A Meaner (or Nicer) Obama Won't Change a Stubborn GOP

Sunday's New York Times op-ed page featured an astonishing piece from columnist Maureen Dowd arguing that gun background checks would have passed in the U.S. Senate if President Obama had been more aggressive. The column was widely criticized, but then Tuesday's Times promoted the same facile analysis in a news article about a president who "hesitates to twist arms."

Both pieces miss the point. Even if every Democrat in the U.S. Senate had voted for the Manchin-Toomey amendment on background checks, it still would have failed to reach the 60-vote supermajority required for passage in the highly undemocratic chamber. And even if it had passed in the Senate, it had much less chance of surviving through the obstructionist GOP-controlled House of Representatives.

What's troubling about this latest anti-Obama meme is that it promotes delusional and contradictory notions that President Obama would be more effective if he would (a) be meaner to his opponents, or (b) have dinner and drinks with them.

Remember, this is a president who's arguably accomplished more progressive goals than any other Democratic president of the past century except FDR and LBJ. And while some pundits publicly pine for the days of master politicians like Bill Clinton, it's important not to succumb to historical revisionism about the past.

I worked for Bill Clinton. He was a superb politician. But even he couldn't twist enough arms to get some major laws passed against GOP obstruction. 

Clinton couldn't get a $19.5 billion stimulus bill passed in Congress in his first year in office in 1993. President Obama got a much larger $800 billion stimulus passed in his first year in office. Clinton couldn't get health care passed in Congress in his second year in office. President Obama did it in his second year in office. And Clinton couldn't lift the ban on gays in the military. President Obama did it for him.

In fact, two of my most profound personal memories of President Clinton reveal just how different he was from President Obama.

The first memory was from an Oval Office meeting in April 1993 when a guest in the White House asked Clinton what he thought he would be remembered for in history. Health care reform and lifting the ban on gays in the military, he responded. He did neither. 

The second memory came in 1997 when I had just returned to Andrews Air Force Base from a presidential trade delegation trip to Zimbabwe. Rev. Jesse Jackson led our delegation for a short unscheduled walk across the tarmac from our plane to Air Force One, where President Clinton was just about to take off for his own trip somewhere. The president greeted each of us and, much to my surprise, remembered our names perfectly. 

Contrast that memory with a personal reflection about Barack Obama. I attended law school with Obama, once did a joint book signing with him, and spoke up frequently for him on television during his 2008 campaign. But the first time I saw him in the White House after he was elected, Obama clearly didn't remember who I was. (Strangely enough, First Lady Michelle Obama seemed to recognize me immediately, although we had never met before.)

I wasn't offended that the president didn't seem to remember me back then. He's a busy man with a lot on his plate. But I am offended by the assumption that personal relationships are more important than legislative achievements.

While Obama is often described as more "aloof" than Clinton, it's not clear these different personal styles really matter in getting things done. It was Obama, after all, who actually captured Osama Bin Laden, passed landmark health care reform, signed financial reform, repealed "don't ask, don't tell," pushed his party to accept marriage equality, and still became the first president in more than five decades to win at least 51 percent of the national popular vote in two consecutive elections. Even Ronald Reagan couldn't do that. 

If that's a feckless president, I'll take that any day over a sociable dinner party schmoozer or an old-school arm twister.