Jonathan Robinson, Columnist
When asked to remark on the two and a half or so years of the Obama presidency, many of my left wing friends and family have lamented Barack Obama’s ‘failed term’ so far as President. The uproar is not just indicative of their high levels of disappointment in his Presidency but in him as a leader, especially in the wake of the debt ceiling negotiations, which many thought made him look weak. This frustration has been amplified by none other than the New York Times, providing abundant fodder for critics contending that the paper is a bastion of media liberalism. Pieces by Drew Western and others have criticized not just the President’s actions, but his rhetoric, the very words he uses to advance his policy agenda when speaking to the public.
Frustration is to be expected, from both sides. Obama has had his fair share of problems, mainly a weak economy and policy proposals that don’t necessarily please his ardent liberal base and certainly don’t please his most adamant conservative critics. It is no secret then why die hard liberals are disappointed in Obama, they’ve been saying it all the time: he’s not enacting what they want him to, and to them that makes him a weak leader. But, there seems to be a disconnect between what liberals know about the political process and their begrudgingly negative opinions of President Obama. Liberals are unhappy with President Obama because he hasn’t enacted their specific preferred policies: the public option, stronger financial regulations, a bigger stimulus bill, etc.
But what these rabble-rousers know about the current state of our American political system does not seem to have bled over into their current assessment of President Obama. Their picture of a President is that of a powerful leader who never compromises, pushes hard, and ultimately gets what he wants in the end with minimal compromising. And the public is letting him know it, registering this past week the lowest job approval ratings of his Presidency. According to Gallup though close to 80% of the self identified Democrats approve of Obama, even fewer, 70% of self identified liberals approve of him. Obama’s overall approval rating is far under the overall average trend-line for Presidential approval at this time in his Presidency, but as a head of state presiding over anemic economic growth and high unemployment, it’s no surprise that his popularity is much lower than the average.
But that’s not how law making works, especially during divided government! And the American public knows that, in fact they know it well enough to give Congress a much lower job approval rating than the President! Though we know, thanks to political scientist Richard Fenno, that often respondents to public opinion polls show greater disapproval of Congress as an institution than they do their own member, this is still an important fact. Americans recognize that blame doesn’t just sit with the President for the lack of action, or do they?
If you drill the numbers down even further, it is easy to see the truth that Obama, despite being unpopular is not even close to being nearly as unpopular as the leadership of both the political parties are! In fact, since early this year, the popularity of Republican ‘leaders’ have been trending steadily downward. But these popularity statistics don’t tell us as much as we would like them to. Do the Republicans who disapprove of Republican leaders wish they would be more moderate in their policy proposals or are they displeased because they aren’t radical enough? It’s hard to make clear cut conclusions from these numbers, but what we can say tentatively is that Congress is much more unpopular than the President is, and so are President Obama’s adversaries: the Republican leadership is much less liked than he is.
These facts taken together present a paradox. Americans know that Congress is ineffective and disapprove of President Obama. Yet liberals—who I would wager are a large part of the opposition to the Republican leadership and Congress generally—still credit much of Obama’s woes to a lack of ability to lead. The reason that the liberal community expects so much from President Obama and resorts to discussions of his lack of leadership is because they don’t understand the true nature of the Presidency: the fact that it is inherently a weaker position than most of the American public believes it to be. The President has three main powers: one is to sign bills into law or veto them, second to set the agenda for which bills and issues legislators address, and third is to speak to the media and make appeals to the American public, or as political scientist Sam Kernell calls it: going public. The liberal critics of President Obama would like to believe that he controls all three of these powers, but in reality he only has total control over one: his ability to go public and address the nation.
In the end, the president is constrained by the institutions that he has to work through and around to get things done. In that sense, the President is the most powerful person in Washington, but not more powerful than all of Congress put together! The things that many liberals wish had happened under this President’s leadership didn’t happen because of a lack of will or the president’s inability to physically dominate his adversaries like a resurrected Lyndon Johnson. A bigger stimulus wasn’t passed or proposed in Congress not because President Obama was weak, but rather because there were clearly not the votes to pass muster on the filibuster. It is also not on public record what behind the scenes and private dealings went on in order to get the ARRA passed.
My favorite example of public ignorance on the power of the President also happens to come from the New York Times. Last week in a Sunday Week in Review feature entitled: If I Were President, President of the Harlem Children’s Zone, entrepreneur and education reformer Geoffrey Canada wrote:
I would have a “grown-up” talk with the American people, emphasizing that we are facing a crisis and solving it will require a spirit of shared sacrifice. Those of us who have benefited mightily from this country and made billions, as well as those who make the minimum wage, must all sacrifice.
A grown up talk? Grown up talk does not pass laws, does not ensure that climate change legislation passes out of committee, or produce a ‘jobs’ bill. To say that it is President Obama’s fault that these did not happen is a completely simplistic view of how politics is and is supposed to work. There is a set amount of power in the political system, and in order to give the President more power to be a more effective leader (within bounds obviously) some of it must be taken from elsewhere. Weakening the power of the minority to obstruct in the Senate would go a long way towards empowering the President to have more control over his or her agenda. Because Congress is an institution rather than a single human being, perhaps if one were to point fingers it would have to be at the President, but that’s not the point. The President is powerful, but not as powerful as many hoped he would be. It’s not that President Obama hasn’t made any mistakes, there have been plenty. But much of what a President can do is limited by the circumstances, economic and political that they inherit. Leadership can matter on the margin, but we shouldn’t expect that only if President Obama had sat down to have a ‘grown up’ talk on TV that everything would be okay. If liberal critics of current politics understood this, perhaps they would be able to redirect their frustration more effectively and get something done instead of barking up an immovable tree.