A reality check for President Obama

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President Barack Obama and late-night television host and comedian Conan O'Brien attend the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner at the Washington...
President Barack Obama and late-night television host and comedian Conan O'Brien attend the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner at the Washington...
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

“Maureen Dowd said I could solve all my problems if I were just more like Michael Douglas in The American President. And I know Michael is here tonight. Michael, what’s your secret, man? Could it be that you were an actor in an Aaron Sorkin liberal fantasy?” President Obama said during the White House Correspondents Dinner Saturday.

So what’s a president who doesn’t live in an Aaron Sorkin liberal fantasy to do? The answer, my friends, could be less leadership. Or leadership that’s less bold, at least on domestic items.

Some people, not mentioning any names but some of them are women with red hair who write for the New York Times, some people think a President can ram through legislation if he twists enough arms or charms enough lawmakers.

But as political science professor Frances Lee writes in Beyond Ideology, “when a President, any President, takes a public position on an issue, even a noncontroversial one, then the chance of a party line vote skyrockets.”

Lee found 44% of party line votes are on issues with no ideological significance. By pushing an idea a president links its success with his, and the opposition party is motivated to oppose it in order to not help him succeed. Lee writes, “Parties are institutions with members who have common interests in winning elections and wielding power, not just coalitions of individuals with similar ideological preferences.” Parties care less about ideology and more about who’s up and who’s down and how to defeat the other party, they fight over even non-ideological issues because even there they have room to battle over power. They want us to think they’re centrally about ideas but in many ways they are centrally about winning.

Presidential advocacy increases partisan division by giving the opposing party a chance to be seen as delivering a defeat to the president. President Obama may have intensified this dynamic by making a call for post partisanship a key part of his ‘08 campaign. That heightened the value of DC republicans opposing him at every turn so they could say, “look, he said he’d end the partisan division but it’s even worse!” Yeah, it’s worse because you’re obstructing everything! You can see the effect of a president getting behind an issue in gun legislation and immigration reform.

On guns, the president got on his bully pulpit, giving Republicans all the more incentive to oppose. But on immigration he’s laid back and let the Gang of 8 lead and that legislation looks headed for maybe 70 votes in the Senate.

It’s success would be associated with Marco Rubio and the House may want to find a way to get behind it to help burnish the Senator’s resume for 2016. If Congressional Republicans thought they were leading America’s Hispanics to believe that humane immigration policy comes when a Democrat is in the White House they’d surely kill the bill. So sometimes the most effective form of presidential leadership is to let others lead, defusing partisanship by being less out front, thus becoming less of a target and less tied to an idea’s success.

This sort of group dynamic works for all of us. As a wise man once told me,  when you enroll other people in your idea and let them have a stake in your success then you’ll have an easier time getting people on your side. I’m still learning that.

And, hey, if leading a little less doesn’t work out, the president could go try living in an Aaron Sorkin liberal fantasy. It sounds like a really nice place.

A reality check for President Obama

Updated