The short version of my post from Wednesday about the limits of presidential power and influence is simply this: The process of policymaking affords different policymakers different opportunities to exercise a veto on the process. And no demonstration of mere willpower -- in the form of oratory, gesture, or sentimental expression -- is going to convince those that hold veto power to give it up if they really, really do not want to. This is especially true when those who hold veto points refuse to relent because the refusal to relent is their entire political strategy.
Those of us who grew up watching "Law And Order" thrilled to the sight of District Attorney Jack McCoy turning turd case after turd case into a victory for justice with the power of a well-delivered closing argument, but this is the real world, and the real world doesn't work like that. Veto points exist. Checks on executive power may be diminished, but many remain. Other players in the drama have willpower as well. And some arms can't be twisted.
There are bargains to be had, of course, and when a president makes any sort of appeal, that should be seen as a willingness to bargain. Of course, once you start trading things away, the "you aren't showing leadership" criticism becomes a fait accompli.
One of the things I left unsaid yesterday is that those who cling to the leadership-surrealist theory of presidential power are doing so because they want to basically take a step back from the nitty-gritty, and create an over-arching Unified Field Theorem that explains The Way It Was over a long timeline of history. In addition, "Green Lanternism" is an unfortunate, but natural, by-product of the trend toward counter-intuitive thought that suddenly became ultra-fashionable in the early 2000's. That's when "the shocking hidden side of everything became the only side of anything worthy" of discussing, and in which everyone who wanted to seem "savvy" indulged.
If I'm resistant to these things, it's because the political battles are more interesting, compelling, and informative as you approach them at a granular level. As you move from health care reform to financial regulation to Libyan intervention to immigration to gun-safety legislation, different coalitions form, with different interests and different leverage points and different impediments. We could drill down into any one of them and find tactics that went right or wrong for President Obama, things he could have done better, things he couldn't have changed, things he did right. And by doing so, we get closer to a real analysis of "how politics works" than we do if we ascend to 30,000 feet in the sky and conclude, "NEEDZ MOAR LEADERSHIP." And to be honest, I'm not sure if we're even assaying the quality of the leadership with much deftness.
For example, Obama recently lost a vote on firearm background checks, but I'd posit that the "leadership" he's shown might have actually provided a first step toward a background-check bill passing at some point in the future. I think that when President Bill Clinton failed, in similar fashion, to "lead" Congress to health care reform, he probably recognized that his leadership -- despite failing in the short term -- set up a success at some point down the road. This only makes sense. Presidents are temporary; their political coalitions are actually supposed to be in it for the long haul.
And as I said before, the long haul takes time, and that's what doesn't work for the impatient Green Lantern pundits. I am willing, however, to attempt a realistic discussion of the kinds of things Obama could do right now, to get his way on EVERYTHING, if he'd be willing to "lead" in the fashion that the Green Lanternists demand. The key here is that we'll accept as a given that those with roadblock/veto power are equally capable of this sort of "leadership," as reality dictates we should. What then, can Obama do -- with nothing but willpower -- to succeed? Let's find out.
1. Obama could wake up tomorrow and be a lot more conservative.
I'm going to be dead honest with you. Most of the people who lament Obama's lack of leadership are really just saying they wish Obama wasn't so liberal. That's basically it. There's really no other way to account for the fact that it's abundantly clear that the immovable object in so many debates is the fact that Republicans have developed a dogmatic, religious aversion to revenue-raising of any kind. Obama very obviously bargains and bargains and bargains, to no avail.
The simple fact is that through all of Obama's bargaining, there are lines -- located left of center -- to which he holds. They may not be the lines I prefer, but he draws them all the same. This is what troubles the self-styled Leadership Fretters. They basically would prefer he not hold these lines. Pundits of the Broderian class basically disapprove of the fact that liberalism exists as a concept (and they really harbor a deep antipathy for everything that remains from the New Deal). If Obama would simply forego liberal politics completely, it's probable -- even likely -- that they would be more supportive, and less complaining.
So, hey, if Obama wakes up tomorrow and says, "Give Paul Ryan whatever he wants," we would probably end the tradition of Ron Fournier dusting off his old "Whither leadership?" columns for repeat enunciations. In practice, of course, this may not end up working. Obama might decide to have a policy cuddle-puddle with the House GOP, but there's still the Democratic majority in the Senate to contend with, and suddenly we're back to wondering whether or not Obama can "lead" Harry Reid to destiny.
And another under-appreciated fact, however, is that those who've held the conservative obstructionist line over the past five years have done so without consequence. Pundits struggle to disapprove of their tactics, and they enjoy a bevy of structural electoral advantages. So if Obama wakes up and decides to just enact Ryan's dream budget, by the afternoon, Ryan will be leading a coalition to declare that even that is not enough. When there's nothing to stop you from demanding more, there's no reason to settle for less. So, chances are we'd be back at square one with this mess anyway.
