Evaluations of President Obama

Maureen Dowd of the New York Times on April 21st criticized President Barack Obama. She said “he still has not learned how to govern” and “doesn’t know how to work the system.” The next day a similar critique was made in the Times by two “reporters”–Michael Shear and Peter Baker–that used the bullying President Lyndon Johnson as a model of what a president should do in these circumstances.

I disagree with these criticisms, and my letter to that effect was published in the Times on April 24th. I said,

  • “Maureen Dowd asserts that President Obama ‘still has not learned how to govern.’ I disagree.
  • Last week the Senate, by a good majority, voted in favor of expanded background checks and making straw purchases and gun trafficking a federal crime. Those votes were attributable, in part, to strong advocacy by Mr. Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.
  • The true outrage lies in two places.
  • First is the Senate’s filibuster rule, which is being used by the Republicans to require a supermajority vote of 60.
  • Second is the Republican senators’ determination to prevent Mr. Obama from accomplishing anything. Remember Mitch McConnell’s statement in the last Congress that his top priority was to stop Mr. Obama’s re-election.”

This letter was a synopsis of my post, The Outrageous, Dysfunctional U.S. Senate, and my previous blog posts criticizing the Senate’s filibuster rule and the Republican Senators’ obstructionism.

Two columnists for the Washington Post–Greg Sargent and Jonathan Bernstein–also have taken vigorous exception to the opinions of Maureen Dowd and Messrs. Shear and Baker.

Sargent sees this recent criticism of Obama as focusing on his alleged failure “to put enough pressure on red-state Democratic Senators like Mark Begich.” However, says Sargent, even if all four of the red-state Democrats [who voted against the measure instead] had voted for the measure, it still would not have passed because of the 60-vote requirement of the Senate’s filibuster rule. Moreover, if these four Democrats “were basing their vote in the calculation that they need to achieve distance from the president and signal cultural affinity with their red state constituents, as many have speculated, any open pressure [by Obama] would only make the vote harder for them.”

The plain conclusion for Sargent was “the Republican Party — and the 60 vote Senate — are the prime culprits in the killing of [the bi-partisan background-check bill].”

Bernstein has had enough of others comparing Obama to President Lyndon Johnson. Bernstein pointed out the following reasons why such a comparison is inappropriate:

  1. The situation for Johnson was very different. He had huge majorities in both chambers of Congress, and in the aftermath of a presidential assassination, there was a strong national desire for unity and action.
  2. In the mid-1960s, political parties were much weaker and not as polarized as today.
  3. Although Johnson faced filibusters on key civil rights legislation, he did not face filibusters on every single thing he proposed. Nor did he have to fight a dedicated partisan opposition over every judicial and executive branch nomination.
  4. Obama, on the other hand, to get anything through the Senate needs the votes of Republicans, every one of whom has strong partisan incentives to oppose him. Johnson really never faced anything like that.
  5. “Generally, the political science literature on presidential persuasion emphasizes how little presidents are able to accomplish when it comes to swaying votes in Congress.
  6. “Johnson wasn’t just any president; he was a president who had been a very effective Senate Majority Leader. He came to the White House with years of relationships with many senators; to the extent he was successful, it’s probably not something that’s easy for anyone else to duplicate.”
  7. “Johnson’s bullying style was successful … for a while. By the end of his presidency, it wasn’t working any more. Getting a reputation as an effective negotiator has a lot of advantages, but getting a reputation as a bully who can’t be trusted creates a lot of problems — even if bullying can be effective in the short run.”

I, therefore, continue to be a strong supporter of our President and a severe critic of the dysfunctional U.S. Senate (and the House of Representatives too).


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As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

6 thoughts on “Evaluations of President Obama”

  1. Dowd articulated a core complaint that many whom one would normally count as supporters of a President like Obama have with Obama’s particular brand of leadership: he likes giving speeches but, at least from all available public evidence, he seemingly refuses to engage in personal relationships and the types of nitty-gritty, “down in the trenches” work with Congressional leaders that often prove essential to moving significant pieces of legislation through a divided Congress.

    I disagree with Dowd’s purported profession of surprise that the Democrats, with 55 votes in the Senate, can’t secure 60 votes to beat down inevitable GOP filibusters on any piece of substantive legislation proffered by The White House or Democratic leadership in the Senate. After all, this isn’t the GOP from the 60s and 70s, having some moderate voices from representatives and senators hailing from New England, some of the Atlantic Seaboard states, some states in the Industrial Midwest and the occasional Californian. Those types have long since found themselves excluded from the modern-day Republican party, which is as rigidly doctrinaire and dogmatic as any ossified religion can be, and which has made it its mission since Day 1 of Obama’s first term to oppose anything and everything Obama proposes.

    And, the fact is that the Democratic Party has not been purified to the same extent as has the GOP. While so-called “Blue Dog” Democrats hailing from so-called “deep red” states in the South, the Plains and the Mountain West states do, indeed, caucus with the Democratic Party, they functionally act more like center right Republicans on many issues — of which gun control would be an archetypal example — which is what they need to do to get elected and reelected in their states. While 60 votes would prove sufficient for a GOP majority on almost any substantive issue to break a Democratic filibuster, because of the GOP’s party discipline and the lack of diversity of political, social and cultural beliefs among present-day GOP officeholders in D.C., the Democrats would need to hold somewhere between 65 and 70 seats to be able reliably to break filibusters due to the numbers of Blue Dogs in their ranks and the lack of steely party discipline that personifies the GOP. The 55 Senators in this session of Congress that caucus with the Democrats — 53 Democrats and 2 independents — is far, far short of the required numbers, the most recent evidence of which is the vote this week on the proposed gun legislation.

    While Dowd may have reason to be frustrated with aspects of the Obama Presidency, fretting over the inability to secure passage in the Senate of meaningful gun control legislation — given the current makeup of both the Democratic majority and the GOP minority and the GOP minority’s abusive resort to the filibuster – as an indicator of the lack of effective Presidential leadership does not appear solidly grounded in reality. Jonathan Bernstein’s comments seem much more prescient.

    Greg Schaefer

  2. Duane, an excellent commentary. As a historian of civil rights, I find the core problem remarkably simple. Scratch deep enough and you always get down to that great American obsession, “race.”

    There is a core of racism in opposing EVERYTHING Obama promotes or does. It says, in effect, “We will show this black boy he is not up to the job.” I know. Others will insist there are all kinds of political subtleties and, of course, there are. But the cornerstone is this residual white male disrespect linked to naked political ambition.

    In that context, it is remarkable how much BHO has gotten done. He pulled us out of a potential new depression. He has radiated moderation in a time of extremist agitation, much as Dwight Eisenhower did in the McCarthy era. He will end up with groundbreaking legislation in health care (messy as that program is) and immigration, and will have advocated progressivism in marriage equality and gay rights. And, blinding flash of the obvios, he will, as a black man, have won a second term, not just a first.

    Whether Obama is a great president remains to be seen. Whether he is an important president is beyond question. To argue that he just won’t have a drink with the boys often enough is superficial rubbish.

    Dave Nichols

  3. Duane, thanks for your sage comments and observations. And Dave. I think your reply about the undercurrent of racism is spot on.

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