In these evaluations of presidential leadership, LBJ is usually brought into the conversation. Everyone’s advice: Obama should be more like him. Johnson was a master but had large Democratic majorities in Congress, and he had special talents from his long service on Capitol Hill. Still, Lyndon Johnson would never have been caught off guard, as this White House has been recently, that senators necessary to make a deal were unaware of the president’s positions. Johnson knew what every senator needed and he worked to get it to them. Johnson also knew how to make himself look small, so that other politicians could appear to have bested him. That seems hard to imagine from President Obama.
The other historical analogy you hear in conversations about Obama’s relationship with Congress is the deal making between Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill. Sen. Lindsey Graham referred to the deals those two were able to work out, recently.* “We’ll be Tip O’Neill, you be Reagan,” he said on Face the Nation. Great line, but Tip O’Neill had a group of Democrats in districts Reagan won who were under political pressure to work with the president. The Congress Obama faces is in the opposite position. The passion in the caucus is against the president, not for him.
The key to presidential leadership in working with Congress is not simply engaging in outreach but knowing how to calibrate it. When it comes to the issue of immigration reform, Obama has not reached out on purpose and he’s toned down his public remarks. He doesn’t want to upset the fragile bipartisan consensus that exists. On the issue of gun control legislation, Obama has kept the issue on the agenda by talking about it in public but has stayed out of the Congressional process. In these cases, restraining outreach is the best way to show leadership.
By turning his efforts to the inside game, the president is momentarily turning away from the “campaign style” tours around the country, which he had hoped would help put pressure on Washington lawmakers. Some might suggest the switch renders a final verdict on the folly of pursuing that kind of outside game. It doesn’t. Campaigning for policies is not antithetical to leadership, it is leadership. All great presidents have done this. Republicans who decry Obama’s tactics might remember that George Bush took 66 trips around the country to sell his Social Security plan. The failure of that effort highlights again that the key question should be about effectiveness. The problem is not the method itself but whether the president is using it at the right moment.
In the end, Bush’s own party scuttled his Social Security dreams. They thought they’d get killed for trying to reform the popular program. (Democrats were even more opposed.) President Obama successfully used enough outside pressure to prevail over Republicans in the most recent fight over raising the debt limit. He may, however, have proved the limitations of this tactic by using the same technique in the sequestration fight. The president’s average approval rating is now below 50 percent and he no longer towers over Republicans in polls about blame for letting sequestration happen.
By opting for cooperation over the public cudgel, Obama isn’t learning a lesson about leadership, he’s learning about what tools to apply when and how. Now we’ll get to see if he’s any good at using them.
Correction, March 8, 2013: This article originally misspelled Sen. Lindsey Graham's first name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
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