What makes a President successful? Controlling Congress

The Powerless Presidency : The New Yorker:

The boring fact of our system is that congressional math is the best predictor of a President’s success. This idea is not nearly as sexy as the notion that great Presidents are great because they twist arms in backrooms and inspire the American people to rise up and force Congress to bend to their will. But even the Presidents who are remembered for their relentless congressional lobbying and socializing were more often than not successful for more mundane reasons—like arithmetic.

Lyndon Johnson’s celebrated legislative achievements were in reality only a function of the congressional election results—not his powers of persuasion. In 1965 and 1966, after the enormous Democratic gains of the 1964 election, Johnson was a towering figure who passed sweeping legislation. In 1967 and 1968, after he lost forty-eight Democrats in the House, he was a midget.

The President does not have some magical power that allows him to change the mind of his political opponents. President Obama’s record of compromising with Republicans during the first term shows that he understands this. Pundits who claim that Obama has somehow failed to show “leadership” by being unwilling to work with the other side are simply ignoring reality:

And Obama most certainly did try to keep that promise — to the deep annoyance of his base. To entice Republicans to a deal, the president included tax cuts in the stimulus package; he dropped the public option during negotiations of the health-care bill, and he kept all of the Bush tax cuts in 2010. This penchant for compromise continues to drive Democrats and liberals nuts and makes them wary. Former labor secretary Robert B. Reich told the New York Times last month that Obama is “still the same President Obama who wants a deal above all else and seems willing to compromise on even the most basic principle.”

Pundits like to make the point that maybe Republicans would go along with Obama on fiscal matters if he were willing to follow a “balanced” approach – improving the state of the budget through both revenue increases and spending cuts. The only problem with their argument is that Obama has been pushing for that exact approach: 

The claim that Obama campaigned “on poll-tested tax hikes alone” is just flatly false. In February of 2012, Obama submitted a budget that contained hundreds of billions in spending cuts — including cuts to Medicare. The nonpartisan Committee For A Responsible Federal Budget analyzed Congressional Budget Office numbers and concluded that Obama’s budget proposed nearly $480 billion in spending cuts — several hundred billion of which were to Medicare.

In the link above, Greg Sargent goes on to give further examples to the present day of Obama advocating for both more tax revenue and spending cuts over time. What we see is that the opposition has time and time again rejected Obama’s offers of compromise.

If the President can’t force the other side to work with him, what can be done? As Obama said during his speech on March 1st, the day the sequester went in place, the American people can tell Congress that they don’t approve of constant obstructionism:

The question is can the American people help persuade their members of Congress to do the right thing, and I have a lot of confidence that over time, if the American people express their displeasure about how something is working, that eventually Congress responds. Sometimes there is a little gap between what the American people think and what Congress thinks. But eventually Congress catches up.

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