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NYT: It’s Not Obama’s Fault, Presidents Have Little Power

From a shameless New York Times:

Obama and the Myth of Presidential Control

By Brendan Nyhan | JULY 24, 2014

One of the most common criticisms of presidents — especially struggling ones during their second term — is that they have lost control of events. This charge, which has been leveled at chief executives such as Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, has become a mantra lately in coverage of President Obama, who faces a stalled legislative agenda and crises in Ukraine, Gaza and at the border with Mexico.

When did anyone ever say that President Reagan lost control of events? Or even President Bush? They certainly never escaped any blame that way. (But that didn’t stop the NYT from posting a series of photographs of President Reagan with this article.)

What happened? One frequent explanation from pundits and journalists is that Mr. Obama has “little control” and is instead being “driven” or “buffeted” by events. This notion pervades commentary and debate on the presidency. We want to believe that the president is (or should be) in control. It’s the impulse behind holding the president responsible for a bad economy and giving him credit for a good one (the most important factor in presidential approval and election outcomes).

You will recall that Bush was never blamed for the economy by the NYT. And remember how they always gave Reagan credit for his great economy?

The reassuring nature of presidential control is also why news media coverage of foreign policy crises and other events that rally the country tends to use language that depicts the president as being in command.

You see? Obama is not to blame for all of his foreign policy failures. He’s not to blame for the world being in more turmoil than at any time since WWII.

The flip side of the demand for presidential control is disappointment when he can’t magically work his will. Advocates… suggest that Mr. Obama’s failure to achieve his goals in Congress reflects a lack of effort or willpower. If he only tried harder or were tougher, they suggest, he could control events rather than being controlled by them.

These analyses get the direction of causality backward, however. Under favorable circumstances, presidents seem to be in command of events, but that’s largely a reflection of the context they face. It’s not hard to seem in control when the economy is booming, the president’s party has a large majority in Congress or the nation is rallying around the president after a national tragedy.

It’s all about context. (Not party affiliation.) If only Obama didn’t have any opposition. You know, like the way Reagan and Bush were never opposed by Congress.

Once unfavorable circumstances arise, though, even the most accomplished chief executives seem to lose control. My research has found, for example, that scandals are not simply about misconduct. They are more likely to arise when presidents are unpopular with self-identified members of the opposition party or when there are few competing stories in the news…

So all the Obama scandals are just an illusion after all. We suspected as much.

At the same time, the powers of the presidency are outstripped by the unrealistic expectations placed on the chief executive in the modern era. When problems arise, it’s only natural that people want the most powerful person in the country to fix them, but these demands often lack a plausible account of how the problem could be solved.

So leave Barack Obama alone! (Sob.)

And even when the president has a proposal that he thinks would provide a solution, he’s likely to struggle to persuade Congress or the public to support it, as Mr. Reagan discovered despite his reputation as the “Great Communicator.”

Er, Reagan achieved quite a lot. Despite have the Congress and the media against him every step of the way.

The limits of the president’s power can be scary — as human beings, we find a lack of control threatening — but the idea that they can control events is a comforting fiction, not an explanation for their success or failure.

Once again, none of Obama’s failures are his fault. The world and history itself are racist.

As Abraham Lincoln (perhaps our greatest president) wrote, “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events controlled me.” Imagine what the pundits would do with that admission today!

They would compare Lincoln to Obama. Just like they always do.

This article was posted by Steve on Friday, July 25th, 2014. Comments are currently closed.

One Response to “NYT: It’s Not Obama’s Fault, Presidents Have Little Power”

  1. Enthalpy says:


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