Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Presidency Is Weak. Really.

Weighing in on Glenn Greenwald's claims about Barack Obama, the Democrats, and the Lincoln/Halter primary:
What happened in this race also gives the lie to the insufferable excuse we've been hearing for the last 18 months from countless Obama defenders:  namely, if the Senate doesn't have 60 votes to pass good legislation, it's not Obama's fault because he has no leverage over these conservative Senators.  It was always obvious what an absurd joke that claim was; the very idea of The Impotent, Helpless President, presiding over a vast government and party apparatus, was laughable. 
I don't know how to respond to this nicely: this is ignorant nonsense that betrays a deep lack of understanding of how the government of the United States works.

Is the idea of an "Impotent, Helpless President" a joke?  No, it's basic American politics.  As I usually do, I'll go straight to Richard Neustadt:
In form all Presidents are leaders nowadays.  In fact this guarantees no more than that they will be clerks.  Everybody now expects the man inside the White House to do something about everything...But such acceptance does not signify that all the rest of government is at his feet.  It merely signifies that other men have found it practically impossible to do their jobs without assurance of initiatives from him.  Service for themselves, not power for the President, has brought them to accept his leadership in form...A President, these days, is an invaluable clerk.  His services are in demand all over Washington.  His influence, however, is a very different matter.
Neustadt's classic is all about how the presidency is a very weak office, and how influence (what he calls "power") is, for presidents, only won through hard work and clever maneuvering.  It's weak because, as he says, that the other men (sic) in government are out to serve themselves, not him.  And their interests diverge from his.  In particular Democratic Senators from marginal states have very different constituencies than does a Democratic president, and they're not likely to support all the liberal initiatives he supports. 

So a clever and hard-working president can get some -- some! -- of the things he wants.  As Matt Yglesias notes, all the pressure in the world on Blanche Lincoln wasn't going to make much of a difference when it came to health care reform.  That's because she wasn't the 60th vote -- in fact, she and Mary Landrieu were probably votes numbers 56 and 57, something like that.  More to the point, on the public option (which is presumably Greenwald's complaint, since as he might recall the actual, landmark health care bill did, as a matter of historic record, actually pass), well, the public option only had somewhere around 51, 52, or 53 votes in the Senate.  Oh, and that's for a very weak public option, something that the actual policy experts believed was largely inconsequential.  For better or worse, a "robust" public option didn't have the votes in the House, and certainly didn't have the votes in the Senate -- a strong public option had somewhere between 45 and 48 votes in the Senate, by my count.

Could Barack Obama have threatened a dozen Democrats with primaries?   That's a pretty blunt instrument, and he'd be crazy to use it too often.  Could he have found other weapons?   It sure seems unlikely to me.  More to the point, Obama, like all presidents, had to establish priorities, assess where the votes were, and decide how to use the resources of the presidency.  He had, of course, a long agenda, with various constituencies pushing to have their pet issue and the sub-issues contained within each of those issues placed at the top.  And while he had a lot of assets, including a large majority in the House and (for a very brief period) 60 Democratic Senators, he had a lot of constraints, including all the problems he inherited that had little to do with the long-term Democratic agenda and a fully rejectionist Republican party.  The latter -- and really, it takes a complete misunderstanding of how the American political system works not to see this -- means that individual Democratic Senators hold a great deal of bargaining power over the president.  Not, alas for Obama and for the liberal agenda, the other way around.

So the distribution of votes matters enormously, which is why I link to statistical accounts of the ideological spectrum in the Senate all the time.  What they'll tell you is that all Democratic Senators have voting records more liberal than all Senate Republicans; that most Senate Democrats are quite liberal; but that the 50th Democratic Senator (Baucus, or Tester, or someone like that) isn't all that liberal, and the 59th Democratic Senator even less so.  Moreover, it's pretty obvious that the dozen or so least liberal Democrats, with one or two exceptions (mainly Joe Lieberman) come from states that aren't very liberal at all.  Add it all up, and the odds are that had Obama staked everything on a strong public option, he could easily have wound up with no health bill at all, no banking bill, 35% approval, a GOP landslide in 2010, and dim prospects for 2012. 

All of which is very frustrating for liberals.  Pretending that their allies are really their enemies, however, is a particularly self-punishing way of dealing with that frustration.

55 comments:

  1. The misperception is understandable, though, after the Bush presidency. He said "jump" and, for the most part, Republicans said "how high?" I think that thinking that the president is our periodically elected dictator is understandable after this recent history. Yes, it's wrong, but I can see how a person could think that.

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  2. I don't think that's what happened, under Bush. I think there were times when there was general agreement within the GOP, but it's not clear to me how many cases there were of *Bush* saying jump -- it think it was, more often, DeLay, or Cheney, or a faction w/in the bureaucracy saying jump, and Bush and Republicans in Congress going along.

    Of course, it also helped that the GOP was united in following an all dessert, all the time policy agenda.

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  3. Perhaps I misspoke.

