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The Godfather Presidency

Long time Republican political guru Roger Stone Roger Alan Stone argues that President Obama can learn from Vito and Michael Corleone:

Barack Obama said during the 2008 campaign that his favorite movie was “The Godfather.” But the president apparently views “The Godfather” as a crime or family drama — not as the most important work on the use of power by an Italian since Machiavelli’s “The Prince.”

Lessons from Don Corleone would have helped Obama avoid many of the mistakes in his first year and a half in office.

Stone goes on to draw a few examples from the film that he says President Obama should take to heart:

Remember that the don has done you this favor.

As a powerful man, the don does many people many favors. But they know that something will be expected of them in return. When that moment comes, they had better be willing to return the favor. This favor bank is a great source of the don’s power.

Obama has been all quid, with no pro quo. With Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) down on his luck — no job in the McCain administration and the Democratic Caucus skeptical of his liberal credentials — Obama intervened. Because of that, Lieberman got the committee chairmanship he so desperately wanted. But, somehow, attached to that favor were no strings — for example, no condition that he could vote as he wanted on bills but would support the caucus on breaking filibusters.

The obvious question, of course, is how such an agreement would be enforced. In the Corleone’s world, of course, enforcement is a simple and brutal matter. In Washington, it’s not quite so easy, which is why such agreements are rarely entered into or taken seriously.

Even if there had been strings attached to the Administration’s intervention that let Lieberman keep his Senate seat, they would’ve been meaningless and, had they become public, the Administration would’ve gotten into hot water for making quid pro quo deals in exchange for putting their thumb on the scale in a matter that, technically, is a purely internal Senate matter.

Even if Obama had made an “agreement” with Lieberman, he never could’ve enforced it, but Stone has an answer for that:

Sometimes you need to leave a horse head in the bed.

The don knows that when the situation has reached an impasse, it’s time for the unexpected move that shows you can hurt your opponents in personal ways that they cannot expect, let alone imagine: a calculated overreaction that shows your opponents their actions have consequences.

Take, for example, the blocking of hundreds of administration appointments by Republicans. At one point, Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby announced he was blocking all pending appointments to secure a few million dollars in Defense Department pork for his state.

That would have been the moment to strike: Call up Majority Leader Harry Reid and ask to recess for a day. Then recess-appoint all pending appointments. And give a Rose Garden address saying that our problems are too important for this kind of malarkey.

Of course, for good measure during recess, Obama could have appointed all those who would never have been confirmed by the Senate — and given Shelby a “Sicilian message” by appointing someone from the Southern Poverty Law Center as U.S. attorney for Alabama.

Go to the mattresses.

When a gangland war gets serious, the don has to “go to the mattresses.” That means he assembles all his forces, which stay ready 24 hours a day by sleeping in secret apartments.

Clearly, when the Republicans began filibustering everything, it was time to go to the mattresses — that is, keep the Senate in session continuously and make the Republicans filibuster “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” style. That would have shown the country where the obstruction really lay.

Whenever the possibility of real physical discomfort or even inconvenience has arisen, the Republicans have backed down.

Except, of course, that Senate rules don’t allow for that. All you need to do is win a cloture vote and you’ve won the filibuster. In order to change that rule, you’d need the support of 67 Senators. And that’s never going to happen.

Moreover, politics, unlike La Cosa Nostra is about compromise, not war. Obama accomplishes nothing by turning every little legislative battle into a war with his political enemies in the GOP, especially since he has enemies to worry about elsewhere.

Which leads me to the one piece of Corleone family advice that Stone leaves out, and which Obama should take to heart:

From my perspective, the biggest mistake President Obama has made since taking office is giving far too much discretion to the Democratic Congressional leadership. From the February 2009 stimulus package, to health care reform, to financial regulation, President Obama and his advisers have been content to sit back and let Congress work out the details of legislation that, during the campaign, Obama had said would be the centerpieces of his Presidency. The result has been legislation that resembles anything designed by committee — a complete an utter mess that seems more concerned with satisfying various Congressional constituencies than accomplishing it’s stated goals.

Imagine how things might have been different if the President had kept both his friends, and his enemies, close, and taken control of the situation. Instead of a stimulus bill that was little more than a collection of a decades worth of Congressional pork barrel projects, we might have had something that was actually aimed at, you know, economic stimulus. And the psychological impact on the public of a President who actually seems to be in charge shouldn’t be discounted either. I’m not sure that the economy would be any better had Obama acted differently, but it hardly could be in worse shape. And, from the President’s perspective, his Presidency would be in an arguably stronger position than it is today.

