What Obama Can Actually Do About Congress

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Also stop slouching. You're welcome. Photo: Win McNamee/2013 Getty Images

I have a column about the basic analytical divide, between quants, who understand gridlock as a function of irreconcilable political competition and ideological goals between the parties, and those who engage in magical thinking of various sorts. The divide runs very similarly to the divide in electoral forecasting, between the quants and people who prefer satisfying narratives about momentum or dramatic speeches or the like.

There’s another similarity to electoral forecasting here, too. It’s that the quant view tells you almost everything you need to know, but not absolutely everything. If you begin by understanding the small space such critiques have, there is room to critique a candidate’s (or a president’s) tactical decisions.

I find several critiques of Obama’s approach to the Republican Congress persuasive. One is personal interaction. In the main, members of Congress are going to follow their political interests, yes. But on the margin, building personal relationships can’t hurt. And there’s plenty of evidence Obama has not invested enough time in this. Paul Kane has a measured take here:

When word spread two years ago that Obama and Boehner were finally going to play golf, Democrats were privately livid. They feared that this was the beginning of some side negotiation on budgets/debts (which it turned out to be) and they also were livid because, well, they never got invited out there on the course, either.

There’s also a litany of complaints from congressional Democrats about other basic things, like getting invites to World Series celebrations or getting their local school to perform at St. Patrick’s Day events. They feel, rightly or wrongly, that Obama is a distant figure from them.

Second, there’s the power of appointments. Republicans have had enormous success blocking Obama from filling openings in the judiciary or even his own administration, gumming up the legislative works and threatening his legacy. Jonathan Bernstein has owned the beat of arguing that Obama ought to put more pressure on the GOP by making recess appointments or elevating the issue:

There’s an unused Constitutional provision giving the president the power to step in when the chambers cannot agree on adjournment: He could thus block House Republicans’ efforts to prevent a recess by siding with Senators’ preference for a normal adjournment. Or, he could simply declare that in the present circumstances a long Senate recess punctuated by brief pro forma sessions every three days is still a “Recess of the Senate” in his opinion, and therefore sufficient for his Constitutional recess appointment power to kick in. While there is no Supreme Court ruling on the issue, a lower court ruling appears to support him should he choose to go that route.

I haven’t seen any persuasive rebuttal to Bernstein’s argument, which he has developed in depth for several years. It seems to be an area where Obama is leaving money on the table through a simple lack of attention and focus.

Third, how a president messages gridlock matters. As E.J. Dionne smartly points out, just because Obama is right about the reason Congress doesn’t want to pass many new laws, Obama doesn’t need to say that:

getting an “A” for analysis is not the goal here. In the areas he does control, Obama has to talk less about the hurdles he faces and more forcefully about what he’s doing to get over them.

In other words, he needs less real talk and more bullshit.

Obama is annoyed because a lot of political commentary is engaged in magical thinking. That means that commentary is a problem. And people who engage in magical thinking don’t like to be presented with structural arguments. So leave that to other people and maybe start giving plucky, leader-y sounding answers that make the magical thinkers less upset.

It's all marginal stuff that won't alter the basic dynamic of a Republican party with no institutional or individual interest to cooperate with him, except on immigration. None of that is to say, though, that Obama is doing his job as well as it can be done.