Tuesday, March 5, 2013


Political scientist Seth Masket pointed out yesterday that while it is a shame Obama foolishly mixed up the Star Wars and Star Trek universes in his press conference the other day, the bigger folly was the silliness of the question. To review:
Q Mr. President, to your question, what could you do -- first of all, couldn’t you just have them down here and refuse to let them leave the room until you have a deal?

THE PRESIDENT: I mean, Jessica, I am not a dictator. I’m the President. So, ultimately, if Mitch McConnell or John Boehner say, we need to go to catch a plane, I can't have Secret Service block the doorway, right? So --

Q But isn’t that part of leadership? I’m sorry to interrupt, but isn’t --

THE PRESIDENT: I understand. And I know that this has been some of the conventional wisdom that's been floating around Washington that somehow, even though most people agree that I’m being reasonable, that most people agree I’m presenting a fair deal, the fact that they don't take it means that I should somehow do a Jedi mind-meld with these folks and convince them to do what’s right. Well, they're elected. We have a constitutional system of government. The Speaker of the House and the leader of the Senate and all those folks have responsibilities.
Masket goes on to point out that the "leadership" Jessica Yellin is calling for is problematic to say the least:
So what did she mean? Did she mean that the President should literally invite the Speaker of the House into the Oval Office and physically prevent him from leaving until an accord is reached, violating the law and the Constitution in the process? Are we to believe that that's what Reagan or LBJ would have done? Is holding people against their will part of "leadership"?
Or did she mean this figuratively? If so, what would that mean? After all, if you only figuratively prevent people from leaving the room, you're not really preventing them from leaving the room. Which means that if they decide it's not in their interest to be in that room, they can leave. Which is exactly where we are right now.
I have to agree, this is a terrible question on the merits, but I do think it points out how a lot of journalists think about the Presidency and politics in general, or at least how they chose to report it to us.  I've written before about how the office and powers of the Presidency are misunderstood and this obsession with "leadership" as a way to get the GOP to compromise is a great example of what some people call "The Cult of the Presidency."

In addition, I'd guess that there is another reason why reporters and pundits are calling for arm twisting like "refuse to let them leave the room" because you have "leadership" as a good way to get out of this impasse.  It seems to me that everyone in Washington is obsessed with image and wants appear to be smart and "in the know."  A great way to appear "in the know" seems to be going around referencing big scholarly tombs, that you haven't read, that supposedly support your argument.  The guys who wrote "Game Change" kept referencing all sorts of Washington insiders in 2007 and 2008 being obsessed with appearing to have read Doris Kerns Goodwin's Team of Rivals so they could argue the fact that the Clinton campaign was plagued by mismanagement and infighting was a sign of their genius, just like Lincoln!  When the movie Lincoln came out (based on Team of Rivals) there seemed to be a resurgent of referencing the book by beltway insiders.  As well as the idea that Obama could ply legislators with food and drink, or something.  Who knows if that's true about Clinton, but it does certainly seem possible to me.  

So maybe the new hot scholarly tombs to associate yourself with, but of course not actually read, is Robert Carro's The Years of Lyndon Johnson.  Carro is great with the anecdotes about Johnson's strong arm tactics and such, but of course the larger lesson of the Johnson years is that those tactics only really work against your own party and while they may work out in the short term they will ultimately destroy your presidency.  Which, along with Vietnam (which was started via strong arm tactics in many ways) was exactly what happened to Johnson.  Anyway, that might explain why Yellin thinks "leadership" or more properly "Leadership!" involves locking people in rooms. 

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