POLITICS
07/31/2013 06:56 pm ET Updated Jul 31, 2013

What If Ron Fournier Can't Read?

AP

Lord knows I don't relish having to come into these pages and explain over and over again why the Total Willpower Theory of presidential tactics is complete bunk. But people like Ron Fournier continue to pull a Jonah Lehrer with the topic, forcing me to do the same. It's all getting quite dull. Take a break, Driver 8, we've been on this shift too long.

Suffice it to say, Ron Fournier is wrong and I am right. Also, Greg Sargent is right, Brendan Nyhan is right, John Sides is right, Jonathan Bernstein is right, and historian George Edwards is right. If you are harboring a belief that former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt used "fireside chats" to overcome political opposition, you are not remembering that correctly. It's very pretty to think that, but you're wrong. And that will just as true tomorrow as it is today, full stop.

Fournier, in his most recent attempt, titled "What If Obama Can't Lead?," seems to be rather upset at being accused of supporting what Sargent calls the "Green Lantern Theory" of presidential power. He simply believes that "great presidents overcome great hurdles," and that's that. Once you've established "greatness," then all hurdles are defeated. If hurdles remain, then you've not established "greatness," no matter how many hurdles you've previously overcome. (And to be sure, Obama has overcome quite a number of those.)

I'm afraid that Fournier doesn't have much of a clue as to the process by which these obstacles are surmounted. And he's opted to simply pant with extreme impatience, rather than undertaking an exploration as to how this process works. He proceeds from the premise that at one point in history, there were presidents, and at other points in history, stuff happened that was possibly attributable to those presidents. Rather than taking a searching inventory of the relevant history or undertaking an effort to understand the political science, he attributes the fact that "Presidents did stuff" to a hazy concept called "leadership" and proceeds to conclude that if a president isn't successfully "doing some stuff" then that president "can't lead."

And, like the main character in the "Parable Of The Flood," he is surrounded by the very tools he needs to solve his dilemma, and figure out why Obama just can't work his magical will on his opponents, but he chooses instead to hold out for some magical answer from above. In his recent piece, Fournier ably accounts for the following things that exist:

--"an obstructionist, rudderless [Republican] party often held hostage by extremists"

--a "political system faces enormous structural problems that make leadership challenging for any president"

--a level of "government austerity" that "reduces the president's ability to bargain with Congress" (Which, by the way, is a level that was in no small part set by Obama himself when he chose to set the level of Bush-era tax cut repeal at incomes of $400,000 and above, as opposed to the less austere $250,000 and above that he could have gotten)

--"weakened ... party structures"

All of which would normally serve to underpin a capable brief on the political science of presidential power and its limits. This sentence of Fournier's -- "There is something to Obama's complaint that virtually any policy he supports will be met by resistance." -- is precisely where he should have ended this article. Sadly, Fournier opted to continue, and those things that he had actually managed to demystify suddenly became foggy once again, beginning with this:

Voter disillusionment is not caused by pundits who..."falsely promise that the glowing briefcase of president leadership can fix what ails us." The greatest guilt lies with presidential candidates who overpromise. Obama explicitly vowed to change the culture of Washington. For two consecutive elections, he toted his glowing briefcase and waved his green lantern to give voters the audacity to hope. He knew the limits of his powers when he ran for the job. When his broken promises feed disillusionment, the president can't shirk responsibility.

Yes, there is a list of things that Obama overpromised (like that the "Republican fever would break!") and even some promises he's shown no intention of keeping. Nevertheless, the first, and biggest, mistake that Fournier makes here is that he conflates "voter disillusionment" for his own disillusionment. They are not one and the same. Voters are disillusioned because we are in the midst of a massive unemployment crisis. Voters don't really care about who changes the culture of Washington. To a voter, if they are happy with their incumbent then they are happy with that incumbent's approach to "the culture of Washington." And, indeed, some people with long, long tenures in Washington continue to espouse great hostility to long, long tenures in Washington!

If voters were truly aggrieved by "the culture of Washington," they would turn out incumbents en masse. This never happens. Anti-incumbent fervor, in fact, is fairly consistently overrated as a phenomenon.

The notion that normal human non-pundit Americans are sitting at home, furious about Obama's promise to change the culture of Washington is simply absurd. Normal human non-pundit Americans, in fact, would be thankful to have the luxury of obsessing over that. And if Obama "knew the limits of his powers when he ran for the job," well, then so did Fournier. (Surely he didn't miss Obama's 2008 pitch, in which he asked voters to send him a Senate supermajority as well? You know, the one he had for 72 days?)

Fournier continues:

The extreme sorting-out of the two parties in Congress is nothing new. It was mostly complete after the 1994 midterms, and posed challenges for both Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush. Despite polarization, Obama's two predecessors managed to find common ground with their obstinate opposing parties. Yes, politics is hard today—but no harder than, say, during the Civil War era or the turbulent 1960s.

