The Limits Of Leadership: Structural Impediments To The Exercise Of Presidential Power

The political pundit class has recently taken to criticizing President Obama for his lack of effective leadership, particularly on issues like gun control.  The pundits argue that poor leadership skills are responsible for the defeat of such legislation.

Prominent among these pundits is Maureen Dowd, who wrote a scathing column in the New York Times, in which she said of the president:

[He] thinks he can use emotion to bring pressure on Congress. But that’s not how adults with power respond to things. He chooses not to get down in the weeds and pretend he values the stroking and other little things that matter to lawmakers.

Some very thoughtful legal and political thinkers are pushing back against the Dowd-perspective.  For example, Professor Sanford Levinson of the School of Law at the University of Texas at Austin took Dowd to task for her failure to appreciate the structural reasons that resulted in the defeat of gun control legislation:

Maureen Dowd’s column in the Sunday NYTimes castigates President Obama for his failures to procure the votes needed to bring the gun bill to a vote in the Senate.  She thinks he should have played hardball with the holdout Democrats and attempted to recruit more Republican support.  In particular, he shouldn’t have left the cajoling up to Joe Biden.  For her, it’s always personalities, and never structures, that explain the American political system.  So she’s my latest candidate among Times’ columnists who simply cannot connect the dots between political outcomes and the structures established in the Constitution.

Instead of blaming poor presidential leadership, he argues that the “grotesquely excess power (the federal constitution has) given small states to warp national policy” is responsible for the outcome.  (See further posts here and here for an elaboration of Levinson’s views.)

Norm Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a highly respected conservative think tank, makes a similar point.  In a National Journal article entitled “The Myth of Presidential Leadership,” Ornstein writes:

The theme of presidential leadership is a venerated one in America, the subject of many biographies and an enduring mythology about great figures rising to the occasion.  . . . Every president is compared to the Lincoln leadership standard and to those set by other presidents, and the first 100 days of every term becomes a measure of how a president is doing.

. . .

I have been struck by this phenomenon a lot recently, because at nearly every speech I give, someone asks about President Obama’s failure to lead. Of course, that question has been driven largely by the media, perhaps most by Bob Woodward. When Woodward speaks, Washington listens, and he has pushed the idea that Obama has failed in his fundamental leadership task—not building relationships with key congressional leaders the way Bill Clinton did, and not “working his will” the way LBJ or Ronald Reagan did.

Now, after the failure to get the background-check bill through the Senate, other reporters and columnists have picked up on the same theme, and I have grown increasingly frustrated with how the mythology of leadership has been spread in recent weeks. I have yelled at the television set, “Didn’t any of you ever read Richard Neustadt’s classic Presidential Leadership? Haven’t any of you taken Politics 101 and read about the limits of presidential power in a separation-of-powers system?”

Ornstein uses history to support his argument:

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.

Ornstein does not maintain that individual leadership is meaningless.  But he does argue that “it is past time to abandon selective history and wishful thinking, and realize the inherent limits of presidential power, and the very different tribal politics that Obama faces compared with his predecessors.”

I share Levinson’s and Ornstein’s position that too much emphasis is placed on the qualities of individual elected leaders and too little emphasis on structural factors that contribute to Washington’s inability to respond constructively to our nation’s very serious problems.  (See my prior posts, here and here.)  If we want to fix Washington, we need to address these structural issues, not just complain about the inadequacies of the people we elect to Congress and the presidency.

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