But, it’s fairly clear that Barack Obama doesn’t want to be that kind of President.

The biggest problem with Stone’s advice, then, is that it’s fairly clear that President Obama temperamentally incapable of acting like the kind of leader that Stone is suggesting he should be. In the world of The Godfather, Barack Obama isn’t the brutal-yet-wise Vito or the coldly calculating Michael. He’s Fredo, and it’s showing.

Note: Updated 9/22/10 to reflect the fact that the author of the linked article is not the same person as Republican politico Roger Stone. My apologies.

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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. Dave Schuler says:

    Moreover, politics, unlike La Cosa Nostra is about compromise, not war.

    Oh, Doug.  You are so living in the past.

     

    To date the Obama Administration has been more like the Piranha Brothers than the Corleones.

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  2. Brett says:

    The result has been legislation that resembles anything designed by committee — a complete an utter mess that seems more concerned with satisfying various Congressional constituencies than accomplishing it’s stated goals.

     
    While Obama can lobby and glad-hand potential allies in Congress, ultimately the actual legislation has to come from him, and it’s going to be riven with congressional issues and priorities. There’s nothing he can do about that except veto it – he doesn’t have the power to propose legislation in Congress the way a Prime Minister can in a parliamentary system.
     
     
     
     
     

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  3. Brett,

    I refer you to Lyndon Johnson for an example of what a strong President can do to influence legislation in Congress, and to Ronald Reagan as an example of what a strong President can do to influence legislation even when his party doesn’t control Congress.

    Obama doesn’t do that. He’s weak. Like I said, he’s Fredo.

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  4. Brett says:

    Johnson had the political “benefit” of Kennedy’s death,  democratic super-majorities in both houses of Congress, some very pro-Civil Rights leading Republicans, as well as strong congressional leadership (do you think Harry Reid, for example, would tough out a 57-day filibuster?).
    Obama doesn’t have those advantages.

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  5. Other than the largest Democratic majorities in Congress in 20 years or more…..

    If anything has become clear over the past 18 months, it is that Barack Obama is not leadership material.

     

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  6. Tano says:

    What a pathetic little exercise in childish insults.
    First you give us Roger Stone, of all people, a bottom of the barrel sleazy hack, who, not surprisingly, sees the Godfather as the great template for Presidential leadership. It seemed for a moment that you were going to actually make a decent argument – that Obama is not that kind of a man or a President. But ya just couldn’t resist going back to Stone’s frame and claming that if you are not a mafia thug, then you must be a mafia weakling.
     
    So what was Reagan in your estimation? Like Micheal, or like the Don?
    And how exactly is Obama “weak” – given that he has passed several of his major initiatives when many claimed that he would not be able to? And he has done so while maintaining a higher approval rating than Reagan did, at all comparable points in his presidency. Maybe I missed something in the movies, but I don’t remember Fredo making it to be the head of the family, nor do I recall him having successes on a scale that outstripped his father.

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  7. Tano,

    As I said, Obama’s legislative “accomplishments” are not due to any work on his part. He ceded complete control of the stimulus, health care reform, and FinReg to Congress. He didn’t both to lobby hard for any of the ideas he claimed were important to him during the campaign. It’s not his legislative agenda that passed, it’s Nancy Pelosi’s and Harry Reid’s, he just signed the bills.

    Maybe I missed something in the movies, but I don’t remember Fredo making it to be the head of the family

    Because Vito, Michael, Sonny, and Tom Hagen were smart enough to know that you don’t put the family business in the hands of the weakest member.

     

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  8. Tano says:

    As I said, Obama’s legislative “accomplishments” are not due to any work on his part.

     
    Yeah Doug, and the word for that view is something I will hold back because it wouldnt be polite to say. Obama and the administration were intimately involved in all these bills, especially the healthcare bill. He personally met with Grassley and the other “Gang of six” members to negotiate for their support, as well as meeting constantly with the Dems. Where do you get this stuff from?
     
    Yes, it is true that he gave the Congress a large voice in crafting the bills – what a “bleepin” concept, eh? Allowing the representatives of the people, who will be voting for or against these bills, to have a role in actually writing them? What does he think we have down there in DC, some kind of a democracy or something?
     
