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.”
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:
- 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.
- In the mid-1960s, political parties were much weaker and not as polarized as today.
- 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.
- 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.
- “Generally, the political science literature on presidential persuasion emphasizes how little presidents are able to accomplish when it comes to swaying votes in Congress.
- “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.”
- “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).