    What I meant was that whatever Bush said he wanted he got. Now, sometimes he was late to the party, and was simply saying what other voices in the party wanted. Sometimes, they were passing his agenda. But, when there's that much agreement, I think it's very possible for a person to confuse lockstep agreement with a command structure originating at the White House. It's not the case, but it's an easy mistake to make.

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  4. Ah -- I get it now. You're not saying that Bush caused everything; you're saying that it looked like that. Fair enough.

    I suspect it's also the case that a lot of the distinctions that matter a lot to people on one side of the ideological divide are invisible to those on the other side. And defeats for the other side (and social security was a major defeat, and there were plenty of others -- the faith-based initiative, one of three SCOTUS picks and plenty of other judicial nominees, etc.) just seem like some crazy stuff that was of course defeated (or even worse -- it's remembered as crazy stuff that Almost Passed!!!), rather than important setbacks because the president's influence was limited.

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  5. The Bush comparison is instructive because the politics of each issue are different. Bush could play hardball on his tax cuts, Medicare Part D, and national security stuff because they were popular and benefited powerful interest groups. Swing vote Congressmen generally want to support popular policies and please powerful interest groups. When Bush tried to play hardball on less popular issues like Social Security reform, he failed.

    For popularity, look at financial reform and health reform this year. Financial reform is popular, so Obama has leverage. He can play "chicken" and be confident enough moderates will want to support the bill in the end. On health care, he couldn't do that. It wasn't popular enough, and playing chicken would've led to a messy train accident. Moderates wanted to find reasons to avoid supporting it.

    Party discipline often boils down to convincing moderates to vote against their self-interest with a combination of carrots and implied sticks. Progressives have the impression that the Republicans are better with sticks, and they're probably right about that (example: the Senate GOP has term limits for committee chairs). But the most important reason conservatives are better with sticks is the well-financed media operation that makes it very painful and dangerous to deviate from the conservative line, with an implicit threat of a primary challenge from the right hanging over the head of every GOP senator. Progressives are actually making progress on this front, with the Lincoln-Halter race sending a message to even red state Democrats that a primary challenge from the left is a possibility. Financial reform improved as a result.

    But this is not a role for the president, who has to actually get things done. Having Lincoln and Pryor voting with Democrats at all is a bit of a miracle, considering how red their state is. And they do vote with Democrats, practically all the time. The potential downside of backing a failed primary challenge against Lincoln (call it the Lieberman effect) does not compare with the potential upside of pushing policy slightly to the left. FDR tried to primary a bunch of conservative Democrats who had annoyed him and was embarrassed by the results. If Bush had tried such a foolish thing, he would've been similarly embarrassed -- so he supported Specter over Toomey in 2004.

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  6. Greenwald's general focus is civil liberties, particularly torture and detainee policy.

    These areas touch on national security, where the president is not weak.

    I suspect Greenwald has trouble making the switch between foreign/strong and domestic/weak.

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  7. What of the likely response that he didn't need 60 votes, but only 51? Reconciliation will likely be the rejoinder from Greenwald (who will very likely rejoin).

    I think this article is very realistic, but even when liberals who wanted a strong public option (or, ultimately, any public option), they recognized that 60 wasn't the path, and they began citing reconciliation as the way forward. Why would that not have worked to get a "stronger" health care bill? particularly when reconciliation was eventually used?

    Very interested in the response.

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  8. As someone said during the health care debate, the President can say whatever he wants, but shit doesn't pass the Senate these days unless Ben Nelson likes it.

    Greenwald seems to take on every issue with the same sneering and shrill contempt for anyone who disagrees or wants/needs to take on a problem with a less confrontational approach. It's one of the reasons I stopped reading him regularly a long time ago. It's very easy to sit in your house in Brazil, read whatever is coming over the Internet, and write angry about it. He was doing the world more good when he was a civil litigation attorney.

    In his favor, his writing is usually well-researched and sourced. This post you are referencing is one of those times when he allows arrogance about his own morally superior views to blinker his judgment.

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  9. Lars, if I remember correctly reconciliation can only be used for those aspects of the bill that directly affected the budget. That meant that many of the reforms (the mandate, requiring companies to not discriminate over pre-existing conditions) would have been ruled out of bounds by the Senate parliamentarian. The only way those could go through was with a floor vote, for which the Dems had to have 60 votes to beat the filibuster.

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  10. I think Keith Krehbiel is also instructive in explaining the president's lack of power. Obama's ideal preferences were not the same as Lincoln or other moderate Dems. Their preferences are only going to move up to a certain point, as are Obama's. That's because as Neustadt points out, they are each concerned with their own goals (reelection). In short, Obama can't really change the minds of the constituents in the districts and states of moderate Dems.

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  11. There's a stunning lack of knowledge on political reality, parliamentary procedure and plain old legal rules running throughout the posts of some very smart pundits, eve ones I agree with, as far as general goals. Thank you for state some very clear and simple truths.

