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Maureen Dowd Discovers That Barack Obama Is Neither Andrew Shepherd Nor Josiah Bartlett

White House Dusk

Maureen Dowd isn’t happy with the way the President handled, and lost, the gun control debate in the Senate:

The graying man flashing fury in the Rose Garden on behalf of the Newtown families, the grieving man wiping away tears after speaking at the Boston memorial service, is not the same man who glided into office four years ago.

President Obama has watched the blood-dimmed tide drowning the ceremony of innocence, as Yeats wrote, and he has learned how to emotionally connect with Americans in searing moments, as he did from the White House late Friday night after the second bombing suspect was apprehended in Boston.

Unfortunately, he still has not learned how to govern.

How is it that the president won the argument on gun safety with the public and lost the vote in the Senate? It’s because he doesn’t know how to work the system. And it’s clear now that he doesn’t want to learn, or to even hire some clever people who can tell him how to do it or do it for him.

It’s unbelievable that with 90 percent of Americans on his side, he could get only 54 votes in the Senate. It was a glaring example of his weakness in using leverage to get what he wants. No one on Capitol Hill is scared of him.

Even House Republicans who had no intention of voting for the gun bill marveled privately that the president could not muster 60 votes in a Senate that his party controls.

President Obama thinks he can use emotion to bring pressure on Congress. But that’s not how adults with power respond to things. He chooses not to get down in the weeds and pretend he values the stroking and other little things that matter to lawmakers.

After the Newtown massacre, he and his aides hashed it out and decided he would look cold and unsympathetic if he didn’t push for some new regulations. To thunderous applause at the State of the Union, the president said, “The families of Newtown deserve a vote.” Then, as usual, he took his foot off the gas, lost momentum and confided his pessimism to journalists.

The White House had a defeatist mantra: This is tough. We need to do it. But we’re probably going to lose.

When you go into a fight saying you’re probably going to lose, you’re probably going to lose.

The president once more delegated to the vice president. Couldn’t he have come to the Hill himself to lobby with the families and Joe Biden?

The White House should have created a war room full of charts with the names of pols they had to capture, like they had in “The American President.” Soaring speeches have their place, but this was about blocking and tackling.

Instead of the pit-bull legislative aides in Aaron Sorkin’s movie, Obama has Miguel Rodriguez, an arm-twister so genteel that The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker wrote recently that no one in Congress even knows who he is.

Reading this column I find myself wondering if Dowd realizes that “The American President” is a nearly 20 year old movie that was a work of fiction, not a documentary about contemporary politics.  Quite honestly, I’m not entirely sure because her column reminds me of people who have watched the The West Wing and think that they have an in depth understanding of how American politics, along with domestic and foreign policy, actually works in the real world. Perhaps there was a day when Presidents could drag Senators and Congressman into the Oval Office and cajole them into changing their vote. Lyndon Johnson may have been able to do that back in the day, but those days are long, long gone. Not only has the idea of party discipline changed significantly from what it meant 50 years ago,  but the fact that Obama himself is a lame duck means that his actual political power is already beginning to erode. The idea that he some how could have cajoled six Senators, at least one of which would have had to have been a Republican, into changing their vote on the Manchin/Toomey bill represents a naive view of politics that seems to be emblematic of Dowd and others on the Times Op-Ed page these days.

Most fundamentally, Dowd seems to misunderstand what it is that actually motivates politicians in the decisions they make. Yes, principles matter, and there are some politicians, such as Bernie Sanders on the left and Rand Paul on the right, for whom principle is pretty  much the beginning and the end of how they approach most policy issues.  Most politicians, though, are far more pragmatic in their decision making and are unlikely to take a position that alienates them from the people they represent, and whose vote they will be asking for in the next election. That’s the reason why Democratic Senators like Mark Pryor and Max Baucus voted against Manchin/Toomey, as I explained in my post after the vote. It also explains why a Senator like Heidi Heitkamp, who doesn’t face re-election until 2018, voted against the bill. As she stated in numerous interviews last week, her decision was based on the fact that the overwhelming response her office got from residents of North Dakota about Manchin/Toomey was completely negative. How, exactly, does Dowd propose that Obama was going to be able to persuade Pryor and Baucus to potentially sacrifice their 2014 re-elections, and Heitkamp, to stake her first major vote in the Senate on an issue against what the people who elected her want?

