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“Juice” Meets the “Permission Structure”

- April 30, 2013

underpants gnomesIn his press conference today, President Obama was asked about his “juice” by ABC’s Jonathan Karl in light of recent legislative votes and non-votes on gun control and the sequester (“So my question to you is do you still have the juice to get the rest of your agenda through this Congress?”)

In reply, Obama laid out the Republican (and some Democrats’) dilemma, and channeled his inner jargon creator. “Jonathan, you seem to suggest that somehow, these folks over there have no responsibilities and that my job is to somehow get them to behave…. They’re worried about their politics,” he said. “It’s tough. Their base thinks that compromise with me is somehow a betrayal. They’re worried about primaries. And I understand all that. And we’re going to try to do everything we can to create a permission structure for them to be able to do what’s going to be best for the country. But it’s going to take some time.”

Not much of a ring to it, I admit: can’t see “permission structure” catching on over at ESPN (“Touchdown! Brady sure got some permission structure on that throw!”) But Obama is right that members of Congress are not in a position to evade their constituents’ preferences – even if he jumps rather quickly to the assumption that, if they were only freed of such burdens, they would (obviously!) choose to vote for his preferences. Changing their “permission structure” really means “beating a lot of them in 2014 and replacing them with more amenable Democrats,” at which point they would have permission to play golf rather than cast disagreeable roll-call votes.

Now I had hoped to use President Obama’s weekend comedy segment on his “charm offensive” to draw a line under this particular “political science vs punditry” narrative that is becoming repetitive to write, and surely worse to read. Then, at the very same time, the Washington Post weighed in with yet another iteration of the punditry side.

Luckily Brendan Nyhan has taken the opportunity to expand on the MSM’s “underpants gnome” theory of presidential action (see the illustration above) while summarizing some useful links discussing the political science relevant to a series of assumptions too often made about presidential success in Congress.

But an honorable mention must go to a veteran stalwart of the MSM, Elizabeth Drew — who in the New York Review of Books goes after what she calls “the myth of arm-twisting.” Drew, who was the Washington correspondent for the Atlantic when Lyndon Johnson was president, notes that “Johnson would be laughed away if he tried to govern now the way he did then. Moreover there simply aren’t many arms for Obama to twist…. The power to persuade diminishes with the diminution of persuadables.”

That leaves me space to comment on just one line in the Post story that stood out to me because, for my sins, I have been reading a lot of Obama biography lately. Namely: “That leaves Obama with the option of doing something he’s not particularly good at: forging personal ties with other politicians.”

The problem is that studies of Obama do not in fact suggest this is something he’s bad at. Studies are littered with interviews testifying to Obama’s interpersonal skills. How about other politicians (as opposed to ‘real’ people)?  Well, Fredrick C. Harris, in The Price of the Ticket: Barack Obama and the Rise and Decline of Black Politics, highlights specifically (with regard to Obama’s performance as a state senator in Illinois)  “Obama’s personal charisma and his ability to schmooze in a variety of social and political settings” (p. 62). David Remnick’s The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama notes Obama’s outreach efforts in Springfield and quotes Obama as noting his Senate colleagues’ surprise that “Mr. Harvard” could socialize – that he “could sit down at [a bar] and have a beer and watch a game or go out for a round of golf or get a poker game going.”  He had, Remnick concludes, impressive “capacity to listen, learn the rules, compromise, avoid taking offense, and move forward” (pp. 301-04.)

The fact is – as Harris goes on to note – those skills, even in Springfield, “could only take him so far.” Even less far, I suspect, in Washington, DC.