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  12. Yeah Lars, Anonymous is right about restrictions on using reconciliation. It was eventually used to pass only a small "fix" bill that modifies certain parts of the 60-vote Senate bill. The administration, everyone in Congress, and health policy wonks all felt that you couldn't pass a coherent comprehensive bill with reconciliation.

    Despite all this, some progressive bloggers sold their readers a story that you can really do whatever you want under reconciliation, and that the president wasn't doing it because he was too naive or too obsessed with bipartisanship or something. This never made any sense and was the same evidence-free, moralistic, wishful thinking mindset that leads to "Obama should primary every conservative Democrat" or "everything about health reform is worthless except a public option."

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  13. There are still good reasons for progressives to be pissed at Obama. His people did not have to bait Labor after Lincoln won the run-off. Without a Labor movement, the future of progressives politics in the US is grim.

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  14. A lot of interesting comments. I agree with a lot of what's here...David and Andrew, especially.

    Bill --

    I think that's a reasonable point. More broadly, I'm certainly not saying that Obama has made the correct call every time. Andrew is right about reconciliation...but it is possible that threatening to use reconciliation might have squeezed a bit more out of the Senate than the strategy they did use. It's also possible that Obama, or Reid, or Pelosi miscalculated in some other way. We don't get to know that (just as we also know yet all the details of whatever pressure *was* put on and whatever deals were made. Maybe none; maybe quite a bit.). It's possible that threatening filibuster reform would have made a difference. OTOH, it's possible that any of those possible moves would have blown everything up.

    So I'm not saying that liberals should just accept that whatever Obama/Reid/Pelosi do is the correct choice. I am saying that it's a damn hard game to play, and that the constraints on doing whatever they want are real -- and that generally it's a lot more constructive to assume good intentions of your allies, and to make sure you understand the rules of the game before you criticize the players' strategy.

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  15. Sorry for the double post :)

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  16. (Double post removed...)

    Anon,

    Yes, Obama could have made Lincoln lose. And he could have threatened her. Hell, for all we know he *did* threaten her - and she responded by agreeing to vote for the bill, but not for the public option.

    Or: maybe he did nothing. And maybe, had he threatened her, she would have refused. She had no way of knowing the right move, and she might have believed that refusing was the right move.

    Or: maybe he did nothing, and had he threatened her, she would have switched to a strong public option position...which would have still left the public option several votes short of 60. And it leaves Lincoln upset with Obama, possibly hurting his reputation.

    Or: he threatens all of the fence-sitters that he'll oppose them in primaries and in the general election, and he follows through...and it winds up costing the Democrats a dozen seats and control of the Senate. And, no health care bill (since under this scenario they turned him down. Which, you know, they can do.

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  17. "The Bush comparison is instructive because the politics of each issue are different. Bush could play hardball on his tax cuts, Medicare Part D, and national security stuff because they were popular and benefited powerful interest groups. Swing vote Congressmen generally want to support popular policies and please powerful interest groups. When Bush tried to play hardball on less popular issues like Social Security reform, he failed."

    I think the better way of looking at it is through the prism of the Congressional minority. Bush got key Democratic support for his tax cuts, NCLB, Part D, and, of course, Iraq. Could he have passed theses things without them? Maybe. Certainly the Iraq resolution required some Democratic support in 2002 because Democrats controlled the Senate, and had Democrats elected to filibuster the creation of Part D they could have given the administration some major headaches. But they didn't. When Bush did face truly intractable opposition from Democrats on Social Security, he got nowhere close to accomplishing anything. And of course, Obama is facing a more or less intractable opposition in the Senate on basically everything.

    We can argue about whose approach is right, but ignoring the difference altogether is what distorts some progressives view of the President's ability to move Congress, IMO.

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  18. Jonathan Bernstein

    "Yes, Obama could have made Lincoln lose."

    Then what the Hell are you talking about attacking Greenwald's post? You aren't denying what he is saying at all.

    "And maybe, had he threatened her, she would have refused. She had no way of knowing the right move, and she might have believed that refusing was the right move."

    Complete bullshit. Blanche Lincoln is an American Senator, so she is a shrewed politician by definition. She knew Obama has the complete control over the large black pop in her state. She would have no doubts of his power on this.

    " maybe he did nothing, and had he threatened her, she would have switched to a strong public option position...which would have still left the public option several votes short of 60."

    He could have done this to more than one senator. He doesn't just hold this power in Lincoln's state.

    "And it leaves Lincoln upset with Obama, possibly hurting his reputation. "

    Hurts his rep more with his base than passing a public option? No, absurd. She'd get over it.

    The political calculus of Obama's power/popularity vs. Lincoln's, it is no contest. Again, that is the power of the POTUS.

    "he threatens all of the fence-sitters that he'll oppose them in primaries and in the general election, and he follows through...and it winds up costing the Democrats a dozen seats and control of the Senate. And, no health care bill (since under this scenario they turned him down. Which, you know, they can do."