The only explanation I can come up with is that Dowd has become enamored with the idealized New York-Washington corridor vision of politics epitomized by the movie she references in her column, and even more so by Sorkin’s classic television series The West Wing. According to this vision, the President is the all powerful leader of government who, with just a little bit of persuasion and a lot of political skill can bend Congress to his will. The problem is that this isn’t how American politics works, or at least not how it works in the real world. You can’t just solve problems by being a “strong leader” and giving nice speeches. If the political winds are  blowing against you, then you’re not going to win. In the case of this gun control vote, the political winds were not blowing in Barack Obama’s favor, and that’s why he failed. Dowd’s dream that he could have been some fictional President that could enact the dream liberal agenda are just that, dreams and fantasies.

Footnote:  On some level, I regret taking the time to critique Dowd’s poorly drafted argument.  Quite honestly, I wonder why The New York Times continues to give her column space.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. edmondo says:

    “Quite honestly, I wonder why The New York Times continues to give her column space.”

    Really, say what you want Doug, but she hit this nail right on the head:

    “…he still has not learned how to govern.

    How is it that the president won the argument on gun safety with the public and lost the vote in the Senate? It’s because he doesn’t know how to work the system.”

    Other than an unworkable heathcare “reform” bill and a financial “reform” law that is slowly getting eroded by WallStreet lobbyists everyday, where exactly is that “change” we were promised in 2008?

    Poorly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 43

  2. al-Ameda says:

    I read her column this morning. Honestly, sometimes Maureen Dowd can be so out-to-lunch.

    How she can write this column and pretend that she has no idea what the math is up on Capitol Hill is beyond me. The new math is that it take 60+ votes to get it done and I do not believe that Obama can get around that no matter what he does. Look at the math – 90% of Democrats voted for most provisions of the gun bill, and 90% of Republicans voted against it.

    This after-the-fact crappola that Administration didn’t sell it the right way, or glad hand and kiss enough Republican rear-end is so much fiction. The numbers on Capitol Hill don’t lie – nothing gets done unless it’s filibuster proof. Manchin-Toomey was a Potemkin Bill that served it’s purpose – it allowed Republicans enough cover to pretend that they might vote to support some of the provisions of the bill, to appear to be thoughtful. That’s all it was – an appearance.

    Get ready for the next Potemkin Bill – the immigration bill.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 30 Thumb down 1

  3. Spartacus says:

    Doug wrote:

    Quite honestly, I wonder why The New York Times continues to give her column space.

    Shouldn’t all of the NY Times regular columnists have their column space taken away? Seriously, except for Krugman, none of them has anything compelling to say and Krugman’s compelling comments are usually on economic matters, which can be read on his blog.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 20 Thumb down 1

  4. al-Ameda says:

    @Spartacus:

    Shouldn’t all of the NY Times regular columnists have their column space taken away?

    I tend to agree with you. Sometimes the op-ed writers get to be stale, so it’s not a bad idea to rotate them out occasionally.

    To the current point: in my opinion Gail Collins and Maureen Dowd cover the same ground and Gail Collins consistently does it better. I’d replace Dowd with Charles Blow or Nate Silver.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 14 Thumb down 0

  5. JustAnotherPoster says:

    I also enjoyed this takedown of Ms. Dowd’s incredibly naive missive: http://bit.ly/11uGwTh

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  6. stonetools says:

    The problem is not just that Maureen Dowd believes in this idea of the Presidency . The problem is that a lot of the media believes this, including old Washington hands like Bob Woodward and Ron Fourier. All of this people believe in both the “Presidential leadership” myth and its corollary, the myth of “reasonable bipartisanism”. These people believe that if only the President advanced a “reasonable enough” proposal, and then “exercised leadership”, used the “bully pulpit” and “talked to the other side over drinks” , then the President could overcome institutional obstacles like the filibuster, the idealogical sorting of the parties, and the power of lobbies like the NRA. Ron Fourier finally did concede the “Presidential leadership” didn’t work with gun safety reform, but I expect that the old hands will continue to hold on to the myths they grew up with.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 21 Thumb down 1

  7. stonetools says:

    @edmondo:

    Edmondo believes another myth, cherished by liberals and conservatives alike: the Green Lantern theory of Presidential power. The belief is if that the President exercised enough WILLPOWER, then he could pass a no-compromise bill despite institutional obstacles and the power of the opposition. President Obama, therefore could have passed, eg, single payer health care only if he exercised enough WILLPOWER, and therefore is to blamed as a weak President for not passing (insert favorite legal program here).

