How Do You Measure Presidential Leadership?

You hear all the time that President Obama cannot lead. He doesn’t reach across the aisle. He has a poor relationship with Congress.

That seems to be a widely assumed fact throughout D.C. Many people (including myself) doubt that the President would accomplish anything more even if he was a better leader. But most people seem to assume that this president just isn’t a very good leader.

But is this true? It’s tough to be a good leader when half your followers are committed to undermining your every move. Is there anything the President could’ve done to convince Republicans to work with him? I’m doubtful, but I’m also new to politics and new to D.C. so I have trouble putting President Obama’s leadership skills in context. Did former presidents work better with Congress? Did they show more deference to the institution?

At the National Journal’s policy summit yesterday on America’s fiscal condition, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) offered a clue when he spoke about a dinner he had with the President:

We had supper in the family dining room – it was the first time in my 37 years that I was ever in the family dining room.

Senator Hatch is the longest-serving Republican in the Senate and during all his time there throughout a number of different administrations, he had never been invited to dine in the family dining room. Based on a bit of googling, the dinner Hatch is referring seems to have taken place on April 10 of this year with a dozen different Senators.

This is one tiny little data point, but it puts things in a bit of context for me. I don’t know how to judge the President’s leadership skills. I don’t think there is a simple metric for doing so. But for those that say the President doesn’t lead, what do they think dining with a dozen Republican senators in the family dining room is? I’m sure they’ll respond that it’s one moment of leadership amidst a sea of disdain towards Congressional Republicans and that it took until Obama’s second term for him to host the dinner. But this a moment of leadership that Hatch never saw from a previous President. I don’t know if any of the other Senators had dined in the family dining room before. I’m sure at least some others had not.

Not surprisingly, the dinner didn’t seem to help the budget negotiations, but it still puts those criticisms of the President in a bit of context for me. I’d love to hear more. In the meantime though, I’m taking the “Obama can’t lead” complaint with a grain of salt.

Will Obama Strike Syria Without Congressional Approval?

President Obama was repeatedly asked at his press conference in Russia today about whether he would still attack Syria if Congress votes down the force authorization. Obama has said a number of times that he has the constitutional authority to do so, but hasn’t answered whether or not he will take that action. On Twitter, Talk Points Memo’s Sahil Kapur said that he can’t answer that question, “because it undercuts his effort to build support.” But that only happens if Obama is determined to go ahead with the strikes without Congressional approval.

Think about it for a second. If Obama comes out and declares that he will not strike Syria if Congress doesn’t approve the resolution, what does that change? It puts more pressure on lawmakers to vote for authorization as they can no longer convince themselves that Obama will act anyways. For a Congressman who wants to vote yes, but won’t do so both for political reasons and because he believes Obama will act unilaterally, this could change his vote. On the other hand, revealing that he won’t act without Congressional approval will not make any Congressmen more likely to vote against the resolution.

The only reason I can see for the President to keep his intentions hidden is if he is willing to go ahead without authorization or has not made up his mind yet. The Washington Post‘s Chris Cillizza and Sean Sullivan explained this well:

Here’s the issue: If Obama says whether or not he would proceed with an attack after a failed vote, he could change the way the vote is likely to play out in advance. He needs to make members feel that “yes” or “no” votes are consequential. If he says he is going to act anyway, it could give cover to lawmakers on the fence to vote “no,” since action — which polls show is unpopular — would come even without their approval. If he says he will not act without Congress, Obama is leaving his next move entirely in the hands of lawmakers and limiting his flexibility.

But what’s wrong with the President “leaving his next move entirely in the hands of lawmakers” if he intends to do so anyways? As Cillizza and Sullivan note, it limits his flexibility, but that is only if he is determined to overrule Congress anyways. If the President is not going to do so, then he can put more pressure on Congress to approve the force authorization by revealing that he will not act unilaterally. It makes their votes more consequential.