    LOL, amazing. In your world the POTUS really shouldn't flex his vast political power? Why have him lead the party?



    Look, Greenwald is 100% correct here. Obama and Co. didn't want a public option, and they are centrist/corporatist who try to pass themselves as labor friendly liberals by blaming scapegoats every step of the way. It is obvious to anybody but the remaining hardcore defenders who can't admit the reality cause it sucks.


    Again, your words:

    "Yes, Obama could have made Lincoln lose."

    He has tons of political capital. He doesn't use it on liberal issues.

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  19. Here's a wild idea: Lincoln figures she's probably going to lose to a Republican anyway, and doesn't want to step on too many corporate toes lest she endanger the well-paying job she'll be compensated with after she loses her seat.

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  20. It is a little weird to discuss presidential weakness in the context of a race where Obama's endorsement really may have put Lincoln over the top. But Obama does not know in advance how close the race will be or whether his endorsement will make a difference or not make a difference (it didn't do the trick for Specter). What he does know is that endorsing Halter will ruin his relationship with Lincoln forever. Lincoln surviving but resenting Obama and being ill-disposed to his entire agenda (the Lieberman effect) is a really bad potential outcome that he wants to avoid.

    I think people who wish Obama would play tough guy with the conservadems really underestimate the potential negative consequences of doing so. The ultimate miscalculation in this regard was Bush and Cheney deciding to use sticks instead of carrots with Jim Jeffords in a 50-50 Senate. He switched parties and gave the Senate to the Democrats for a year and a half, with some pretty big policy consequences for NCLB and McCain-Feingold. But I bet it made conservative activists really happy that they were "tough" on the RINO!

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  21. To say nothing of the fact that you're ignoring that Lincoln didn't have an opponent to threaten to back at the time.

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  22. "It is a little weird to discuss presidential weakness in the context of a race where Obama's endorsement really may have put Lincoln over the top. But Obama does not know in advance how close the race will be or whether his endorsement will make a difference or not make a difference (it didn't do the trick for Specter)."


    Obama and every white house ( especially one run by Rahm) has vast resources at their disposal to know as well as anybody how close a race will be and the issues that will decide it.


    "To say nothing of the fact that you're ignoring that Lincoln didn't have an opponent to threaten to back at the time."

    And they could have hand-picked who they thought would be best.


    You guys are really, REALLY, ignoring the political power of the POTUS and crew.

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  23. To Brien:

    "Bush got key Democratic support for his tax cuts, NCLB, Part D, and, of course, Iraq…. When Bush did face truly intractable opposition from Democrats on Social Security, he got nowhere close to accomplishing anything."

    But why did some key moderate Democrats like Baucus buck their party and back Bush on tax cuts and Part D, but not on Social Security? Because tax cuts and Part D are popular, and privatizing Social Security is not popular. These choices are not made in a vacuum. The issues are different.

    "Obama is facing a more or less intractable opposition in the Senate on basically everything."

    Not true. Grassley, Collins, Snowe, and Scott Brown voted for financial reform. Why? Because it's popular. If Obama wants to only do very popular things, he could get most of those moderates with him most of the time. If he wants to do controversial things and take on tough problems, it's harder to get 60.

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  24. "And they could have hand-picked who they thought would be best."

    Maybe, maybe not. Remember, U.S. elections feature very high re-election rates, and the rate at which incumbents win primary elections is downright astronomical. That tends to make it difficult to get the sort of credible candidate who might mount a real challenge to the incumbent to want to run, since those people tend to have options, and therefore aren't usually interested in somewhat quixotic runs. Especially considering that the ball is in the incumbent's hands as to whether or not the national party backs them.

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  25. "Maybe, maybe not. Remember, U.S. elections feature very high re-election rates, and the rate at which incumbents win primary elections is downright astronomical. That tends to make it difficult to get the sort of credible candidate who might mount a real challenge to the incumbent to want to run, since those people tend to have options, and therefore aren't usually interested in somewhat quixotic runs. Especially considering that the ball is in the incumbent's hands as to whether or not the national party backs them."


    Again, if Obama doesn't back her and backs her opponent, she loses. There is no argument here.

    The number of incumbent, centrists, dems who will win a primary when their opponent is backed by labor, money and a democratic POTUS I will wager is small.




    Again, my point is the entire "refutation" of Greenwald's post here is comically wrong. It is denial of the highest order.

    The POTUS has vast political power, he simply doesn't choose to flex it on issues he ran on.

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  26. "Again, my point is the entire "refutation" of Greenwald's post here is comically wrong. It is denial of the highest order."

    Except you haven't actually proven that Obama threatening to support Halter, to say nothing of threatening to support a then non-existent challenger, necessarily means Lincoln would have changed any positions in the Senate. Even if we accept that support from Obama would have won Halter the race.

    Indeed, it seems quite the opposite to me; if an endorsement of her opponent from Obama seals Lincoln's fate, she has no reason whatsoever to work with the White House for the rest of this Congress once he crosses that bridge.