2. Obama could somehow get a lot of Democratic voters to move to different districts.
As Jonathan Chait pointed out, the GOP benefits from some near-decisive electoral advantages that impede the most obvious way of deconstructing its regime of intransigence. Basically, Democratic voters are not distributed across the country in a way that imperils very many Republican House seats. Even if Democratic voters turn out in the same numbers in 2014 as they did in 2012 (and they won't) and vote the same way they did (can't guarantee that either), they won't alter the House majority in any significant way, because they are all massed together in urban centers, and outside those areas, Republicans have done a bang-up job at redistricting, lessening whatever influence Democrats might otherwise have had.
Overcoming this problem represents a time-intensive process that the Democratic Party needs to address. But we're trying to come up with "future-in-an-instant" solutions that can be achieved through "leadership," right? Well, I guess what Obama needs to do is very quickly convince a large number of urban Democrats to move out of their homes and into the hinterlands of purply states, so they are registered voters in good standing by the time the midterm elections roll around.
I don't have any real working concept of how this could be pulled off. Unemployment is very high and Americans don't have a lot of economic mobility at the moment. Heck, they may never have it again. (Maybe Democratic funders can finance a mass-migration? George Soros, call your office!) But I guess if Obama should be able to move legislation through the sheer force of revolutionary rhetoric, he can inspire people to physically move to different districts. People still move homes a lot more often than we move landmark health care legislation through the House and Senate.
3. Obama could take a really radical approach to executive power.
It almost seems silly to suggest that a guy with a drone fleet and a "kill list" needs to further accumulate power and supersede the boundaries of the Constitution. But this is actually something no less than what eminence grise Bob Woodward demanded Obama do with sequestration. Despite the fact that this was a bill Obama signed into law, Woodward was apoplectic that the president refused to just take the law and throw it in the trash:
"Can you imagine Ronald Reagan sitting there saying, 'Oh, by the way, I can't do this because of some budget document?'" Woodward said on MSNBC's "Morning Joe." "Or George W. Bush saying, 'You know, I'm not gonna invade Iraq, because I can't get the aircraft carriers I need?' Or even Bill Clinton saying, 'You know, I'm not going to attack Saddam Hussein's intelligence headquarters' -- as he did when Clinton was President -- because of some budget document? Under the Constitution, the President is Commander in Chief and employs the force. And so we now have the President going out, because of this piece of paper and this agreement, I can't do what I need to do to protect the country. That's a kind of madness that I haven't seen in a long time."
So yeah, perhaps what Obama should do is adopt an "F.U. I won't do what you tell me" position and start making unilateral decrees, and use this odd "employ the force" concept that Woodward has somehow decided is a thing that exists. This would definitely be an awesome demonstration of "leadership."
But there are ironies. Consider the fact that the Obama administration recently made a teensy-tiny little sliver of executive-branch insistence -- postponing the implementation of the employer mandate of the Affordable Care Act -- and it has been a rain of holy hellfire hand-baskets ever since. It's enough to make you shy away from going to that well too often.
The more hilarious irony, of course, is that Bob Woodward is the guy who freaked right the frack out when the mild-mannered Gene Sperling suggested Woodward was taking a position he would later "regret." Woodward went on an extended mewling jag, making Sperling's comment out to be some sort of dire, muscular threat.
So it's a little bit weird for a guy who's terrified of super-intimidating executive branch underlings to simultaneously suggest that the executive branch scrap all the Constitutional checks on its power. But it's not totally unheard of! After all, the federal government that's fought tooth and nail to deny residents of the District of Columbia a vote has at the same time moved Heaven and Earth to ensure that residents of the District of Columbia can have lots of guns.
People should really think these things through to their logical conclusions.
4. Obama could blackmail a bunch of Republicans.
Well, we're sort of getting to the bottom of the binder of options here, but it seems to me that if the executive branch can build giant server-farms to contain metadata of personal communications, and go to a rubber-stamp FISA court to get permission to learn even more, it's not a stretch to imagine that Obama might, right now, be in the position to learn every seedy, corrupt, embarrassing thing that his political opponents have done and are doing and will, in all likelihood, do in the future.
So, heck, why not just start digging up the dirt and blackmailing people? This would definitely be an awesome demonstration of Green Lanternist willpower. For all the pundits that profess a love for the rough stuff, who remind us that "politics ain't beanbag," and thrill to the sight of arm-twisting, it would really put them on the spot, no?
Now, I am against this approach on moral grounds. And practically speaking, blackmail often fails, boomeranging to the blackmailer's detriment. But let's face it: If the Obama administration is going to be accused constantly of being "Nixonian," then by gum, they ought to at least go ahead and get Nixonian, if only for their own enjoyment.
5. Obama could mete out severe bodily harm on his ideological opponents.
I mean ... Obama's already getting dogged out daily as a "Chicago thug" from the "Chicago machine" doing politics the "Chicago way." As with the blackmail suggestion, maybe Obama should just lean in.
This leaves us with one of the points about Green Lanternism that's so obvious that I'm really surprised its proponents have yet to grasp it. The idea that we could ever have a president who could simply get everything he wanted and surmount all checks on his power is a truly monstrous thing to contemplate. It's a sickening thing to wish. We are actually, in the main, very very lucky that this is just an impossible pundit fantasy.
And now, I hope I can return to just writing jokes about politics that nobody likes.
[Would you like to follow me on Twitter? Because why not?]