One of the most common criticisms of President Obama is that he doesn’t have the leadership skills to persuade legislators to support his agenda. The theory goes that if Obama were friendly to Congressmen or reached across the aisle more, Republicans would suddenly drop their obstructionism and work with him. Commentators on the left and right love to ding the President for this, but it’s almost comically untrue. Presidential leadership is a myth. The bully pulpit is vastly overrated and no matter what Obama does, Republicans are going to oppose it. No number of meetings, dinners or visits to Capitol Hill will change that.
This theory has come up yet again with the Obama Administration’s inability to convince Congressmen, particularly in the House, to support a strike in Syria. The Washington Post‘s Matt Miller articulated his six qualms about Syria today. Here’s number five:
The leadership question. In recent days, several business leaders in Los Angeles who voted for Obama twice have told me, unprompted, that the Syrian episode captures everything they can’t stand about the president. He lacks basic leadership skills, they say. Too much detailed public analysis and hemming and hawing, says one. No real engagement with his counterparts, says another, and so no reservoir of good will with either foreign leaders or with exotic species like Republicans. When Obama himself seems to lack conviction in his proposed course of action, they wonder, how will he persevere when any military step brings the inevitable complications?
Matt Lewis, of the Daily Caller, echoed a similar sentiment this morning:
Some people seem surprised the votes just aren’t there for Syrian intervention. I’m not. Call it the Vietnam syndrome redux, but after a decade of war, Americans are understandably war weary. Thus, the only way way to overcome this difficult obstacle would be to have a). an ironclad case for war, and b). a president who uses personal relationships to twist arms.
In this regard, he’s 0-for-2.
Still, absent a “slam dunk” case for intervention, personally persuading Members of Congress to vote for bombing Syria (in this environment) would require some elbow grease. For years, Obama has been criticized for failing to develop relationships with Members of Congress. Until now, he has mostly (miraculously) skated on this. But one gets the sense that it has finally caught up with him.
So, assuming that President Obama isn’t intentionally tanking the rollout for the strike because he secretly doesn’t want to go to war, how much is a lack of presidential leadership to blame for the lack of support? There’s no doubt that President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have done a poor job selling the war to the American people (yes, firing missiles at a country is an act of war). But, if they had explained it well, how much would public opinion be different? Likely not much. The American public adamantly is against the strike. A number of House members have reported overwhelming opposition from their constituents. This isn’t a close public opinion battle that a better White House strategy could have swayed. It’s a major uphill fight.
That doesn’t mean the President has done an acceptable job here. He hasn’t. He switched from taking unilateral action to asking for Congress’s approval at the last second . The Administration asked for an absurdly broad force authorization. Secretary Kerry fumbled questions in Congress. It’s been a mess. But once again, commentators are overstating the value of the bully pulpit. President Obama can continue to condemn the chemical weapon attack and argue that the international community must respond. But, Americans are war-weary. He can only change public opinion so much.
As for his relationships on Capitol Hill, that has been overrated too. This is a major decision and legislators are listening to their constituents on it (see Justin Amash’s twitter account for instance). If Obama can’t sway public opinion in his favor (and I don’t think he can), then twisting the arms of Congressmen is highly unlikely to work too.
The President has done a poor job leading and arguing for this Syrian strike, but even if he passionately laid out the evidence for an attack, he would’ve had trouble convincing the American people. There are rumors that the President will make a national address this week to push for the strike. For those who believe in the power of presidential leadership, this will be a test of the bully pulpit. Don’t get your hopes up of it having any major effect though.