Two New York Times reporters recently posited for President Obama this grim scenario: Low growth, high unemployment, and growing income inequality become "the new normal" in the nation he leads. "Do you worry," the journalists asked him, "that that could end up being your legacy simply because of the obstruction ... and the gridlock that doesn't seem to end?"
Obama's reply was telling. "I think if I'm arguing for entirely different policies and Congress ends up pursuing policies that I think don't make sense and we get a bad result," he said, "it's hard to argue that'd be my legacy."
Actually, it's hard to argue that it wouldn't be his legacy. History judges U.S. presidents based upon what they did and did not accomplish. The obstinacy of their rivals and the severity of their circumstances is little mitigation. Great presidents overcome great hurdles.
In Obama's case, the modern GOP is an obstructionist, rudderless party often held hostage by extremists. So "... get over it. His response to The New York Times is another illustration that Obama and his liberal allies have a limited — and limiting — definition of presidential leadership.
I call it the White Flag Syndrome.
Their argument is best expressed by Ezra Klein of The Washington Post, who posted a thoughtful rebuttal in May to journalists like me who demand more leadership from the White House.
"The problems of American politics today are not overly complicated, or even overly controversial. They're just hard to fix.
The two political parties have polarized. Unlike in the 1960s, when Jesse Helms was a Democrat, and George Romney was a Republican, today's Republicans agree with Republicans, and today's Democrats agree with Democrats. That, plus the zero-sum nature of elections and the rise of an ideological media and interest-group infrastructure that credibly threatens dissenters with primary challenges, has made bipartisan consensus on most big issues structurally impossible.
That's fine. It's how most political systems operate, in fact. But our political system, which is centered around Congress rather than the White House, requires extraordinary levels of consensus to operate smoothly. That leaves us with two choices: Either figure out a way to depolarize the parties or change the rules of the political system so it can operate more smoothly even amid polarization."
Klein wrote that we're not going to depolarize the parties, and thus the goal must to identify what "tweaks and reforms" we can make to the political structure so that it can withstand polarization. That won't be easy, Klein wrote.
"But that work is made harder by pundits who continue to falsely promise that the glowing briefcase of president leadership can fix what ails us. Telling the American people that the only thing missing is the president being more awesome promises them the easy way out. It says that all they need to do to fix our politics is get inspired by a new presidential candidate and then cast a hopeful vote for him or her at the polls. That's terrifically convenient, because that also happens to be the part of American politics that voters most enjoy participating in and that media most enjoys covering."
He accused me and other journalists of adhering to the "Green Lantern Theory" — a belief that U.S. presidents are endowed with superhero powers.
"But since the problem in American politics is not presidential leadership, telling them that the president — whether this one or a new one — can fix it traps voters in an endless cycle of inspiration and disillusionment. They vote for presidents expecting them to be 'uniters,' expecting them to 'change Washington,' and then they're bitterly disappointed when their heroes fail. But on this score, presidents are going to continue to fail because they can't possibly succeed."
Klein is right about this: No president is a superhero. First, as Klein suggests, the U.S. political system faces enormous structural problems that make leadership challenging for any president. Chief among them is sophisticated redistricting that has helped create a polarized Congress packed with lawmakers with no incentive to compromise. Second, government austerity reduces the president's ability to bargain with Congress. Third, the democratization of politics — and of big money in particular — has weakened the party structures. That has weakened a president's powers that stem from his role as the titular party chief. Finally, the modern GOP is less willing than Democrats to compromise. There is something to Obama's complaint that virtually any policy he supports will be met by resistance.