Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Presidential Powerlessness

"The president," argues Jamelle Bouie, "should stop giving speeches on immigration reform."  The logic is straightforward:
"You can attribute some of the success of the current immigration bill to President Obama’s absence from the debate. A large number of Republicans are simply unable or unwilling to support a proposal that has Obama’s name attached. By stepping away from the process and leaving it to Democratic and Republican lawmakers in the Senate, Obama set the stage for cooperation and allowed a chance for success—a permission structure, as it were.  . . .  If Obama wants comprehensive immigration reform to pass, he needs to stay completely out of the way. If he wants to claim some credit, he can do so at the signing."
Got that?  Bouie isn't just rejecting the much-derided "green lantern" theory of presidential power according to which any president worth his salt should have the leadership capacity to bend Congress to his will on the issues that matter most to him.  Bouie is saying that, just seven months after his decisive reelection, Obama's giving voice to his policy preferences respecting a major plank of his reelection platform makes them less likely to be enacted into law.  If we could quantify Obama's presidential power with respect to one of his most urgent priorities, on Bouie's view the number isn't just smaller than some people think, it's negative.

How can it be that the man recently elected to the most powerful office in our political system has less-than-no-power respecting an issue so dear to his heart?  Bouie thinks it's a matter of Republican perversity:  "If this sounds dramatic," he observes, "then you are drastically underestimating the anti-Obama furor of the Republican base, which has ended political careers for the sin of being friendly with the president."

Before the last election you could explain "anti-Obama furor" among Republicans in terms of electoral expedience.  But now that he has won his second term, its persistence is plainly irrational.  On Bouie's view, Republicans are ready to forgo something that they would otherwise want (viz., their share of credit for bipartisan immigration reform) just because Obama wants some (plainly undeserved) credit too that might burnish his legacy but won't redound to Republicans' political disadvantage.

That's the sort of phenomenon that you'd have to resort to complicated and not very compelling principles of psycho-pathology to explain when a much simpler explanation lies ready at hand:  namely, that Obama isn't a very effective president.


Kyle Thompson said...

The persistence of anti-Obama feelings is not irrational for Republican legislators - they still want to be re-elected after all, and are vulnerable to primary challenges from the right flank if they are seen to compromise with the president. Your "simpler explanation" may be so grammatically, but without identifying a causal mechanism, it's not an explanation. It's just a sentence.

Ron Replogle said...


There's a vast academic literature stemming from Neustadt that holds that presidential power is mostly the quasi-institutional power to persuade and some presidents at better at it than others. Bouie's account of the immigration debate suggests that Republican hatred of Obama's person is so extreme and so unprecedented that the normal standards of presidential effectiveness don't apply.

Do you really think that Obama, who only has to contend with a Republican House, inspired more Republican hatred than Clinton who had to contend with a Gingrich-led House and a Republican Senate? (No one's yet talking about impeaching Obama.) Yet can you think of an instance where Clinton's intervention in the legislative process made it less likely for a bill he supported to pass? If like me you can't, how do you explain the difference? Won't the most plausible explanation have something to do with Clinton's being better at wielding the powers of the presidency?

Kyle Thompson said...

The academic literature (whether based on Neustadt's bargaining model or an institutional control model) also agrees that the president is much more constrained than the popular discourse surrounding the position suggests. You asked "How can it be that the man recently elected to the most powerful office in our political system has less-than-no-power respecting an issue so dear to his heart?" The answer is that he doesn't have "less than no power" (see the enactment of DREAM act policies by executive order), just that giving this particular speech at this particular time is counter-productive.

You don't address the key point I raised - it's plainly not irrational for Republican legislators to continue to strike an anti-Obama stance given the primary consequences of cooperation. Therefore, it's entirely rational for Obama to minimize his popular association with the bill. You can argue that this is indicative of his ineffectiveness as a President. I think it's more likely an inevitable result of the increased polarization wrought by the ideological sorting of the two main parties.

Your Clinton question is an interesting thought experiment, but I think it falters because immigration is a bit of a special case, given the Republican party's conflicting incentives. But this is long enough already, so I'll cut it off. Thanks for responding!

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