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  27. "Except you haven't actually proven that Obama threatening to support Halter, to say nothing of threatening to support a then non-existent challenger, necessarily means Lincoln would have changed any positions in the Senate."

    Then really, if you think that a Senator cares about anything but maintaining power, there is nothing for us to discuss. We are in different worlds. Labor and Obama threatening her would have made her move, or she is the last honest human senator.



    "Even if we accept that support from Obama would have won Halter the race. "

    If you don't accept this, you are quite literally the only one. Look at the numbers.

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  28. "Then really, if you think that a Senator cares about anything but maintaining power, there is nothing for us to discuss. We are in different worlds. Labor and Obama threatening her would have made her move, or she is the last honest human senator."

    Or...you're ignoring that we have a dual tiered election system (primary and general), that Arkansas is a very conservative state, that the African-American President is very unpopular there, and that loyal, across the board support for the President's agenda would guarantee a crushing defeat for any Democrat there this year.

    So once again, even if we accept your underlying premise, you haven't actually proven what you've set out to show.

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  29. "Or...you're ignoring that we have a dual tiered election system (primary and general), that Arkansas is a very conservative state, that the African-American President is very unpopular there, and that loyal, across the board support for the President's agenda would guarantee a crushing defeat for any Democrat there this year."

    You aren't making sense. It is the primary. Lincoln will run from Obama in the general, or course. But she didn't here. She needed him to win the primary. Halter would have done the same.

    And what you say sounds truthy, except Halter had equal or better numbers depending on who you match them against in the general.

    So, no.

    "So once again, even if we accept your underlying premise, you haven't actually proven what you've set out to show."

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  30. "You aren't making sense. It is the primary. Lincoln will run from Obama in the general, or course. But she didn't here. She needed him to win the primary. Halter would have done the same."

    So wait, once she clears the primary she's going to go back to being an apostate for the sake of running the general election? And then, if she wins, she won't have to face another election for 6 years? Then what's the point of even bothering?

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  31. "So wait, once she clears the primary she's going to go back to being an apostate for the sake of running the general election? And then, if she wins, she won't have to face another election for 6 years? Then what's the point of even bothering?"


    What you said made absolutely no sense as it applied equally to both Lincoln and Halter. your who thing about primaries and generals and a conservative state. Yes, she will now move away from Obama, it is how it works. Halter would have done the same.

    None of this changes my point.

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  32. "What you said made absolutely no sense as it applied equally to both Lincoln and Halter. your who thing about primaries and generals and a conservative state. Yes, she will now move away from Obama, it is how it works. Halter would have done the same.

    None of this changes my point. "

    Sure it does. It completely obliterates your point, since in your own formulation once the primary is over she'll go right back to her apostasy. Again, if that's true, what's the point?

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  33. Anon (at 3:25)

    You said that everyone is ignoring the political power of the president...what I think everyone is telling you (and Greenwald) is not to assume the political power of the president.

    For example: "they could have hand-picked who they thought would be best." Really? In Delaware, they couldn't get the Vice President's son to run! Perhaps they get a serious opponent for Lincoln, perhaps they don't. If they threaten it and wind up with a 5th tier challenger...oops, there goes the credibility of that threat in the future.

    Moreover, there are, as always, multiple layers of things. I don't know how deep it really was, but Bill Clinton seemed to be a strong supporter of Lincoln. Maybe he was just doing it on behalf of the president, but if not...taking down Lincoln in a primary may have set Obama against the Big Dog. Did he really want to go there?

    And, once again, we're *not* talking about the winning vote here on the public option. Could Obama have found the levers to push Ben Nelson and Lieberman to public option? No primary challenge available there (neither are even up this year, and Obama is already going to oppose Holy Joe for re-election). It seems to me it took plenty just to get those two on board for passing the bill as it was; is it really plausible they could have been pushed farther? What's the evidence?

    Again: I'm open to arguments that Obama didn't play his cards the best possible way. But arguments that he can do whatever he wants, and everyone will have to fall into place, are just wrong.

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  34. "Sure it does. It completely obliterates your point, since in your own formulation once the primary is over she'll go right back to her apostasy. Again, if that's true, what's the point?"

    LOL, I'll go slow for you.

    I said:

    "Then really, if you think that a Senator cares about anything but maintaining power, there is nothing for us to discuss. We are in different worlds. Labor and Obama threatening her would have made her move, or she is the last honest human senator."

    To which you responded:

    "Or...you're ignoring that we have a dual tiered election system (primary and general), that Arkansas is a very conservative state, that the African-American President is very unpopular there, and that loyal, across the board support for the President's agenda would guarantee a crushing defeat for any Democrat there this year."

    You are ignoring a two-tiered system. None of this has any bearing on the primary. I assure you Obama isn't unpopular with primary voting democrats. And without Obama, Lincoln loses.

    Therefore, I repeat for the 10th time, Obama had the power over her. He goes for her, she wins. He goes against her, Halter wins.