The key factor here, of course, is that Obama's two predecessors didn't face opposing parties that were nearly as obstinate! (Exception granted for that whole "Clinton impeachment" thing, I guess.) Look, here is a whole piece by Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann about how this level of obstinacy is a new thing. The main impediment to overcoming the lack of common ground is simply that the House Republicans have very little fear of consequences. As Jonathan Chait theorizes, they are damn near "voter-proof," for a number of reasons:

1. The party that doesn’t control the White House historically tends to gain seats in midterm elections.

2. In recent years, Democrats have increasingly grown dependent on young and minority voters, who tend to turn out only for presidential elections, giving the GOP a structural midterm advantage.

3. Partisanship seems to be growing generally more entrenched, which means there are fewer swing voters and fewer swing districts.

4. Republicans also enjoy an embedded advantage on how they are distributed — more Democrats live in extremely Democratic urban areas, packing their voters in to a minimum number of districts, and effectively wasting their votes.

5. In 2010, Republicans won a huge midterm victory that coincided with a census, and used their gains to rewrite district maps so as to lock in their gains. The resulting House map gives the party a commanding edge — the basic figure is that Democrats would need to win the national vote by about seven points in order to take back the House.

Now if there's anything on that list that Obama can change by a simple display of willpower, by all means, let me know! (In the meantime, I will concede that the lay of the land is much more favorable to overcoming partisan sorting than it was in the Civil War, when that obstacle was overcome by burning the state of Georgia to the ground.)

Finally, Fournier offers this:

The outsize attention given to the president gives him unparalleled advantages. Obama can make better use of it. He could talk to the media and the public more often with a more compelling and sustained message. He could build enduring relationships in Washington rather than being so blatantly transactional with his time. He could work harder, and with more empathy, on Capitol Hill to find "win-win" opportunities with Republicans. He could make better use of his Cabinet to message and enact policies. In private, he could talk less and listen more. In public, he could set reasonable expectations and meet them. He could pick his fights better. In hindsight, Obama should have gotten much more out of Congress when Democrats controlled both chambers.

Greg Sargent responds best:

Advice such as this seems deliberately designed to be impossible to meet. Whatever Obama does, the pundit can simply respond with, “not enough; do more of it, or do it more effectively.” After all, Obama is already doing some of the things Fournier wants him to do: He is holding discussions with GOP lawmakers in hopes of enticing them to break away from the leadership/Tea Party alliance’s hostility to compromise on the budget, infrastructure spending, and other matters. Is Obama’s message is “compelling” or “sustained” enough? Well, again and again, the President has publicly offered Republicans various concessions — such as entitlement cuts, other spending cuts, and tax reform that would cut corporate rates — in the quest for a deal. Polls show the public blames the GOP more than Obama for current gridlock, and supports Obama’s call for a mix of new taxes and spending cuts. But that hasn’t moved the GOP, for the very reason Fournier himself identifies: it is hostage to extremists. If the message has persuaded the public — but has failed to move Republicans, because for structural reasons, they are no longer responsive to national opinion — doesn’t that disconnect itself show that there may be no message that would be “compelling” enough? Meanwhile, Obama is already exploring a range of executive actions he can take to go around Congress — a course of action Fournier would presumably approve of.

But look, I have written extensively about why this "bully pulpit theory" is wrong. But don't take my word for it, let's hear from Ronald Reagan, a former president who was often credited for being not just a great communicator, but "The Great Communicator":

"Time and again, I would speak on television, to a joint session of Congress, or to other audiences about the problems in Central America, and I would hope that the outcome would be an outpouring of support from Americans … But the polls usually found that large numbers of Americans cared little or not at all about what happened in Central America … and, among those who did care, too few cared … to apply the kind of pressure I needed on Congress."

Now, Fournier believes that people like me, who do this sort of real-keeping, are a bunch of fromage-slurping surrender-bunnies. "I call it the White Flag Syndrome," he writes, because giving some hazy concept a bunch of capital letters lends it gravitas. The thing is, this is not the case. Far from it. To go back to John Sides and George Edwards, what a president can do, as best as he is able is "facilitate change in a favorable environment."

Here's the nickel explanation. Presidents create a "favorable environment" by making public appeals on matters that are already very popular. As Sides notes, if the president's ideas didn't already enjoy some substantial support, "he probably wouldn’t have given the speech." That said, these speeches are not delivered with the intention of "persuad[ing] lots of recalcitrant voters or members of Congress," but rather "to signal the President’s intention to push for these policies and, equally if not more important, to bargain about these policies."

"In other words," Sides writes, "the speech, whatever its tone, was not laying proposals that are set in stone. Expect the speech simply to spawn additional debate and negotiation."

It sounds to me like this whole process of "facilitating change in a favorable environment" and "signalling intentions" and "pushing for policies" and entering into "bargaining" is one that should be expected to take a considerable amount of time, even in a political environment that is ideal for such activities, which we do not currently have. Knowing this, it makes sense to be patient.

This is one of the other absurd features of Fournier's lament, frankly. "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," he writes.

Who's quitting? Obama gave a speech just last week signalling his intention to push for policies and bargain well into the foreseeable future in the hopes of alleviating the unemployment crisis. The guy who is waving the white flag is Ron Fournier.

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