Is President Obama Superman?

Does the President matter?

It seems like a silly question but the answer isn’t all that straight-forward and the finer points of this discussion have been playing out across newspapers and blogs lately. On one extreme you have people like infantile New York Times Is President Obama Superman? columnist Muareen Dowd, who two weeks ago wrote,

President Spock’s behavior is illogical.

Once more, he has willfully and inexplicably resisted fulfilling a signal part of his job: being a prism in moments of fear and pride, reflecting what Americans feel so they know he gets it.

This “analysis” is utterly substance-less and yet it passes as insightful commentary in much of our press. Even when they’re pretending to do just the opposite.

There is, rightfully, quite a bit of disdain for this type of amateur psychoanalysis. In the midst of a great crisis one would hope that our political chattering class would discuss the serious underlying policy issues. Instead we have the most prominent forums in our national media devoted to cheap psychobabble.

But disdain for the drama obsessed media shouldn’t cloud our analysis of the value of Presidential leadership. Political science blogger Jonathan Bernstein has been a voice of reason in debates concerning the power of the Presidency,

More to the point, Obama, like all presidents, had to establish priorities, assess where the votes were, and decide how to use the resources of the presidency. He had, of course, a long agenda, with various constituencies pushing to have their pet issue and the sub-issues contained within each of those issues placed at the top. And while he had a lot of assets, including a large majority in the House and (for a very brief period) 60 Democratic Senators, he had a lot of constraints, including all the problems he inherited that had little to do with the long-term Democratic agenda and a fully rejectionist Republican party. The latter — and really, it takes a complete misunderstanding of how the American political system works not to see this — means that individual Democratic Senators hold a great deal of bargaining power over the president. Not, alas for Obama and for the liberal agenda, the other way around.

[Do yourself a favor and read the entire piece and bookmark Jonathan's blog.]

The President isn’t Superman. He cannot simply will Congress to do his bidding. Particularly in the context of domestic policy making, the area where a great majority of liberals have been most intently focused throughout the Obama administration. The failure of the public option was not a failure of Obama but rather a failure of our politics more generally.

But, and you knew there was a but coming, the President is not impotent. In the right circumstances a President can use the bully pulpit to great effect and President Obama did so on Tuesday night. In the snap analysis of his speech people rushed to declare it a success or failure while he was still speaking. The melodrama brigade thought it was a failure because the President didn’t pound his fists on the Resolute Desk and the reason-over-emotion crowd thought it was a failure because all Presidential speeches are ineffectual.

And after all this what was the big news on Wednesday afternoon? BP had decided to go along with our unemotional and ineffectual figurehead of a President and ante up $20 billion into an escrow account for claims related to the Gulf oil disaster.

This is no small feat. There is no legal mechanism for the President to compel such action. BP could very well have thumbed their nose at the President and dared him to do something about it. BP could have followed the path forged by Exxon in the aftermath of the Valdez spill and taken two decades to finally conclude litigation and ultimately see the judgment reduced to just out 1/100th of the original amount.

And yet, they didn’t. The acquiesced. They gave Obama everything that he was demanding and they did so with no public hesitation or posturing. One of Josh Marshall’s readers called it “A mind-boggling accomplishment.

Both sides of the Presidential power debate had their pet theories about Presidential leadership slayed by Wednesday’s news. It turns out the President actually does matter and he doesn’t have to make a public spectacle to be effective.

Who knew?

T.R. Donoghue is an attorney living in Denver, Colorado where he works on labor and employment issues. T.R. has worked extensively in public policy and politics and on both state and national campaign more


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