    You really buy into this Stone framing, don’t you. There is only strength – acting like a thug, or otherwise weakness. I ask you again, where do you put Reagan in your little mafia family frame? I’ll give you a little more time to think about it, because I realize the problem you are facing. Fact is that Obama’s presidential leadership style is very similar to Reagan’s. I know, in my younger and less mature days, I made all the same insults against Reagan that you are doing now against Obama – and more. Reagan was weak because he was an airhead. He wasn’t just weak relative to the Congress, he couldn’t even control his own staff.
     
    Of course, the fact that he tried to blame his staff for cutting illegal deals with Iran and running guns to the fascist thugs in Central America lent a bit of credence to those charges. Oh, if only Obama could truly mimic that glorious leadership style!
     

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  9. It’s not about acting like a thug, it’s about leadership.

    And Barack Obama is no leader

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  10. Brummagem Joe says:

    “As I said, Obama’s legislative “accomplishments” are not due to any work on his part. He ceded complete control of the stimulus, health care reform, and FinReg to Congress.”

    I’m increasingly starting to think you live in dreamland Doug. The rot set in when you started recommending the economic analysis of Victor Hanson over that of Paul Krugman and you have made a number of, well let me call them odd, statements since of which this is the latest. In fact this entire Corleone construct is fairly juvenile.  

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  11. Alex Knapp says:

    I’m not sure that “The President doesn’t behave like a sociopathic thug” is something I’d complain about….

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  12. Joe,

    Once Paul Krugman started repeating the fallacy that World War Two was good for the economy, I pretty much decided that his Nobel Prize was worth about as much as the prizes they hand out at the County Fair.

    You may agree with him, I laugh at him

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  13. An Interested Party says:

    “Moreover, politics, unlike La Cosa Nostra is about compromise, not war.”
    Umm, perhaps you need to deliver that message to the GOP…

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  14. Brummagem Joe says:

    “Once Paul Krugman started repeating the fallacy that World War Two was good for the economy,”

    If you think it was a fallacy that the spending on WW 2 (which really began in 1939 as the British and French started making military purchases and then went into overdrive as the US armed) effectively brought the depression to an end then I’d say your knowledge of economic history is what’s laughable Doug. Krugman is one of the world’s leading authorities on monetary policy (he got the Nobel for research into an aspect of it). If you think this is akin to a stfed doll at a country fair I’m afraid I’ve got to add this to the tally of odd statements you’ve made.

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  15. Tano says:

    the fallacy that World War Two was good for the economy,

     
    Hmmm. In 1929, the GDP of the US was 104b . In 1940 it was 101b – that is an decrease of 3% over 11 years. Even starting from the beginning of the New Deal (gdp=56b) that makes a 80% increase over 7 years. In 1944 it was 220 billion. Thats a 118% increase in 4 years.
     
    Here is a chart of historical gdp. I am sure you can pick out the war years there. They happen to be the ones with the steepest slope.
     
    http://www.economics-charts.com/gdp/gdp-1929-2004.html

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  16. Tano says:

    And Barack Obama is no leader

     
    Yes he is Doug, you just don’t like him, and you are are lashing out wildly.
    Aim, then fire.
    Works better that way.

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  17. He’s a “leader” by virtue of the Constitution, I suppose.

    Just not a terribly effective one

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  18. sam says:

    He’s a “leader” by virtue of the Constitution, I suppose.

    Just not a terribly effective one.
     

    Who we talking about? That bare-knuckle, Chicago ward politician or somebody else. It’s so hard to keep up with the epithet du jour, one despairs.

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  19. When exactly have I ever referred to the President in that manner, Sam ?

    Answer: I haven’t

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  20. TG Chicago says:

    Instead of a stimulus bill that was little more than a collection of a decades worth of Congressional pork barrel projects…

    Criticizing the stimulus is fine. But lying about it is not.

    Over a third of the stimulus was in tax breaks. $86 Billion to Medicaid, $53 Bil to prevent school layoffs, $40 Bil to extend unemployment benefits… I’ve already accounted for over half the stimulus, and I haven’t listed any pork. You can criticize these projects on their merit, but you can’t pretend they’re something they’re not.

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  21. a says:

    The author is Roger Alan Stone, Democrat.  You and your readers are thinking of Roger J Stone.

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  22. M. Simon says:

    Uh. What policy change did WW2 cause that might have influenced the numbers?
     
    FDR got off the back of business because he needed their help in winning the war.
     