The scariest part of this is that if the President has done this calculation, then he may intend to disregard Congress. The only reason for him to keep his intentions secret is if he’s willing to act unilaterally or if he hasn’t made up his mind. Given that overruling Congress would be both unconstitutional and possibly grounds for impeachment, let’s hope it’s the latter.

How Much Has the Obama Administration Defied the Law?

It’s a constant critique from the right that President Obama has ignored and flouted federal law more than any other administration in history. From not deporting DREAMers to the delaying the employer mandate* to not officially labeling Egypt’s coup a “coup” to today’s announcement by Attorney General Eric Holder that he’ll instruct prosecutors to leave out the amount of a drug found on low-level, non-violent criminal so that mandatory minimum laws are not invoked, the Administration has walked a tight line with regards to the law. Today’s announcement a major step for the Justice Department and has been greeted by applause by liberals. But is it legal?

As someone who is relatively new to political journalism, my biggest question is whether conservatives are right that the Obama Administration has ignored the law and used selective enforcement of different laws to advance its own agenda more than any other administration before it. That’s a pretty big charge – particularly after the Bush years – and if it’s right, it’s something we need to look at more closely. I’m going to look into this more, but I want to hear more experienced journalists chime in on this question. Those reporters who have been in DC for decades and have been around numerous administrations should be able to put this in context. The fact that I haven’t heard much from the MSM on this has led me to believe that the Obama Administration is, in fact, not ignoring the law more than any before it. But the last few weeks have seen the White House implement a couple of policies that should at least make us ask the question.

On the other hand, if conservatives are right and Obama has defied the law more than any before it, that’s a scary precedent. The combination of both President George W. Bush’s and President Obama’s disregard for federal law, plus a massive expansion of the surveillance state, is a scary path to be on. It’s bipartisan approval to ignore Congress. That’s not okay. The common saying is that the current Congress can’t bind future Congresses. After all, a future Congress can just pass a new law that overrides a past Congress. But the same cannot be said of the Presidency. The executive branch IS bound by the current Congress and only the current or a future Congress can change that. The President can’t simply decide to ignore past laws, but that seems to be exactly what President Obama has been doing.

I don’t have any answers here, but I want to lay out some questions:

  • Is this Administration’s selective adaptation of laws new?
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  • If so, is it acceptable? Are we comfortable with this level of Executive Branch autonomy?
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  • If not, is it still large enough to warrant increased coverage?
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  • After the last two administrations, how do we stop the White House from falling down “the slippery slope?” What safeguards can we erect so that no White House takes its power too far?
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  • If not, is it still large enough to warrant increased coverage?

The President’s refusal to label the coup in Egypt as a coup was particularly striking to me. Under any ordinary definition, what happened in Egypt was a coup. Except if the Administration had officially labeled it as one, it would have been required by law to cut off aid to Egypt. Of course, it had no desire to do that so it just refused to label it a coup and aid has continued. That’s not acceptable. I’m a proponent of foreign aid and understand its importance in the Middle East. But laws are laws. If Obama wanted aid to continue, he should have taken his case to Congress. Liberals may applaud Obama for finally acting proactively, but how would they react if a Republican President had ignored a law like that? They would’ve been furious and rightfully so. Presidents need to adhere to laws, both those passed during their administration and before it.

I know President Obama is fed up with the do-nothing Congress he’s stuck with and wants to find any means to sidestep it. unfortunately, the founders designed our Constitution to prevent exactly that so those workarounds are few and far between. Are we okay with the President stretching the definition of his authority when Congress is gridlocked? It’s yet another question we need to look at more closely, because over the past couple of years, the Administration has made a number of bold policy plays that are borderline, if not outright, illegal. It’s time we start asking ourselves how much of this is okay.

*Sarah Kliff had a good post on Wonkblog analyzing whether the Administration’s delay of the employer mandate was legal. It’s not entirely clear