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the national interest

Obama, ‘Leadership,’ and Magical Thinking

U.S. President Barack Obama holds a news conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House April 30, 2013 in Washington, DC. The president took questions on a variety of subjects including immigration reform, the ongoing civil war in Syria and the investigation into the Boston Marathon bombings.  Okay, there is a ... uh... tooth fairy and he does reward ... uh... good children. So please stop crying now.

During the presidential campaign, there was a basic divide in horse race analysis. On the one side, you had the quants — most famously, but far from exclusively, Nate Silver — who built their predictions on comprehensive polling data. Other analysts found this approach terribly unsatisfying. They preferred to follow their gut or the consensus among their friends or yard signs. In other words, they engaged in magical thinking.

A similar divide, pitting many (though not all) of the same pundits against each other, can be seen in analysis of legislation. There is a quant way of looking at it, which assumes that a law will get passed if a majority of the House and 60 Senators deem it in their interest to change the law in such a way that the president also deems an improvement over the status quo. The quants believe there are few such opportunities because polarized parties make them responsive to very different interest groups and belief systems. The problem is further complicated by the phenomenon — confirmed, most recently, by Pat Toomey — that many Republican voters decide that President Obama’s support for a position inherently proves it is dangerous.

But many political commentators find this analytic mode as dissatisfying as the quant approach to electoral forecasting. They understand politics largely in narrative terms, and the stories they prefer revolve around the success or failure of a lead character, who is always the president of the United States. If they reach back to history, it won’t be in any systematic way, but to tell stories of president Reagan drinking cocktails with Tip O’Neill, or Lyndon Johnson looming over a hapless member in a threatening fashion.

The quantitative view doesn't imply support or opposition for the substance of Obama's positions. You can think about it quantitatively without blaming Republicans — maybe you think Obama ought to strike a budget deal that cuts taxes for the rich and cuts social spending. The trouble is that the non-quants tend to agree with Obama's positions, but also cherish their nonpartisan identity, which forces them to lean all the more heavily on magical thinking.

President Obama’s press conferences invariably feature queries about why Republicans disagree with him, and invariably prompt Obama to furnish answers that upset the magical thinkers. So it went with Obama’s press conference this week. Obama told reporters once again that members of Congress have free will. Magical thinkers regard this view with total incredulity. Here is Maureen Dowd:

Actually, it is his job to get them to behave. The job of the former community organizer and self-styled uniter is to somehow get this dunderheaded Congress, which is mind-bendingly awful, to do the stuff he wants them to do. It’s called leadership.

And Dana Milbank:

Obama is correct about the dysfunction, and the difficulty of passing even uncontroversial bills. But his stance was frustratingly passive, as if what happens in Congress is out of his hands. It’s the president’s job to lead, and to bang heads if necessary, regardless of any “permission structure.” Obama seemed oddly like a spectator, as if he had resigned himself to a reactive presidency.

And Ron Fournier:

Great presidents rise above circumstance. Not Obama, at least not yet. At a news conference Tuesday marking the 100th day of his second and final term, the president seemed unwilling or unable to overcome stubborn GOP opposition.

It’s hard to argue against this kind of analysis because, like gut-based electoral forecasting, it’s not quite coherent enough to rise to the level of wrong. “Leadership” is a real thing — but it’s a quality used to describe the way you rally your underlings or your peers. You don’t use “leadership” against your opponents!

Fournier’s own column wanders into this point without realizing it. Here he is after turning from leadership to a sports analogy:

Obama needs a coach to look him in the eyes and say, “Mr. President, I’m not excusing the other team. They suck. But you need to beat them, sir. That’s your job, because if you can’t stop them, we lose. 

That, of course, is the problem right there. If Obama signs new laws, it will be interpreted as him beating the other team. That only happens if Republicans cooperate. And Republicans don’t want to lose!

There’s a unique situation with immigration reform, because Republicans perceive a long-term need to court a growing constituency, which justifies the cost of handing Obama a victory. Otherwise there’s nothing. For Republicans to compromise with Obama imperils them at both the individual and the party level. Individually, voting with Obama exposes them to primary challenges, which for virtually all Republicans pose a more significant risk than a general election defeat. As a party, handing Obama bipartisan achievements would boost his popularity and thus decrease Republican prospects in 2014 and 2016. To the extent that ways can be found around these obstacles, "leadership" is not it.

In this context, leadership is simply a magic word. Unfortunately, it’s difficult and perhaps impossible to reason with people who engage in magical thinking without sounding condescending, so every time Obama tries to explain himself, he merely compounds the problem.

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Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images