… but don’t forget, the power of a president is limited


It Began with the budget battle, reached a cruel crescendo with the gun vote, and culminated in the question President Obama had to field at his press conference last week about whether he’d run out of “juice” to pass his agenda.

Barack Obama isn’t strong like Richard Nixon. He can’t strong-arm like Franklin Roosevelt. He’s afraid to pressure like Bill Clinton. No one’s afraid of him like Lyndon Johnson.

It’s bunk.

The hoariest piece of folklore in the capital involves presidential strength and the fear it inspires. The commentary always goes like this: Presidents of the past had it, and the current President doesn’t.

Dwight Eisenhower, today almost everybody’s idea of a strong president, heard it. Harry Truman, who supposedly gave ’em hell, heard it. And there were days when LBJ heard it too — because Mr. Johnson’s bullying days all but ended when he left the Senate and entered the executive branch. He bullied as Senate majority leader, he bleated as vice president, and he beseeched as president.

Today, the Greek chorus is singing that President Obama should have had an easy time bringing the Senate around on the gun bill. Might I whisper this in the ear of all those who are whining: This might say more about the Senate and its traditions than about the President and his prerogatives.

The disparity between the 80-plus percent of Americans who in some polls supported gun-sale background checks and the 54 percent of the Senate that supported the legislation is astonishing, perhaps without precedent.

So maybe the President could have done a better job. Maybe Mr. Obama was too reasonable — you hear that word a lot in connection with the 44th President — and not sufficiently forceful — a word you rarely hear about Mr. Obama.

But that is not his way. One of the reasons the President has trouble prevailing with Congress is that many lawmakers don’t like him.

Mr. Obama’s troubles have nothing to do with the fear factor, because the fear factor is a fantasy.

Historical legends warp our perspective on the presidency. In the folklore, Mr. Johnson was a political magus, wielding irresistible power from the Oval Office over Congress. Not so, at least in foreign affairs, where presidents have the widest latitude.

LBJ won wide running room from Congress by virtue of the huge majorities (414-0 in the House, 88-2 in the Senate) in support of the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which permitted the president to take all necessary measures to fight North Vietnam.

But Mr. Johnson’s closest Capitol Hill mentor, Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia, expressed reservations about the administration’s Vietnam policy as early as 1964. By 1966, efforts to revoke the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution began.

Franklin Roosevelt, in his second term, tried to purge the Democratic Party of conservative lawmakers who opposed the New Deal, not knowing that those conservatives would be ardent supporters of his policies. He campaigned against a number of Southern Democrats, especially Walter George of Georgia and Ellison “Cotton Ed” Smith of South Carolina, both of whom prevailed — and neither of whom ever feared the president again.

The president who had earlier campaigned against “fear itself” came to know what all presidents eventually learn: Fear itself is no weapon at all.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Contact him at: dshribman@post-gazette.com