Yes, Democrats during Woodrow Wilson's first term passed a whole lot of legislation, and Wilson acted as a legislative leader. A. Scott Berg got that much right in his NYT piece yesterday asking Barack Obama to be more like Wilson.
But that's about it.
Look, the very first thing to ask about a president's success with Congress is the partisan context. Woodrow Wilson enjoyed solid Democratic majorities in Congress during his first term -- not just two years, but the whole term. Republicans took back a very slim House majority in 1917, with Democrats retaining the Senate until the 1918 elections. Not only that, but 1913 brought the first unified Democratic government since 1893-1894, and outside of that there hadn't been unified Democratic control since James Buchanan was president. So it's also not all that surprising that Democrats were ready to work together to pass a large agenda.
That's not to say that Wilson did a bad job; it's just that advising Barack Obama to act as if he was Woodrow Wilson in 1913 is nonsense.
Besides: Obama is acting like Wilson, anyway. He can't help it; acting like Wilson is now built in to the presidency. Wilson gave his State of the Union address in person; so does Obama! Wilson had a legislative program; so does Obama! Wilson barnstormed to popular pressure on Congress in favor of his programs; probably a waste of time, possibly counterproductive, but so does Obama!
More to the point: Berg makes much of Wilson's use of the President's Room in the Senate; Wilson personally, Berg tells us, set up shop there in order to direct the legislative process. But Wilson pretty much needed to do that if he wanted to be involved in the intricate details of legislation. Sure, Wilson, unlike some of his predecessors, at least had the telephone. But he had no Congressional liaison staff; in fact, Wilson basically had no staff at all. Barack Obama doesn't need to hang out on the Hill in order to know what's happening there or to make his input heard, because he has a full staff of people to do that for him.
Of course, some things do need direct presidential involvement. But that only gets us back to the partisan context. It's no use pretending that anything Wilson faced was anything like today's House Republican majority. Indeed, it seems from recent reporting that John Boehner's job may depend on his refusal to engage with any negotiations with the White House. That doesn't mean that Obama has no good options, or that he has no responsibility to keep trying, but it does mean that it's misleading fantasy to suggest that all he needs to do "sidestep" gridlock is to emulate Wilson's supposed belief that "sustained dialogue is the best means of finding common ground."
Oh, did I mention the final paragraph?
Today, President Obama and Congress agree that the national debt poses lethal threats to future generations, and so they should declare war on that enemy and adjourn politics, at least until it has been subdued. The two sides should convene in the President’s Room, at the table beneath the frescoes named “Legislation” and “Executive Authority,” each prepared to leave something on it. And then they should return the next day, and maybe the day after that. Perhaps the senior senator from Kentucky could offer a bottle of his state’s smoothest bourbon, and the president could provide the branch water. All sides should remember Wilson and the single factor that determines the country’s glorious successes or crushing failures: cooperation.What nonsense. The idea that Obama and House Republicans fundamentally agree on anything about the budget is pure fantasy; the idea that declaring "war" on long-term budget deficits could "adjourn politics" the way that World War I did would be just as insane, except that politics wasn't really "adjourned during World War I, either.
Moreover, while certainly Wilsonian, the idea that we should all just put politics aside and do what's obviously best is exactly what's wrong with Wilsonian politics. It's fundamentally anti-democratic. If we can't consider the federal budget (or, you know, war-and-peace) a political issue, then what's the point of having democracy?
It's enough to make me really, really cranky.