Keeping His Distance

Critics who want Obama to twist arms in Congress don’t understand how presidential leadership works.

President Barack Obama speaks on gun control and the vote at the Senate to reject bipartisan legislation that would have expanded background checks for firearm sales

Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

You wouldn’t stick a medical thermometer in a pork roast to test if it was done, and this simple kitchen rule should apply to presidential evaluations: Use the right thermometer.

In a recent interview, Sen. Pat Toomey, the Republican who failed to convince his colleagues to expand background checks on gun sales, said some of those Republicans wouldn’t vote for the measure because they didn’t want to give Barack Obama a political win. “There were some on my side who did not want to be seen helping the president do something he wanted to get done, just because the president wanted to do it,” he said.

The comment adds context to the ongoing discussion about whether President Obama is showing “leadership.” Leadership is an imprecise word as it is commonly applied (as I’ve argued here, here, and here) and Toomey’s remarks highlight one reason why: Leadership is not just about what a leader does; it’s also about who he is trying to lead. 

At various times, the president’s supporters and detractors alike have called on him to schmooze Republicans, or, if that fails, twist their arms. But can a president flatter Republican senators with dinners at swish hotels if they know they’re going to get a pasting when they return home to their constituents? Can he twist arms effectively when Republican lawmakers are more scared of voters than they are of him? No harm in trying, perhaps, but to properly evaluate the gambit we’ve got to understand the outcomes that are even possible. And sometimes there is harm in trying. While active, public engagement from the president is crucial in some situations, in others it’s the exact wrong thing to do. If a president’s association with legislation makes those he’s trying to convince less likely to vote for it, then a smart president shouldn’t twist arms to get votes, he should fold his own and stand by.

Adjusting the way we measure presidents matters because it affects policy now, will affect a president’s legacy after he’s left office, and will also influence how we choose his successor. Our understanding of how Obama fared in office will shape the attributes we’re looking for in the next set of applicants. 

If a president is dunned for not leading, he gets some or all of the blame when policies get stuck. This relieves public pressure from Congress: It’s not their fault for dithering, it’s the president’s for not prodding them into action. In the current context, the more Obama’s weakness is the story , the less coverage there is of the dysfunction in the House of Representatives. Occasionally, both sides will get a share of the blame in the coverage, but the result is the same: Everyone throws up their hands and nothing gets done. 

In hindsight, a president’s legacy tends to take into account the hurdles he faced. Presidents are praised if they try hard even when they fail. We saw a recent example of this with President Bush, whose efforts in Iraq and to reform Social Security are seen as failures. Nevertheless, he received wide praise from Presidents Carter, Clinton, and Obama for his resolve and determination at his library ceremony. So we need to try to think about the current situation the way we tend to do in hindsight—in order to more accurately understand where Obama has failed and succeeded. Did he achieve a lot under the circumstances or did he blow his opportunities?

So what do Senator Toomey’s remarks tell us? Presidents have long complained about the opposition blocking their agendas just because they are associated with the sitting president—Toomey’s observing an old phenomenon. That said, things have gotten worse. Washington is more partisan and as Frances Lee has demonstrated, presidential leadership inherently polarizes legislators because the opposition can shape public opinion of the president by how they handle his agenda. They can make him look weak by refusing to pass his signature legislation. So the more a president meddles in Congress, the more a bill comes to be seen as his baby, and the greater chance for polarization. 

This view argues against the kind of muscular, public leadership many people are calling for from president Obama and the superficial LBJ comparisons. Toomey’s remarks ratify the idea that it might actually behoove the president to keep his distance. Given the current landscape, a president who increases his level of meddling, schmoozing, and arm twisting in the wrong circumstances could be, and should be, judged batty. He would be proving that he is incapable of reading the moment. What this dirty window needs is another whack with the hammer. 

Obama has tried to adapt. For several years, in interviews with his staff as they craft the State of the Union speeches, this has been a running theme. How much can the president make a big deal about policy without fear of sinking it? That’s partially why the president didn’t publicly embrace Simpson-Bowles (there were other reasons) and it’s what’s governing his immigration work now. The president has tried to be more hands-off while the Gang of Eight does its work in order to show he understands the mess he could make of things if he meddled. This isn’t to say a president should do nothing on some issues; just that he should know which ones require him to work in the background.

“Leading from behind” is a necessary form of presidential leadership, but now it’s mostly become an epithet. No one would make a film about Lincoln’s passivity, though that was an essential part of his nature, and political genius. (In Lincoln we saw an attempt to convey this attribute in the brusque basement conversation between the deliberate Lincoln and the hot-headed Thaddeus Stevens, whose impatience for a reckoning with Democrats might have cost Republicans the 13th Amendment.) Whether Obama has chosen the right way to exercise this type of leadership is open to debate, but he at least has a working theory about how to apply different tactics to different situations. The problem is that we don’t really have a good thermometer to measure what a president isn’t doing. Rather than reading the dials on the wrong instrument, we should consider what Obama might be accomplishing by sitting on his hands.