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Presidential leadership is a moving target

The president's detractors can't have it both ways. They shouldn't demand bold action and passive timidity simultaneously.
The White House seen from the South Lawn Aug. 5, 2014 in Washington, D.C.
The White House seen from the South Lawn Aug. 5, 2014 in Washington, D.C.
If Ron Fournier's goal was to generate some discussion with his new column, he succeeded. Putting aside whether readers found his thesis compelling, it's clearly generated some chatter.
Before highlighting Fournier's case, it's important to note for those unfamiliar with his work that the National Journal columnist is perhaps best known for his frequent -- some might say, incessant -- calls for President Obama to "lead" more. Many, including me, tend to think Fournier's thesis is superficial and blind to institutional limits, but it's nevertheless become a signature issue for him.
It's with this background in mind that his latest piece seemed especially noteworthy. Fournier considered the president's possible use of executive actions on some key issues, including immigration, and urged caution.

Bypassing Congress may be legal. The reforms he wants may be a good idea. But when I look beyond the next election and set aside my issue biases, I reluctantly conclude that it would be very wrong. Depending on how far Obama extends presidential authority -- and he suggested Wednesday that he's willing to stretch it like soft taffy -- this could be a political nuclear bomb. The man whose foundational promise was unity ("I don't want to pit red America against blue America") could seal his fate as the most polarizing president in history.

Well, that certainly sounds serious. Fournier has been eager, if not desperate, to see Obama lead more, but now that the president is considering a forceful demonstration of leadership, the columnist sees a "political nuclear bomb." And why is that?

For argument's sake, let's say Obama is right on the issue and has legal authority to act. The big question is ... Would it be wrong to end-run Congress? Another way to put it might be, "Would more polarization in Washington and throughout the country be wrong?" How about exponentially more polarization, gridlock, and incivility? If the president goes too far, he owns that disaster.

Hmm. For argument's sake, the nation is facing some serious policy challenges, and the White House has some meaningful solutions in mind. Those solutions, again for argument's sake, are both legally sound and correct on the merits. As a matter of public policy, President Obama could take these actions and advance proposals with real merit.
But apparently, he should do no such thing. Fournier, who has spent years complaining about the need for Obama to lead more, now recommends the president lead less -- because doing the correct and legally sound thing would make Obama's opponents unhappy.
It's a curious prescription for presidential leadership: Obama should take bold moves to move the nation forward, but only if his opponents who refuse to govern first extend their approval.
Under this Fournier thesis, legal authority and policy merit are but two legs of a three-legged stool. The president still needs permission from those who would see him fail -- even if they refuse to govern, even if they will not negotiate in good faith, even if their preferred policy is to do nothing, regardless of the consequences.
Kevin Drum summarized this nicely: "What Fournier is saying is that President Obama shouldn't do anything that might make Republicans mad. But this means the president is literally helpless: No proposal of his has any chance of securing serious Republican engagement in Congress, but he's not allowed to take executive action for fear of making them even more intransigent. Obama's only legitimate option, apparently, is to persuade Republicans to support his proposals, even though it's no secret that Republicans decided years ago to obstruct everything, sight unseen, that was on Obama's agenda. So that leaves Obama with no options at all."
I find Fournier's argument well-intentioned, but ultimately incomprehensible. Indeed, to a certain degree it's bizarre -- Fournier has argued that Obama must "act" on his agenda. Great presidents, the columnist has said, "find a way" to advance their goals, even in the face of fierce opposition.
And as Obama prepares to do exactly that, effectively embracing on Fourier's own advice, the National Journal columnist suddenly decides bold presidential action isn't so great after all. Obama's principal concern should no longer be advancing worthwhile ideas to advance national interests, but rather, the focus should be what might make Republicans -- the unpopular party that lost the most recent elections -- angrier than they already are.
The president's detractors can't have it both ways. They can't say Obama is leading too much and too little at the same time. They shouldn't demand bold action and passive timidity simultaneously.