    Amity Shlaes discusses that in <a href=”http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0060936428?ie=UTF8&tag=poweandcont-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=0060936428″>The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression</a>

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  23. jim says:

    Hey, the President just wants to wet his beak a little. Now fork over some taxes, for your own protection.

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  24. jeff says:

    TCG
    Tax rebates are not tax breaks …  they are simply transfer payments … they have no stimulus effect …  just like the Bush tax rebates they didn’t and don’t work …  read alittle before you spout off about nonsense …
    and yes the money to prevent “school layoffs” was a perfect example of pork … and the “tax breaks” were targeted at favored constituents, again the texbook definition of pork spending …
    so by my count about 300 billion of your 400 billion is pork spending …
    face facts … it hasn’t worked, couldn’t work and has done nothing but add almost 1 trillion to our debt in less than a year …
    maybe if Obama hadn’t increased non-Stimulus, non-defense govt spending by 25% in 2 years the deficits wouldn’t be quite so bad …  I’m beginning to think the guy can’t even balance a checkbook …
    Go ahead, hitch your cart to that horse …  what part of G** D**** America didn’t you understand ?  Oh, thats right, Obama “never” heard that stuff (in 20 years ???)

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  25. wr says:

    So Jeff — you want to start closing down public schools now? How about roads? Should we repair them? Surely they’re pork, too. Fire departments, lots of pork there.

    Then you’ll  have the perfect Tea Party populace — isolated, ignorant and terrified.

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  26. Estragon says:

    The federal government has no constitutional role in public education, and only such road systems as directly affect interstate commerce, like the US highways and Interstate system.
    Where is Congress authorized to fund local Fire Departments?
    WT, if you want perfect ignorance, try a mirror.

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  27. Mark Poling says:

    Chicago, a “stimulus” that is dedicated to paying off political dependents isn’t a stimulus, it’s a funds transfer. Giving a check to an unemployed person isn’t going to create a job. Giving a check to a Medicaid recipient isn’t going to create a job. Giving a check to teachers who can’t get their students to perform to grade level isn’t going to create jobs, and will likely result in another year’s worth of passing the poor bastards to the next grade up.
    The pork is just an insult added to injury.

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  28. TG Chicago says:

    Jeff and Mark Polling are arguing about whether the Recovery Act was stimulative. As I said, that’s not the issue at hand. Jeff is also radically redefining the word “pork” to meet his needs. Estragon is arguing about federal authorization.

    None of these speak to whether the Recovery Act was “little more than a collection of a decades worth of Congressional pork barrel projects”. It was not.

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  29. wr says:

    No, but it’s good to see what the real Tea Party agenda is — essentially to destroy civilisation. The only thing that matters to them is that they don’t have to pay taxes. If people are dying of epidemics because there’s no health care, if the nation’s infrastructure is collapsing, they don’t give a damn. Because they’re all rugged individualists who don’t need nobody, just their shotgun and their trailer.

    They’ve got a vision of America, and it’s completely counter to our founding fathers’ — even if they dress up in silly colonial costumes. We came together to make a more perfect union — they want to tear it all apart.

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  30. Roger Alan Stone says:

    The article was not written by the Republican Roger Stone.  I wrote it and I’m a lifelong D but have been cursed with being confused with that other Roger Stone since the 80s.  I did like your point about him needing to take a more direct role in legisltating.

    Roger ALAN Stone

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  31. Ed says:

    You are assuming that Obama is the don.  He’s not.  He’s been put in place by Nancy Pelosi in return for signing anything they put in front of him.  All he has to do is look dignified and enjoy the perks. 

    I’d say George Soros paid for all of this but I’d look too paranoid.

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  32. How times change. Just 5.5 years ago, the r/w blogosphere exploded in outrage when RandiRhodes compared Bush to Fredo: peekURL.com/zuvwqkh (NewsMax). She did go a bit further than Stone, but the sentiment is the same.

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  33. [...] of Big Hollywood and Big Government, at the Outside the Beltway, Doug Mataconis writes that Obama misread the lessons of the Godfather, one of the president’s favorite movies: In the world of The Godfather, Barack Obama isn’t [...]

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  34. [...] The Godfather Presidency (outsidethebeltway.com) [...]

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  35. [...] Obama Administration and on President Obama’s leadership abilities, I covered some of them earlier this week, but expecting ideological perfection in a business that has been compared in the past to sausage [...]

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