Obama Is a Supporting Character

(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

President Barack Obama makes an opening statement during his news conference yesterday in the East Room of the White House. The president says the economy cannot afford a tax increase on all Americans and is calling on congressional Republicans to support an extension of existing tax rates for households earning $250,000 or less. 

“Why couldn’t Barack Obama pass gun control?” is a bad question. Not because there isn’t a story to tell about the new push for gun regulations, but because Obama isn’t the main character. On broad questions like gun control and immigration reform, the president has a say, but the show belongs to Congress and all of its dysfunctions. The Manchin-Toomey plan for expanded background checks hit familiar barriers—the filibuster, near-unanimous Republican opposition, skittish red state Democrats—and failed as a result. The president can’t “pass” legislation—the most he can do is influence, pressure, and cajole.

And even that depends on forces out of his control; Obama's support was important to passing health-care reform, but that had everything to do with the Democratic Party's enormous majority in the House and Senate. On the other end, can you pressure an ally who doesn’t rely on your voters? Can you bully a senator who has been in office longer than you’ve been an adult?

Common sense says “no,” but that hasn’t stopped Beltway pundits from lambasting the president. The latest critique comes from Maureen Dowd of The New York Times, who blames the death of new gun regulations on Obama’s refusal to “get down in the weeds and pretend he values the stroking and other little things that matter to lawmakers.” Of the president who helped shepherd stimulus and health-care reform, Dowd says he “still hasn’t learned how to govern.” She elaborates:

How is it that the president won the argument on gun safety with the public and lost the vote in the Senate? It’s because he doesn’t know how to work the system. And it’s clear now that he doesn’t want to learn, or to even hire some clever people who can tell him how to do it or do it for him. […]

It’s amazing to watch pundits swing back and forth between two, mutually exclusive critiques. The first is that Obama did too much in his first term, and alienated the American public as a result. The second is that he is too lazy, and can’t harness public opinion to push his agenda. How does Dowd think Obama should have moved forward? She offers a vision of what might have been, had he been willing to “fetch” his “brass knuckles”:

Obama should have called Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota over to the Oval Office and put on the squeeze: “Heidi, you’re brand new and you’re going to have a long career. You work with us, we’ll work with you. Public opinion is moving fast on this issue. The reason you get a six-year term is so you can have the guts to make tough votes. This is a totally defensible bill back home. It’s about background checks, nothing to do with access to guns. Heidi, you’re a mother. Think of those little kids dying in schoolrooms.”

Of course, we don’t know that this didn’t happen. Either way, Heitkamp has an easy reply for Obama, “And how many votes do those kids have?” It’s cold and it’s cruel, but it’s also the truth. What exactly could Barack Obama do to threaten her, or Max Baucus of Montana, or Kay Hagan of North Carolina, or Mark Begich of Alaska? Democrats are a rare breed in North Dakota. Mitt Romney won the state by 20 percentage points, which is to say that Heitkamp won her office in spite of her party affiliation, not because of it. Obama is president, but Heitkamp has the power in the relationship—she doesn’t need him, but he needs her to further his agenda as much as he can.

You’d think that this would be apparent to long-term observers of Washington, who should understand that lawmakers—from freshman House members to long-time senators—come with their own agendas and priorities. Often, they have as much power as any president to decide domestic policy, and determine the course of the country. It’s only in unusual circumstances that this situation plays out in reverse, and even then, it’s still difficult for a president to enforce his will.

What’s funny is that we just had this conversation. After Lincoln hit theaters late last year, Washington was consumed with what the film said about presidential power. And if it said anything, it’s that even the “best” circumstances—a civil war that invested the White House with immense authority, a large set of allies and supporters—aren’t enough to bend Congress to the president’s will.

In policymaking, environments and institutions matter as much, if not more, than individuals. And given the current unfavorable landscape, I doubt even Lincoln—or any president you want to name—could have forced the Senate to accept a gun bill.