The news media hailed President Obama’s victory on the Wall Street reform bill signed into law earlier this week as another example of his legislative prowess.
When it comes to congressional arm-twisting, New York Times reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg, like others, extolled him as a modern day LBJ.
“If passage of the financial regulatory overhaul on Thursday proves anything about President Obama it is this,” Stolberg wrote. “He knows how to push big bills through a balky Congress.”
Writing in the Christian Science Monitor last week, Linda Feldman shared the sentiment: “Passage of financial regulatory reform signals another landmark legislative victory for President Obama, following the Recovery Act and health-care reform.”
But is Obama the new master of the Capitol? Or, instead, is his large Democratic herd on the Hill more responsible for these victories?
Despite the media adulation, the size of the Democratic pack in Congress explains a lot more about the White House’s legislative success than anything else. And ironically, the partisan nature of these first term “wins” will shrink the size of his party’s congressional margins next year, hampering his future effectiveness, even if he deploys the same tactics. It’s all about the numbers.
Emphasis on the president’s personal legislative skills is not unique to the current White House occupant. In his book, Legislating Together, UCLA political scientist Mark A. Peterson describes this orientation as a “presidency centered perspective.” It’s a metaphor, according to Peterson, firmly rooted in the popular imagination. “Whether the president succeeds or fails…depends upon the skill with which the president fashions influence, which itself is derived from the national expectation that the unifying force of political leadership resides in the Oval Office.”
Peterson observed this tendency twenty years ago. But it’s still true today, given the cult of personality surrounding Obama. Whenever Congress tries something big, it’s all about the success or failure of the White House agenda. And whether he wins or loses, it’s all about him – his skill, his efforts, and his legacy.
But as Texas A&M professor George C. Edwards III contends in his book, At the Margins: Presidential Leadership of Congress, “Presidential efforts at leading Congress do not occur in a vacuum. To understand presidential leadership one must also understand the context in which it takes place.”
Edwards argues “despite the conventional wisdom that attributes substantial importance to a president’s legislative skills in determining support for the president on congressional votes, there is good reason to be cautious in accepting this conclusion at face value. Other factors are likely to exercise more influence on congressional voting.”
Other scholars agree. Political scientists Jon R. Bond and Richard Fleisher in their book The President in the Legislative Arena conclude: “[T]here is little the president can do to move members of Congress very far from their basic political predisposition.” Congressional leaders, Bond and Fleisher argue, hold more sway than presidents over lawmakers. “Congressional leaders are likely to have more influence on how Congress responds to presidential preferences than anything the president can do personally.”
After all, Obama’s legislative victories were not based on bills crafted by the White House. Democratic leaders in Congress formulated the stimulus legislation, health care, and, most recently, the Wall Street reform bill.
No doubt the White House share “wins,” but they occurred because congressional leaders knew their respective caucuses and plotted intra-party deals.
And Democratic Caucus politics in Congress marches to its own drummer. Legislative leaders evaluate the political landscape, develop agendas, and grapple with internal demands from rank-in-file lawmakers. The issues under consideration are not inconsistent with the White House, but Congress is not unlike most unwieldy institutions: It takes care of its own.
Speaker Pelosi and Harry Reid believed enacting these big "reforms" would eventually produce political propellant for their caucuses.
They didn’t do it because Barack Obama twisted their arms. Instead, they thought it was the right thing to do, and they believed it would ultimately help Democrats maintain their majority in Congress.
Big legislative majorities always help president’s look quasi-omnipotent when it comes to relations with Congress. But Mr. Obama “won” his battles because he was part of a stampeding Democratic majority that badly outnumbered the other side. His victories would have been more impressive if he occasionally challenged his own team or negotiated something other than token GOP support.
Yet Obama's victories have been pyrrhic; their partisan nature will undoubtedly thin the Democratic herd this November. A year from now, no one is going to be making analogies to LBJ.