    Gotta win the primary before you go to the general.

    You are simply grasping now :)

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  35. "For example: "they could have hand-picked who they thought would be best." Really? In Delaware, they couldn't get the Vice President's son to run! Perhaps they get a serious opponent for Lincoln, perhaps they don't. If they threaten it and wind up with a 5th tier challenger...oops, there goes the credibility of that threat in the future. "

    Halter had been speculated and backed to run for Senate as far back as 2008 against Prior and decided not to. He's a known commodity who wanted to run for a while.

    I think Rahm probably knew this :)

    "Moreover, there are, as always, multiple layers of things. I don't know how deep it really was, but Bill Clinton seemed to be a strong supporter of Lincoln. Maybe he was just doing it on behalf of the president, but if not...taking down Lincoln in a primary may have set Obama against the Big Dog. Did he really want to go there?"


    LOL, again, horseshit. If the democratic party is this screwed up and undisciplined, its over.

    Obama == POTUS.


    "And, once again, we're *not* talking about the winning vote here on the public option. Could Obama have found the levers to push Ben Nelson and Lieberman to public option? No primary challenge available there (neither are even up this year, and Obama is already going to oppose Holy Joe for re-election). It seems to me it took plenty just to get those two on board for passing the bill as it was; is it really plausible they could have been pushed farther? What's the evidence?"

    Did he try? At all? How about pulling Lieberman's positions in the Senate? (don't tell me he can't get Reid to do it). Didn't even try to twist Nelson. Shit, kissed his ass really.


    "Again: I'm open to arguments that Obama didn't play his cards the best possible way. But arguments that he can do whatever he wants, and everyone will have to fall into place, are just wrong."

    I'm not saying that and I don't think Greenwald is either.

    But to suggest that Obama, the POTUS, is politically impotent to push through THINGS POPULAR WITH HIS OWN BASE is absurd.


    The guy is a corporatist. He acts like a liberal who is a victim of his own party's centrists EVERY TIME and you guys fall for it. It is comically absurd.

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  36. I haven't followed the Arkansas race too closely, but it seems fairly simple to me: Arkansas is a generally conservative state. Even if Halter forced Lincoln to tack to the left in the primary, she has two options in the general: tack back to the right and piss off the progressives, or stay to the left, make the progressives happy, and lose the election. Same thing with Halter if he won.

    What progressives needed to win this seat is the general population of Arkansas to favor liberal policies. The people who do, I'm guessing, just don't exist in large enough numbers in the state and nothing Obama could have said in favor of either candidate would have changed that. He'd still have either a DINO or a Republican in that seat come November.

    At a national level, roughly 1/5 of the voting population identifies as liberal and 1/5 identifies as conservative. Obama's going to govern to please that middle 60%, what with it being the majority and all. If progressives want politicians to be more liberal, we have to make the case to the electorate as to why our policies are better. Move the electorate and over the long term the folks who represent us in government will follow.

    Dragging politicians kicking and screaming, which is what seems to have been tried with Lincoln, will not work and only leave us disappointed. Conservatives have been trying it from the other end of the spectrum and look where it's gotten the Republican Party.

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  37. Obama apologists are going to apologize...

    Anonymous has done a great job of exposing the vapidity of this blog post and the Obamabots who post here.

    Could Obama have leaned on Lincoln with the threat of support for a primary challenger to gain her support for the public option?

    Yes.

    Did he?

    No. In fact, he went one further and lent her his support against a primary challenger.

    Clearly he didn't really give a shit about the public option.

    It's that fucking simple.

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  38. Obama could have threatened Lincoln, though if you think about it for a second it becomes pretty clear what a irrational thing for him to do it would have been. Obama was for the public option, but his stated position was that it wasn't as important as getting a bill. If I am in the room when he is threatening to primary Blanche Lincoln over something he presents as a good policy option but not vital - which was, I'm thinking, whoa we have a somewhat unhinged young new president and I'm pretty wary about him and his political instincts. And obviously, having been threatened not with something I want for my district or a legislative priority, but with my political life, I'm disinclined to work with him going forward. The notion that Obama would have gone around doing this to all the Senators who could have jeopardized the public option (ie all of them) for a feature of a bill that I publiclt state would be nice but isn't essential is just daft. And moreover, a threat becomes less effective the more times you make it: was Obama really going to primary the entire right flank of the Senate Democratic caucus? Why not, I'm sure would be the response, but it simply isn't a serious threat. Sure, anti-incumbent sentiment is ascendant now, but in general, keeping majorities isn't done by clearing out all your incumbents on the ideologically centrist (i.e vulnerable) flank of your party. In general, incumbency is a powerful tool for winning elections, even if it turns out to be less so this year. All but maybe three of thirty or so Senators seeking reelection this year are going to gain it. And if you don't acknowledge that seeking and seeking to maintain legislative majorities for their parties is a legitimate political interest of American presidents, then you're just not having a serious discussion.