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 27 Thumb down 2

  8. James H says:

    The fictional president I’d like …

    http://www.hulu.com/watch/102972

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  9. steve says:

    When you are more worried about losing the primary in your own party than you are losing to the other party, it changes things a lot. Maureen has not caught onto this yet.

    Steve

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 15 Thumb down 0

  10. winfield says:

    Good critique of a column that, for some reason, continues to be featured in the NYT. I’m surprised at how weak their lineup for political commentary is. I love Gail Collins’ humor, but for interesting analysis I now find The American Conservative the place to go. (and here of course!)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 0

  11. Dave Schuler says:

    In order to gain the magical 60 votes, the Senate Democrats would have needed to hold and one additional Republican vote would have been needed to have turned. Was that beyond presidential influence or arm-twisting or not and why?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  12. Andre Kenji says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    Was that beyond presidential influence or arm-twisting or not and why?

    Not only that. I bet that Obama and Senate Democrats do not want to spend precious political capital on this issue.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  13. Stonetools says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    Apparently it was. Party discipline and the power of lobbies can apparently trump whatever “arm twisting” the President can apply. That was the lesson of the gun reform bill. Frankly the President can’t really “twist arms” much anymore, despite the popular myth. The President can send flying robots to kill you on the other side of the world, but if you are a US Senator, there isn’t much the President can do to you.
    A better question may be why the President now needs sixty votes to pass any proposal, and why a 54-46 Yes vote was a “failure”.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 20 Thumb down 0

  14. Crusty Dem says:

    @Andre Kenji:

    I would love to hear what you think Obama and senate dems could have done, specifically, to get this bill passed. I’m guessing it’ll be about as smart as suggesting the audience “clap louder”, because you’ve ventured into tinker bell territory..

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 1

  15. superdestroyer says:

    I think one of the lessons for Washington is that when you lie or overly maneuver on one topic, that people will believe that you will lie or maneuver on another topic. A president who refuses to defend existing federal law in front of the Supreme Court cannot make the argument that the law will prevent him from doing something. Also, since every law passed comes with an expiration data when a liberal judge will over turn the law, there is no point in discussing what is actually in the law.

    The intent of the left, through their own admissions, is to ban the private ownership of guns in the U.S. (See the arguments in front of the Supreme Court in the Heller case). Since progressives cannot take back what they wrote for the Supreme Court and cannot take back their lying in the past, there is no reason for Republicans to pay attention to what they are saying now.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 3 Thumb down 17

  16. fred says:

    Pres Obama’s supporters believed his hope and change message and voted for him twice. He has been an instrument of despair and disappointment for these voters, mostly women, minorities and enlightened elders. History shows that the rich have gotten richer and Wall Street profits and corp profits are bursting at the seams while the working class and poor struggle daily for jobs and supplemental funds. Just look at POTUS’ and Bernacke’s policies on CDs, savings and money market accounts “almost zero returns”.. to most of Pres Obama’s voters. It is a crying shame and he and Michele must be having sleepless nights and being unable to look at themselves in the mirror that as a former community organizer his policies have been so poor for most of his working class and retired supporters. I voted for him because he was the better choice but as a contributor to his campaign Pres Obama has let us down the drain and there is no improvement in choice.

    Poorly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 21

  17. Rick DeMent says:

    @fred:

    Apparently what you know about supporters of the president could almost fill a thimble.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 0

  18. Stan says:

    @Dave Schuler: “Was that beyond presidential influence or arm-twisting or not and why?”

    The answer is Yes, and the reason is the disappearance of the moderate wing of the Republican party. We’ve settled into a steady state in which the Democrats win the presidency because their positions and their candidates appeal to more voters, the Senate is up for grabs because of the disproportionate weight of small states, and the House is Republican because of gerrymandering. I expect this state of affairs to continue for a long time.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 0

  19. Anderson says:

    What an embarrassment she would be to the Times if they had the sense to be embarrassed. She can’t count senators? She hasn’t noticed that those empty wastelands west of the Mississippi get as many senators each as New York does?

