When Washington looks to Supreme Court hearings for normalcy and stability, it's been a hell of a week. As David Axelrod, senior adviser to President Obama, put it on a conference call with reporters today, "Things have been rather dull in Washington, so we decided to hold these hearings."
In a recent book about presidential leadership, George C. Edwards makes the case that presidents who govern opportunistically tend to be more successful than those who govern, or try to govern, strategically. He notes that presidents almost always face exogenous constraints -- many of them unanticipated -- on the mandates they claim as the result of the election. In President Obama's case, he was elected on a platform of restoring competence and stability and faith in American governance and institutions. He knew he would inherit (as all presidents do) legacy challenges. But these challenges overwhelmed his capacity to sell his policies as part of his mandate. The persuasive power of the presidency is almost non-existent. Where Obama has been successful is in facilitating and exploiting circumstances that he finds himself in. He would not have -- could not have -- passed health care without such dexterity ... without seizing upon insurer rate hikes ... without pivoting off of favorable public interactions with Republicans ... without his party's coming to a point of focus after losing the supermajority in the Senate.
What about the traditional notion of Obama's persuasive power? Edwards believes that "presidential power is not the power to persuade." There is no evidence that presidents, through the force of the bully pulpit, change the deep structure of American politics. We expect presidents to be "transformational leaders," Edwards says, but what we really want is for them to rise to the occasion. If we grant Obama's rhetorical skills transformational power, we are missing where his real power lies. Edwards seem to believe that presidential persuasive power is limited to elite opinion, and in highly polarized times, helps to define what the opposition is going to respond to rather than changing the public's mind on anything of substance. If Edwards is right, Obama's efforts to re-sell the public on the worth of the stimulus package and health care are for naught. Over time, people will retroactively assess those policies in the context of whether or not they seem to be working.
What's a president to do? Don't over-promise so you can over-deliver. Be a facilitator, not a leader, since finding and building specific coalitions on specific, prioritized issues is the fastest way to move things through Congress. Move fast. Move quickly. Whenever possible, use the power of your political party -- and let them lead. (This runs counter to the congressional wisdom on health care reform, where it seemed as if the president was unduly deferential. The counter-argument might be that he was relentlessly facilitating, and he got what he wanted in the end.) Exploit public opinion -- and its changes. Be able to respond rapidly and opportunistically to events, and don't be afraid to shift priorities as events demand.
It's interesting that Obama perceives himself as a transformational leader but governs as a facilitating leader. He already has quite a few accomplishments under his belt: the stimulus package (an accomplishment to him), health care, financial regulatory reform, some credit card reform, sanctions against Iran, a reset on relations with foreign powers. Public opinion hasn't shifted much. That's discomfiting to some in the White House, but Edwards's view of presidential power would seem to explain it: what matters more than setting and pursuing an agenda is responding to opportunity and waiting, in essence, for the results of whatever you decide to kick in. It's hard to craft a political strategy on the back of such an externally driven theory. It almost seems as if there is no connection at all between presidential accomplishments in the generic sense -- getting bills passed -- and public opinion. What DOES drive public opinion is how presidents respond to events.
And that's why this week might have been one of Obama's most important to date. Suddenly he has a moment -- foisted on him, not by choice. Does he fire McChrystal? Does he keep him? The spontaneous decision he makes, certainly not part of any strategic calculus or multi-week gameplan, could be far more consequential in terms of public opinion that anything he planned to do.