During this morning’s press conference, President Obama got a question from ABC News’ Jonathan Karl on whether he still has “the juice” to get the rest of his agenda through Congress. Obama’s response came in two parts.
First, he noted the extent to which Republicans are unwilling to play ball. On sequestration, for example, the GOP has adopted two, mutually exclusive positions: That it isn’t a big deal, and that it’s causing terrible pain to ordinary Americans. As Obama points out, this allows Republicans to reject any effort at replacing the sequester—citing their opposition to new revenues or higher taxes—and it gives them a hammer with which to hit the administration. He didn’t say it, but he was clearly exasperated—how, exactly, is he supposed to deal with this behavior?
His answer is that he can’t, and moreover, that it’s not his responsibility:
[Y]ou know, Jonathan, you seem to suggest that somehow, these folks over there have no responsibilities and that my job is to somehow get them to behave. That’s their job. They are elected, members of Congress are elected in order to do what’s right for their constituencies and for the American people. So if, in fact, they are seriously concerned about passenger convenience and safety, then they shouldn’t just be thinking about tomorrow or next week or the week after that; they should be thinking about what’s going to happen five years from now, 10 years from now or 15 years from now.
Much of Washington is in the grips of what several observers call the “Green Lantern Theory of Presidential Power.” For those unfamiliar with the comics, the Green Lanterns are a galaxy-spanning corps of space police. Each Lantern is given a power ring that emits a green energy. With it, Lanterns can do anything—the only limit is their will.
Likewise, pundits and journalists from across the spectrum seem to understand the president as a singular figure whose power flows from his willingness to “get things done.” If Obama can’t get legislation through Congress, for example, it’s because he hasn’t been willing to pressure, cajole and influence. What this ignores is that Obama can’t actually force individual lawmakers to do anything—after all, they come to Congress with their own interests and priorities.
In other words, congressional Republicans have agency, and at a certain point, they need to be held accountability for their actions. It’s not on Obama that Republicans refused to expand background checks. To treat it as if it were obscures the realities of policymaking and helps Republicans evade responsibility for their choices.