In recent months, when the inside-the-Beltway discussion turns to Washington’s inability to govern, it’s routine to hear pundits complain that President Obama isn’t “leading” enough. If only Obama were the leadingest leader of all the leaders who’ve ever led, then maybe the nation would see more progress.
And I certainly understand the temptation to think the president – any president, really – is ultimately responsible for political progress or the lack thereof. Indeed, Americans like to think of their president as the most powerful person on the planet. POTUS is the Leader of the Free World and the Commander in Chief. He’s the Top Dog, the Big Cheese, the Head Honcho, the One in Charge, and the one with whom the buck stops.
So with the demise of legislation to prevent gun violence, there are some inclined to believe that Obama failed. A reader on Twitter suggested to me yesterday gun reforms suffered because Obama didn’t push hard enough for their success.
It’s important to understand that this line of argument is mistaken, and while the office of the presidency is powerful, it is also limited. Jamelle Bouie listed some of what Obama did in the service of passing new gun laws:
* He gave a widely-heralded speech after the Newtown shooting, demanding action from Congress.
* He held an event in January, announcing his new gun control proposals, with parents and children from Newtown in attendance.
* He followed up at the State of the Union, demanding that Congress put new gun laws to a full vote of the Senate.
* He held an event in early April, again demanding action on gun laws from the Senate.* And just a few days ago, the mother of a Newtown victim gave Obama’s weekly address.
He also, incidentally, made personal and direct phone calls to lawmakers about his proposed gun reforms.
Obama succeeded in persuading the public, which overwhelmingly agreed with his proposals, but what kind of effect did his efforts have on congressional Republicans? None whatsoever.
To focus on presidential leadership is to miss what’s important about the broken political process.