    A mind is a terrible thing to waste. So is an op-ed page.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 0

  20. Andre Kenji says:

    @Crusty Dem:

    I would love to hear what you think Obama and senate dems could have done, specifically, to get this bill passed.

    There are several things that Obama could have done(Including directly pressing vulnerable Dems with pork and Congressional assignments), but I don´t think that would be worth the political capital. I imagine that the White House agrees with me.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 5

  21. C. Clavin says:

    “…The intent of the left, through their own admissions, is to ban the private ownership of guns in the U.S…”

    Paranoid delusions.
    You, given your intellectual and emotional problems…coupled with your rank bigotry, should not be allowed to own guns.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 1

  22. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Anderson:

    A mind is a terrible thing to waste.

    Not to worry. She lost her’s a long time ago.

    @fred:

    Pres Obama’s supporters believed his hope and change message and voted for him twice. He has been an instrument of despair and disappointment for these voters, mostly women, minorities and enlightened elders.

    Let me just say fred, that you were extremely naive if you thought that once Obama was elected it would all be shiny ponies and fairy dust. Especially after McConnell told you job #1 was making sure Obama was a one term president.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  23. Crusty Dem says:

    @Andre Kenji:

    I’m beyond skeptical. But let’s assume you actually are right. How does he get the 2+ repubs on board? You think there’s a carrot out there that would convince them to give up their seats in the inevitable primary challenge?

    The disappointment should be in A) the intransigence of the GOP and B) the failure of the WH to recognize this, wasting considerable time and energy.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  24. James in Silverdale, WA says:

    @edmondo: Add: “failure to prosecute war criminals.”

    No one is afraid of the rule of law, either. No one who needs to be, at any rate.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  25. grumpy realist says:

    @fred: Despair and dissappointment? Not for THIS white broad! Yes, I would have wished that certain votes had passed that didn’t get through, but when you consider that Obama is going up against an incredibly intrangient, stupid, tub-thumping bunch of gun-happy scientific illiterates whose only idea in their head was “how can we make Obama a one-term president?” I’m quite happy with what he managed to pull off so far.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 1

  26. C. Clavin says:

    @ Fred…
    It’s clear you have about as firm a grasp of political realities as Maureen Dowd.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  27. Barry says:

    @Dave Schuler: ” Was that beyond presidential influence or arm-twisting or not and why? ”

    How about you tell us?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  28. Andre Kenji says:

    @Crusty Dem:

    I’m beyond skeptical. But let’s assume you actually are right. How does he get the 2+ repubs on board?

    I don´t think that the political capital to flip Susan Collins or any other Republican Senator would be worth the try, that´s my point.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  29. Crusty Dem says:

    @Andre Kenji:

    I don’t think the “political capital” you are describing exists outside of your imagination.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  30. anjin-san says:

    Despair and dissappointment?

    I give Obama a B- for his job performance so far. Bush got an F. McCain was an accident waiting to happen, and Romney was nothing more that a billionaire’s wet dream, with the rest of us getting f**cked, hard.

    Obama has, on occasion, let me down. Welcome to reality. I have yet to meet a Democrat who is in “despair” over Obama. That’s a line talk show radio hosts are selling to the rubes.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  31. superdestroyer says:

    @C. Clavin:

    I guess paying attention to what progressives are saying to the Supreme Court counts as being paranoid these days. Remember, progressives stood in front of the Supreme Court and argued that the 2nd Amendment does not mean that there is an individual right to own a gun. That progressives argued that the District of Columbia was perfectly legal when it had a law that banned the private ownership of hand guns.

    I guess reality is just another form of paranoia to the left these days.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  32. fred says:

    Concur with many. Just like me you all bought off on the Prez’s verbosity and promises and supported his election and financially as well. Be true to yourself and admit he has not delivered for the working class, poor and retirees, as well as veterans. That’s my great disappointment as I had to vote for the lesser of two bad candidates and I am a democrat as well. How many of you are better off today than you were 5 years ago? Most working class folks are worse off and as for minorities in our country their distress is evident everywhere.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 2

  33. Andre Kenji says:

    @Crusty Dem:

    I don’t think the “political capital” you are describing exists outside of your imagination.

    Frankly, I do not care to what you think.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

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