Norm Ornstein’s National Journal article “The Most Enduring Myth About the Presidency: The Green Lantern theory just won’t go away” provides a timely reminder about the folly of attributing unlimited powers to the President. Referencing the recent 50th anniversary celebration of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 at the LBJ Library, Ornstein writes in his set-up:
The meme is what Matthew Yglesias, writing in 2006, referred to as “the Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics,” and has been refined by Greg Sargent and Brendan Nyhan into the Green Lantern Theory of the presidency. In a nutshell, it attributes heroic powers to a president–if only he would use them. And the holders of this theory have turned it into the meme that if only Obama used his power of persuasion, he could have the kind of success that LBJ enjoyed with the Great Society, that Bill Clinton enjoyed in his alliance with Newt Gingrich that gave us welfare reform and fiscal success, that Ronald Reagan had with Dan Rostenkowski and Bill Bradley to get tax reform, and so on.
If only Obama had dealt with Congress the way LBJ did–persuading, cajoling, threatening, and sweet-talking members to attain his goals–his presidency would not be on the ropes and he would be a hero. If only Obama would schmooze with lawmakers the way Bill Clinton did, he would have much greater success. If only Obama would work with Republicans and not try to steamroll them, he could be a hero and have a fiscal deal that would solve the long-term debt problem.
Ornstein acknowleges that “It is tempting to believe that a president could overcome the tribalism, polarization, and challenges of the permanent campaign, by doing what other presidents did to overcome their challenges.” Grownups, however, should give all of the cliches about the LBJ strong presidency a rest and look at the actual historical record. As Ornstein writes,
LBJ had a lot to do with the agenda, and the accomplishments. But his drive for civil rights was aided in 1964 by having the momentum following John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and the partnership of Republicans Everett Dirksen and Bill McCullough, detailed beautifully in new books by Clay Risen and Todd Purdum. And Johnson was aided substantially in 1965-66 by having swollen majorities of his own party in both chambers of Congress–68 of 100 senators, and 295 House members, more than 2-to-1 margins. While Johnson needed, and got, substantial Republican support on civil rights and voting rights to overcome Southern Democrats’ opposition, he did not get a lot of Republicans supporting the rest of his domestic agenda. He had enough Democrats supporting those policies to ensure passage, and he got enough GOP votes on final passage of key bills to ensure the legitimacy of the actions.
Johnson deserves credit for horse-trading (for example, finding concessions to give to Democrat Wilbur Mills, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, to get his support for Medicare), but it was the numbers that made the difference. Consider what happened in the next two years, after the 1966 midterm elections depleted Democratic ranks and enlarged Republican ones. LBJ was still the great master of Congress–but without the votes, the record was anything but robust. All the cajoling and persuading and horse-trading in the world did not matter.
Ornstein goes on the document that even Reagan’s transformative accomplishments were made possible buy a spirit of cooperation in the opposition party. Polarization began to kick in during the Clinton Administration, when Newt Gingrich threw his tantrums, and only let up when Gingrich was disgraced and congressional Republicans tried a more pragmatic approach to the country’s benefit.
Contray to the current GOP meme, writes Ornstein, “When Obama had the numbers, not as robust as LBJ’s but robust enough, he had a terrific record of legislative accomplishments. The 111th Congress ranks just below the 89th in terms of significant and far-reaching enactments, from the components of the economic stimulus plan to the health care bill to Dodd/Frank and credit-card reform.” Further, “all were done with either no or minimal Republican support. LBJ and Reagan had willing partners from the opposite party; Obama has had none.”
Sure Obama could have done a little better here and there, concedes Ornstein. “But the brutal reality,” concludes Ornstein, is that “in today’s politics…LBJ, if he were here now, could not be the LBJ of the Great Society years in this environment. Nobody can, and to demand otherwise is both futile and foolish.”