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  39. Hi. I think the Lincoln saga is just an example of how Obama is NOT using a key power the presidency does have - the bully pulpit, to educate and move the country on key issues.

    This is irritating progressives because, I believe, most progressives are like myself and feel the president is either not standing up for progressive values or, worse, not very progressive himself.

    So, for instance, when the last president felt our "war on terror" needed a speech or comment to get action or the people on his side, scare the other side of the aisle, etc., he not only delivered it, he would have all his top people on the talk shows, etc., delivering the same message.

    Of course, I felt the last administration was manipulative (from no photos of coffins to the Plame leak to many other things).

    Still, has the current president ever made such a push - a coordinated message campaign on a progressive point that explained what we're really up against and the best alternatives in healthcare, the economy, Afghanistan, the US chances at the World Cup? (Sorry, that last one just came out.)

    I don't feel he has. More, I feel he hasn't because he didn't want a bigger stimulus, he didn't want a public option (never mind single payer, which he said is the best option sans our established insurance industry), because he wants to stay in Afghanistan, and because he prefers not to challenge dirty energy and or wall street firms / corporate culture.

    That's the disappointment to me. It's his presidency, but it's our country, and I'm really disappointed.

    Vin

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  40. I appreciate the invocation of Neustadt here but we should not forget that his is not the last word on presidential power.

    We might also consider Stephen Skowronek's argument about reconstructive vs. preemptive presidents (http://books.google.com/books?id=6RUf5eY15T0C&dq=the+politics+presidents+make&printsec=frontcover&source=bn&hl=en&ei=fiUWTM3aHsG88gby-ZWdDA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=4&ved=0CC4Q6AEwAw#v=onepage&q&f=false).

    Some believed (not unreasonably) that Obama's election held reconstructive potential (http://balkin.blogspot.com/2010/01/is-barack-obama-preemptive-president.html). During a period of reconstruction, the President is not weak but is instead capable of wielding ideologically and institutionally transformative power.

    If 2008 did not represent a reconstructive moment then it is true that we should be careful about attributing too much power to Obama himself. That said, claiming that the modern presidency is explainable using Neustadt's notion of the clerkship ignores Skowronek as well as a number of recent analysts - for example Will Howell, Dave Lewis, Brandice Canes-Wrone - who each suggest that the executive does have a reservoir of independent power.

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  41. Anon,

    See, that's why I'm just not convinced by Skowronek (on the presidency; I'm a big fan of _Building a New American State_, for example). If it turned out that it was the right time for a president to be really influential, then Obama would have had the opportunity to be really influential...does that really tell us much? It seems to me that as historical determinism it's not causal enough, while if individuals do have choices, then Neustadtian analysis works just fine. I do think that it (and other things) are good correctives in the sense that Neustadt often appears to be context-less, and I do think it's certainly important to be aware of the party balance in Congress, and the level of party polarizations, and other such things. And I certainly think it's nice to restore as much n as we can to the study of the presidency. But I'm just not sold that a discussion that pushes us into a "is it or isn't it a reconstructive moment?" discussion is helpful. (I should point out, however, that I appear to be in the minority on this point, for what it's worth).

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  42. "And obviously, having been threatened not with something I want for my district or a legislative priority, but with my political life, I'm disinclined to work with him going forward."

    Right. It seems very odd to me how closely the Greenwaldian view of domestic politics mirrors the neoconservative view of geopolitics.

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  43. After reading Anonymous' many posts on this topic, I'm unpleasantly reminded of the extent to which people are inclined to avoid difficult realities in favor of more palatable fantasies. Of course, this route is easy to take if you are not actually responsible for getting policy enacted. In that fanciful sphere, a strong public option was attainable if Obama had just been willing to be weally, weally mean and threaten-ey to open-minded, non-narcissistic public servants like Blanche Lincoln, Joe Lieberman (!!!!!), Ben Nelson and at least seven others. Even though the more liberal House couldn't muster sufficient support for a strong public option.

    Answer: JUST YELL MORE!!! IT WORKS!!! ESPECIALLY WHEN RESULTS DON"T MATTER!!!!!

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  44. "After reading Anonymous' many posts on this topic, I'm unpleasantly reminded of the extent to which people are inclined to avoid difficult realities in favor of more palatable fantasies."

    I am a different "anonymous".

    I would like an answer to this question from those who say progressive policies like this can't be enacted because of "difficult [political] realities":

    Why cannot a public option or (god forbid) single payer be enacted when this is SUPPORTED by the MAJORITY of ALL VOTERS??

    What kind of strange Alice in Wonderland version of politics do we live in when policies supported by the majority of voters (single payer health insurance, investigation/prosecution of previous administration crimes, tough financial regulation, ad nauseum) are somehow not capable of being passed because of "political difficulties"? Isn't this just an admission that our representatives aren't really representing us?

    The fact is, the actual people of the nation are far left of the politicians on specific issues. The Democratic party has chosen NOT to articulate a clear progressive agenda, and naturally they find themselves in the position they're in. Sell out is as sell out does.

