Beltway assumptions are often hard to shake

Beltway assumptions are often hard to shake
Beltway assumptions are often hard to shake
White House photo

I naively assumed that recent developments in Washington would, once and for all, make it clear to pundits that blaming President Obama for Republican intransigence is a mistake. I thought there just wasn’t a reasonable way to honestly and objectively evaluate events, and conclude that the White House isn’t doing enough to overcome GOP obstructionism.

Indeed, just today a leading Republican senator said some of his colleagues killed gun reforms because they “did not want to be seen helping the president do something he wanted to get done,” and most House Republicans are “stiff ideologues who didn’t extract any lesson from Mitt Romney’s loss and are only looking to slash spending and defund President Barack Obama’s health care law at every turn.”

And yet, Beltway assumptions are apparently tough to shake. Maureen Down heard Obama explain yesterday that he’s not responsible for making Congress behave, but she disagrees.

Actually, it is his job to get them to behave. The job of the former community organizer and self-styled uniter is to somehow get this dunderheaded Congress, which is mind-bendingly awful, to do the stuff he wants them to do. It’s called leadership.

It is? That’s leadership? We have co-equal branches of government, with the executive in the hands of one party, and most the legislative in the hands of another. If the latter refuses to be responsible, it’s necessarily evidence of the former’s failure of leadership?

Not only is this at odds with Civics 101 – the president is not in charge of the Congress and cannot tell it what it do – it’s a superficial analysis. Obama “somehow” has to get lawmakers to bend to his will. How? Dowd didn’t say. Just “somehow.”

Dowd added that if Obama wants to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, “he should have a drink with Mitch McConnell. Really.” McConnell has candidly admitted that he refuses to consider bipartisan proposals, even ones that he approves of, in order to advance his larger partisan cause of destroying the Obama presidency. What makes Maureen Dowd think McConnell will loosen up over a drink with Obama? She didn’t say.

I’m struggling to understand this entire approach to political analysis. What’s more, it’s even harder to come to grips with the fact that it’s spreading.

For example, Ron Fournier is, alas, thinking along Dowd-like lines.

Great presidents rise above circumstance. Not Obama, at least not yet. At a news conference Tuesday marking the 100th day of his second and final term, the president seemed unwilling or unable to overcome stubborn GOP opposition.

“You seem to suggest that somehow, these folks over there have no responsibilities and that my job is to somehow get them to behave,” Obama told a reporter. “That’s their job.”

Obama needs a coach to look him in the eyes and say, “Mr. President, I’m not excusing the other team. They suck. But you need to beat them, sir. That’s your job, because if you can’t stop them, we lose. And there’s no excuse to losing to such a lousy-bleeping team.”

Two things. First, great presidents don’t “rise above circumstance,” so much as they make the most of difficult situations. Let’s not forget that presidents aren’t kings. They face constitutional limits, a system of checks and balances, and pushback from a co-equal branch of government. If anyone has an example of a president achieving great legislative victories while working with a radicalized opposition party that refuses to compromise, I’m eager to see it.

Second, what I’d like Beltway to pundits to consider is the need for specificity. Obama “needs to beat” the other team, Fournier says. The president must “somehow” get Congress “to do the stuff he wants them to do,” Dowd advises.

But how? This isn’t a rhetorical question. Specifically, what is it Obama should do that he hasn’t already done? What, exactly, is the recommended course of action?

“The president should figure something out” isn’t an answer, at least it’s not a substantive one. We’re talking about a Congress that killed gun reforms with 90% public support, despite spirited presidential leadership on the issue, because Republicans “did not want to be seen helping the president do something he wanted to get done.”

It’s easy – perhaps a little too easy – for many of us in political commentary to sit back and urge the president to “somehow” “rise above circumstance.” But mature analysis requires additional depth.

If pundits have ideas on how to improve policymaking in Washington, I’d love to hear them. Come to think of it, I have a hunch the president would, too.

Barack Obama

Beltway assumptions are often hard to shake