This week Morning Feature considers George Edwards’ The Strategic President: Persuasion and Opportunity in Presidential Leadership. We began with whether “great communicators” like Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan could push public opinion. Yesterday we saw whether “great negotiators” like FDR, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan could sway and cajole reluctant members of Congress. Today we conclude with how “great facilitators” – including President Obama – took advantage of existing conditions to enact transformative change.
George C. Edwards III is the University Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Jordan Chair in Presidential Studies at Texas A&M University. He has served as both the Winant Professor of American Government and the Olin Professor of American Government at Oxford, as a visiting professor at numerous universities around the world, and was the founder and from 1991-2001 the director of The Center for Presidential Studies. He has written 25 books on the presidency, and the American Political Science Association’s annual dissertation prize is named in his honor.
The Green Lantern vs. the White Flag
The Green Lantern Theory was coined by Matt Yglesias in 2006, to describe the conservative view of geopolitics. Taking a cue from the Green Lantern superhero whose ring can perform any act that he wills, the theory was that the U.S. could force any opponent to submit to any demand, if only our leaders and the American people had sufficient willpower.
Brendan Nyhan may have been the first to apply the Green Lantern Theory to criticisms of President Obama, back during the 2009 health care debate. Over the past few months, Greg Sargent and Steve Benen have led the critiques of ‘Green Lanternism,’ responding to pundits who insist President Obama could force Congress to pass legislation if only he would “bang heads” and “lead.”
The alternative, Ron Fournier writes, is the “White Flag Syndrome,” a vision of the president as impotent:
To say the situation is intractable seems akin to waving a white flag over a polarized capital: Republicans suck. We can’t deal with them. Let’s quit.
I’m afraid they have quit – all of them, on both sides. At the White House and in Congress, most Democrats and Republicans have abandoned hope of fixing the nation’s problems. If leadership was merely about speaking to the converted, winning fights and positioning for blame, America would be in great hands. But it’s not.
Because he finds that outcome unacceptable, Fournier insists that there must be a solution: presidential “leadership.” Fournier doesn’t propose a specific theory of leadership. Instead he shifts the burden of proof to those who claim the president has very limited legislative clout in our constitutional system.
In fact Article I of the U.S. Constitution vests legislative authority in the Congress and gives the president only a veto. Congress can override a veto, but the president cannot override Congress’ refusal to pass a law. The president can direct federal agencies to act on existing discretionary authority – as President Obama did with the DREAMers Rule – but such opportunities are the exception, not the rule.
“Recognizing and exploiting opportunities for change”
As we saw this week, history shows presidents have had little success in swaying public opinion or convincing members of Congress to vote for bills they don’t already support. But this does not leave us with Fournier’s “White Flag Syndrome” and an impotent presidency.
Instead, Dr. Edwards argues that our most effective presidents were facilitators who took maximum advantage of existing opportunities:
If persuasion plays a minor part in presidential leadership, it does not follow that leadership is unimportant. Successful leadership may have another explanation. In some cases, presidents may not need to rely on persuasion because their is already sufficient support for their policy stances. In other instances, there may be latent support that requires activation by the president and his supporters. In all cases, presidents who are successful in obtaining support for their agendas have to evaluate the opportunities for change in their environments carefully and orchestrate existing and potential support skillfully. Although it is not common for students of politics to articulate leadership as recognizing and exploiting opportunities for change, these – rather than persuasion – may be the essential presidential leadership skills.
Throughout the book, Dr. Edwards offers several examples of presidents who seized existing opportunities to enact significant legislation. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, Ronald Reagan’s deregulation and tax reform, and even George W. Bush’s tax cuts and the PATRIOT Act, were all cases of presidents advancing agendas for which there was already sufficient support. And each of those presidents was stalemated when conditions in Congress changed: FDR’s court-packing plan, LBJ’s extensions of the Great Society, Reagan’s later budgets, and Bush II’s plan to privatize Social Security … all died in Congress.
Between the Green Lantern and the White Flag … a Bridge
Effective presidents are neither all-powerful superheroes nor passive bill-signers who surrender to congressional opposition. Instead, I suggest our most effective presidents are like champion contract bridge players.
I won’t try to explain the very complex rules of bridge, but the basic concept is simple. Four players are paired in two teams, each dealt 13 cards. The players weigh the strengths of their hands and bid aloud for a contract – a number of tricks to be won, and a trump suit – that governs the play and scoring of that hand. The team that win the contract will score points if they take enough tricks to make their bid, or lose points if they don’t. Tricks are won by the highest card in the first suit played, unless one or more players are out of that suit and have cards in the trump suit, in which case the highest trump card takes the trick.
Example: if Hearts are trump and Nora leads with the King of Diamonds, then Ellen, Sandra, and Wendy must play Diamonds if they have any. If Ellen plays the Ten, Sandra the Three, and Wendy the Six of Diamonds, Nora would take the trick with her King. If Ellen plays the Ten and Sandra the Three of Diamonds, and if Wendy has no Diamonds but does have the Deuce of Hearts, then Wendy could play that trump to take the trick. (Note: The partner of the player whose bid won the contract becomes the ‘dummy.’ Her cards are spread face-up on the table and played by her partner. That doesn’t change the example.)
The strategies of bridge – bidding and playing the hand – are very complex but the underlying point is simple: your options are limited by the cards you hold. Bridge champions win as many points as they can with their strong hands, and lose as few points as they can with their weak hands.
Our most effective presidents accomplished as much as they could with favorable conditions, by choosing which policies to pursue and when, and by choosing and if necessary adjusting their demands to get something rather than nothing. They also lost as little as they could when the conditions changed, by not pursuing impossible policies and limiting the damage when they had to accept opposing policies.
Conversely, our least effective presidents overbid their hands, as George W. Bush did when he announced he would spend his “political capital” from the 2004 election to privatize Social Security.
“Forward” or “Overreach?”
Immigration reform was a major emphasis in President Obama’s “Forward” message of 2012, and this year he judged that Republicans’ recognition of their weakness with Hispanic voters might be enough to carry the day, and it did in the Senate. But most House Republicans represent districts with too few Hispanics to unseat them, and they seem ready to sacrifice their party’s larger interests to protect themselves and deny President Obama another significant policy victory.
Only time will tell if President Obama has overreached, as Dr. Edwards charged in his 2012 book. The two most transformative presidents of the 20th century, Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, changed the political course in large part because each kept his party in the White House for more than eight years. If the 2014 midterms give President Obama Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate, his final two years may feature as many major legislative victories as did his first two.
Even if Democrats do not retake Congress in 2014, a strategically savvy second Obama term could set the table for a Democrat to succeed him in 2016. His successor could appoint more progressive judges – perhaps changing the balance of the Supreme Court – and hire and promote more progressive career civil servants in federal agencies. A savvy second term could also help Democrats gain in state elections from 2013-2016, clearing some Republican obstacles to progress.
Ultimately, Dr. Edwards’ argument is simply this: our constitutional system works, or doesn’t, as designed. Presidential elections do matter, but so do U.S. Senate and House elections. I extend that to state and local elections as well. To make progress happen, grassroots Democratic activists must look beyond the presidency … and commit themselves to every election.
Tags: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, George Blackwell III, immigration reform, Lyndon Baines Johnson, New Deal, President Obama, Ronald Reagan, The Green Lantern Theory, The Strategic President, White Flag Syndrome