess argument, in which this story of Obama attempting to sell-out liberalism and failing–is turned on its head by positing (on the basis of no evidence whatsoever) that Obama intended the failure of the apparent sell-out and thus was actually revealed (yet again!) to be a fiendishly subtle, but wildly successful progressive, rather than a failed neoliberal.

      • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

        Or to summarize further: either Obama is what a successful progressive president looks like (actor212) or the very notion of a successful progressive president is a chimera (Scott).

        • david mizner says:

          Is that what he’s saying? That any
          Democratic President to the left of, say, Ben Nelson would produce the same domestic legislation? That’s a funny argument even if you leave aside all the things in a president’s control.

          Anyway, Digby did a pretty good post on this.

          Of course presidents can’t really “persuade” people of the opposing party in a polarized environment, for all the reasons Ezra lays out in his piece. But I feel as if this whole argument is about doing something that nobody but President Obama, op-ed writers and some of his more fervent followers ever thought was possible in the first place. They’re the only ones who believed that the Republicans were going to fall at his feet and work together in bipartisan harmony — or that his magical powers of persuasion would create a groundswell of support among Independents and rank and file Republicans.

          When progressives called for President Obama to make speeches it wasn’t with the goal that he lift his poll numbers or get Mitch McConnell to sign on. Indeed, that’s the opposite of what they wanted — the “Grand Bargains” required to get such a deal are worse than nothing at all from their perspective. The reason they wanted him to make speeches was to mobilize his followers to help “persuade” their representatives to pass progressive legislation — or even just reaffirm his commitment to shared goals and educate the public about what those goals are. The administration abandoned any notions of doing this shortly after the election[. . . .] But Ezra’s piece reaffirms that this is the way major change happens in this environment, so you can’t really blame the progressives for pushing it. That’s what they wanted — major change. And in a bit of an ironic surprise, Ezra demonstrated that in this case, the progressives were the pragmatic sorts calling for “what works” — not the president.

          http://digbysblog.blogspot.com/2012/03/progressive-persuasion-believing-in.html

          • Murc says:

            Is that what he’s saying? That any
            Democratic President to the left of, say, Ben Nelson would produce the same domestic legislation? That’s a funny argument

            How is that funny? It’s more or less true.

            I honestly believe that Obama is in fact essentially conservative, in a center-right way. But that sort of obscures the fact that he 1) is further left than most of his caucus, and 2) isn’t going to veto legislation that has broad popular support amongst said caucus. If a Democratic Congress had sent him bill establishing single-payer health care, gutting and dismantling our modern financial services sector, revoking the AUMF, and closing Gitmo, he would have happily signed them.

            As for digby, that was one of her most sensible posts ever, but it elides a number of issues.

            Of course presidents can’t really “persuade” people of the opposing party in a polarized environment, for all the reasons Ezra lays out in his piece.

            I’m glad to see this acknowledged explicitly, especially since Atkins, writing under her masthead, more than once asserted that there was leverage that could have been invoked against Snowe and Collins. But note the tell; “opposing” party.

            When progressives called for President Obama to make speeches it wasn’t with the goal that he lift his poll numbers or get Mitch McConnell to sign on.

            But it WAS with the goal that he get Ben Nelson, Joe Lieberman, and Evan Bayh to sign on. Not a lot of people thought he could get Republican support for anything, but PLENTY of progressives, including digby, and including YOU, David, somehow thought he had magical power to get members of his own caucus in line.

            This is some powerful history rewriting on digbys part.

            The reason they wanted him to make speeches was to mobilize his followers to help “persuade” their representatives to pass progressive legislation

            If this is true, it puzzles me. The representatives who were vulnerable to such pressure were already on board. The vast bulk of progressive legislation that hasn’t been passed under Obama’s tenure has been because of the structure of the Senate and the recalcitrance of a handful of putatively “Democratic” Senators who come from states (and who have personal damage) that give them powerful incentive to torpedo progressive initiatives and insulates them from any consequence short of going nuclear on them.

            or even just reaffirm his commitment to shared goals and educate the public about what those goals are.

            He absolutely should have been doing this, and his failure to do so is a black mark. I’ll even go one step further; the Obama Administration, like the Clinton one before it, has largely adopted the framing, viewpoints, and rhetoric of the right, especially when talking about economic matters. We can, and should, demand better from Democratic Presidents, if for no other reason than being President also makes you the leader of your political party and you have a responsibility to advance its cause.

            Obama’s shortcomings and flaws are many, but frankly I think way to much ire is directed at him personally. It is primarily the Congress that has failed us. I’ll say it again; Obama would have signed damn near anything that a Democratic Congress sent him, including bills that are massively further to the left than he himself is. In that regard, his personal politics aren’t hugely relevant. Richard goddamn Nixon signed into existence the EPA because Congress put it on his desk, not because he thought it was a great bill.

            Now, Obama’s personal politics ARE relevant when it comes to things like what judges he appoints (Kagan has been a huge missed opportunity, for example) how he wields executive power, and what impact he’s having on advancing the cause of liberalism.

            But that’s a completely different argument. If we’re talking about the failure to get progressive legislation passed? That’s the fault of the Congress, and we should be howling that from the hills.

            • Slocum says:

              If a Democratic Congress had sent him bill establishing single-payer health care, gutting and dismantling our modern financial services sector, revoking the AUMF, and closing Gitmo, he would have happily signed them.

              To make this conditional even remotely intelligible we would have to assume–for both the antecedent and the consequent–that we are talking about some very different parallel universe.

  6. Joe Boehmouth says:

    Of course presidents can’t really “persuade” people of the opposing party in a polarized
    environment,

    Well yeah but, the more pertinent question wrt the ACA and stimulus s can he persuade wavering or hostle members of his own party.

    And I think the answer given known facts about Bayh, Lieberman, Nelson et al. not to mention the Clinton HCR experience is a pretty clear “no.”

    And for the record I don’t buy 11d chess either.

  7. joe from Lowell says:

    Another brilliant political pundit who can’t see what’s in front of his face.

    If Republicans wanted to approve the deal negotiated between Obama and Boehner, they would have. Obama having kind words for a different proposal is neither here nor there.

    Um, no, Mr. Chait: Obama having kind words for it is a big part of why the Republicans wouldn’t go along with it.

    I can’t believe people still don’t get this. At this point, it has to be deliberate “I wasn’t wrong on the internet!” behavior. It isn’t possible anymore to merely be this stupid.

  8. scott says:

    Keep on constructing those strawmen, Scott. At least it means full employment at your local hardware store.

  9. We are interested and thinking about what you will be currently talking about right here.

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