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  45. "But arguments that he can do whatever he wants, and everyone will have to fall into place, are just wrong"
    I just want to echo Anon's point that nobody made that argument.
    It's a straw man, man.

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  46. Sorry, but Glenn's reply to you pretty much destroys what little argument you have...

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  47. What Greenwald writes is "ignorant nonsense"? He just wrote a post that obliterates your argument from every angle. I guess your only hope is to completely dismiss it without responding to any of it, and hope no one reads it.

    http://www.salon.com/news/politics/barack_obama/index.html?story=/opinion/greenwald/2010/06/21/obama

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  48. Welcome, Greenwald readers, and anyone else joining this one now. I'm not sure if I'll do another reply or not, but if you're interested you'll note that I have at least four follow-ups to this post (see the June post listings and search for presidency). I suppose I should also send you to political scientist Brendan Nyhan, who makes the same point far more succinctly and also more colorfully:

    http://www.brendan-nyhan.com/blog/2009/12/the-green-lantern-theory-of-the-presidency.html

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  49. Can't you & Greenwald disagree with a little more civility? By coincidence, a blogger friend & I have been having exactly the same discussion, but neither of us thought of accusing the other of "ignorant nonsense," as you do Greenwald, or of having "an incredibly naïve, Schoolhouse-Rock-level understanding of our political system," as Greenwald does you & others.

    You guys probably agree on 90% of political stuff. Why not approach the areas where you disagree as adults? The wingers must be having fun with your 7th-grader-style taunts.

    The Constant Weader at www.RealityChex.com

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  50. "Everybody now expects the man inside the White House to do something about everything..." -RN

    Really? Everybody? What an absurd statement. Perhaps those that don't understand basic governing structure, I suppose. BUT...the President DOES have enormous power to steer, shape, cajole, arm-twist, defend, embarrass, lash out at, reprimand and support policies he believes in. We've seen it in action with many past Presidents (and one past VP, ahem). This is the big disappointment of this "progressive". Obama spoke out forcefully, pre-election, on his desire and our need for drastic change over the previous pernicious policies of Bush. Sadly, he has not followed through and taken advantage of his powerful position and, in many instances, has actually enlarged upon those bad policies. It was an unexpected turnaround that took many of us by surprise.

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  51. You cited the Green Lantern theory, but I think the Underpants Gnomes capture it much better.

    Step 1: Arm-twist every Democrat that disagrees with your position.

    Step 2: ????

    Step 3: Legislative success!!!

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  52. This thread seems to miss an essential point here. THE essential point. It's not the power of POTUS and/or it's misuse we should be talking about. It's not as others have suggested, incrementalism. It's deception. Obama had given the public option/single payer away before he even started playing with congress. But he tried to con the base that he supported it but that mean ol' congress won't give it to him. One only has to go as far as a weekly perusal of Rolling Stone to find instance after instance of the White House being against something that they are publicly posturing themselves to be in favor of.
    There is little doubt that everyone is almost right here. POTUS does exert vast power and Congress is a wholly dysfunctional body with hundreds of competing interests, none of which seems to be the betterment of the country. There seems to be a competition between the absurd rules of the Senate, (which seem to be based on the idea that the members of that body are honorable... which might have been the case at some point but surely is a fantasy today), competes the wholly outdated 2 year election cycle of the House, (preventing any fix that has adverse consequences that last longer than perhaps 8 months), to see which is the worst legislative mechanism on Earth.
    Let's not get caught in the debate over the minutia over how much power he has or doesn't have. The question isn't whether Barak screwed the pooch on the political front, starting from the beginning with the Lieberman foolishness or that he just doesn't have the clout to use. It's what issues he would choose to use what power he does have to influence outcomes versus what we are being led to believe is the truth by the "transparent" White House spin machine. The more you know about the actual legislative history/process here, from the stim bill, through health "reform" to Wall St. "re-regulation", the more you get the feeling that we progressives have been duped into thinking that this guy wants true transformative change, when he is, again, just the lesser of the 2 evils...

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  53. Bernstein, you've been EXPOSED by Anonymous. I believe the phrase kids use these days is, "You've been PWNED."

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  54. The issue isn't what Obama and the Democrats had to settle for. The issue is what they failed to fight for. A public option, for example, was popular with the base and with the American people in general. So was expansion of Medicare. Fighting for those things and then blaming Republicans for blocking them would have energized the base and given the Democrats an issue to run on in 2010 and 2012. It also would have helped inoculate them against criticism for the health care bill's shortcomings.

    Instead, it is clear to all that Obama got the bill he wanted, which is a huge sell-out to the health insurance, pharmaceutical and hospital lobbies. So don't be surprised to see a lot of progressives stay home and cling to their guns and religion!

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  55. another different anonymous--I'm going to cling to my knitting, too. Then I might not throw up over Obama's bus tour remarks about Michelle, and how she runs his life, blah blah. Truly tone deaf.

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