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.

Does Obama Lack the Leadership Skills in Syria?

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.

Presidential Leadership is a Myth

Ezra Klein writes in Wonkbook today about why gun control measures with mass support (90% of Americans support background checks) can’t pass through Congress:

If public opinion remains this uninformed despite overwhelming media coverage of the issue, the president’s aggressive use of the bully pulpit, and the focusing power of a national tragedy, then that suggests public opinion can’t effectively be leveraged even in extremely favorable circumstances. These results don’t explain the fluke status of gun control. They explain why majority support is a reliably weak predictor of congressional action.

As Klein goes on to say, much of the Washington press still operates as if Obama has not used the bully pulpit enough. You often hear this in the form of him not showing enough  “leadership.” But this is just a flawed way of looking at how D.C. works. The President has given more than a dozen, heartfelt speeches since Newtown on gun control. He’s put in calls to Congress and sent Vice President Biden to the hill to lobby for stricter gun control measures. What else can he do? What power does the bully pulpit have when in the face of a national tragedy and an overwhelming majority demanding action, the President can give speech after speech with nothing to show for it? The answer is none. Presidential leadership is just code for blaming each party equally, when only one is to blame.