Is Obama Aloof? Sure. Does it Matter? No.

Intel Photos / Flickr

Astute observers of American politics know that President Obama—more so than his immediate predecessors—operates in an unusual institutional environment, at least by historical standards. Forty years ago, bipartisan coalitions were (relatively) easy to assemble. Because both parties were geographically mixed—with members from all regions of the country—it was possible to assemble a legislative majority of, for instance, northern Republicans and Democrats to pass something like the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And because the Senate operated by norms that privileged simple majorities, something controversial like the Social Security Act of 1965 could pass without need of a supermajority.

Since then, the parties have become less heterodox and more polarized. Likewise, there’s been a sea change in the norms that govern congressional behavior. Both chambers operate as party cartels—where most legislation succeeds or fails on the strength of the majority party—and the Senate is now a 60-vote chamber, where the minority party will almost always filibuster the majority’s priorities. Primaries are used to enforce discipline among members, and the Republican Party—as a result—has drifted far to the right of where it once was. Today’s Democrats are nearly indistinguishable from the Northern liberals of the 1970s. Today’s Republicans, by contrast, have moved far, far away from the center.

It’s hard to overstate the consequences of this for presidential power. When it comes to domestic policy, at least, presidents have always had trouble exercising their will—Congress has the power of the purse, and lawmakers are jealous of their domain. But thanks to institutions that are unable to accommodate norms-breaking, parliamentary-style political parties, presidential influence has shrunk (even further), and policy-making has ground to a halt.

Now, one way to deal with this is to change the institutions, or at least, alter norms and tweak rules. Another, more popular way—at least in Washington—is to complain about personalities.

For example, in National Journal, Ron Fournier argues for “schmoozing” as an important skill set in the arsenal of any president. To wit, he pegs the failure to craft a grand bargain on the fiscal cliff to the lack of a personal connection between Obama and House Speaker John Boehner. If the notoriously “aloof” Obama can overcome his distaste for glad handing, he might leap the barrier that separates good presidents from great ones:

For Obama, learning how to schmooze could mean the difference between a good and great presidency. Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton (to name just a few) were masters at building relationships that furthered their political aims. They dined and drank with lawmakers, and they ventured to Capitol Hill out of respect. Johnson was an aggressive phone-caller. Roosevelt mixed cocktails for guests. Clinton flattered House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Fournier is absolutely right that these presidents were known for their ability to schmooze. He’s also right to note that Obama’s rise to prominence was—in part—a product of his ability to meet and ingratiate himself with the right people.

But he’s distinctly wrong about what made those presidencies successful. Franklin Roosevelt entered the White House with a massive cohort of allies in Congress. Seventy-four out of 96 seats in the Senate belonged to Democrats, and three others were held by Midwestern progressives from the Farmer Labor Party and the Wisconsin Progressive Party. In the House of Representatives, Democrats controlled 334 seats, with 13 others going to members of said progressive third parties. Yes, many of those Democrats were from the South, and yes, there were key pieces of legislation that required Roosevelt’s ability to schmooze. But by and large, Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt had a successful domestic agenda because Democrats controlled the bodies responsible for crafting domestic policy.

Likewise, Johnson had a fairly large majority at his back when he entered office in 1965—67 Democrats in the Senate, and 247 in the House. Like Roosevelt’s majority, this one was ideologically heterodox—with conservative Southern Democrats—but on the broadest issues, Congress and Johnson were working from the same page.

Ronald Reagan couldn’t count on a Republican majority in the House, but he had one in the Senate—53 senators, in fact—and worked with a Democratic speaker who for reasons political was willing to make deals, and for reasons institutional able to do it. If the Hastert rule were in effect during Tip O’Neill’s tenure as speaker, it’s not clear he could have made the deals he’s now known for.

I would challenge the idea that Clinton was a successful president—he left office with a great economy, which is something different—but nonetheless, his breakthroughs came when he had ample Democratic support in Congress, or when he was working with an opposition interested in deal cutting. Even still, it’s with Clinton that you see the emergence of norms and behavior that would come to a fruition under Obama; all the schmoozing in the world couldn’t stop Newt Gingrich from pursuing a particular ideological agenda, even if it meant a government shutdown. And dinner with Bob Dole didn’t stop him from using the filibuster (and other tools) to block Democratic bills with majority support.

None of this is to say that presidential skills don’t matter. They do, but only on the margins. As Andrew Rudalevige wrote at The Monkey Cage:

[P]residential political skills are themselves a marginal factor in achieving legislative success. Structural matters, such as the partisan makeup of Congress and the constraints imposed by the distribution of public opinion, matter far more than presidential charm. Presidents do have some control over how they react to those structural features – for instance, in the agenda they select and how they frame it.

Obama himself is a fine example of this observation. His first term was filled with consequential legislation: The Affordable Care Act, Dodd-Frank, the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, etc. Throughout each battle, Obama was criticized as distant and aloof. Did it matter?

Not at all. What mattered was the fact that he could count on unified Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress.

Fournier mentions Lincoln in his piece, and Lincoln is instructive, but not because of his willingness to glad hand. If Lincoln was a successful president, it was—in large part—because he benefited from the absence of an opposition party. The Democrats were a rump faction in Congress, and their marginal status gave Lincoln leeway to wage the war, and gave his Republican allies the opportunity to pass sweeping, transformative legislation. Yes, Lincoln had to deal with opposition. But if Lincoln had been forced to deal with a Democratic Congress during the war, he would have been a much different president than the one we remember.

Circumstance is the mother of successful presidencies, and it takes a favorable political environment for any president to have a shot at greatness. The difference between a good and great president isn’t his ability to schmooze, its his ability to capitalize on the unique circumstances of his term. Schmoozing can certainly help, but it’s far from critical.

Comments

Today’s Democrats are nearly indistinguishable from the Northern liberals of the 1970s.

I don't think this is true. The Democratic party as a whole has moved way left on many issues.

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