David M. Shribman
Newburyport Daily News
---- — You can hear the huffing from here. It began with the budget battle, reached a cruel crescendo with the gun vote and culminated in the question the president had to field at his press conference last week about whether he’d run out of “juice” to pass his agenda: Barack Obama isn’t strong like Richard Nixon. He can’t strong-arm like Franklin Roosevelt. He’s afraid to pressure like Bill Clinton. No one’s afraid of him like Lyndon Johnson.
The hoariest piece of folklore in the capital involves presidential strength and the fear it inspires, and the commentary always goes like this: Presidents of the past had it, and the current president doesn’t.
Today the Greek chorus is singing that Obama should have had an easy time bringing the Senate around on the gun bill. Might I whisper something in the ear of all those whinging and whining? This might say more about the Senate and its traditions than about the president and his prerogatives.
The disparity between the 80-plus percent who in some polls supported gun-sale background checks and the 54 percent of the Senate that supported the legislation is astonishing, perhaps without precedent. So maybe the president could have done a better job. Maybe Obama was too reasonable -- you hear that word a lot in connection with the 44th president -- and not sufficiently forceful -- a word you rarely hear about Obama.
But that is not his way, and one of the reasons the president has trouble prevailing with Congress is that many lawmakers simply don’t like him. Ronald Reagan they liked. Bill Clinton, too. George H.W. Bush had his congressional allies, lots of them, and his son had a few, or enough. But the irony is that Barack Obama, the first man to go directly from the Senate to the White House since John F. Kennedy (and Warren G. Harding before him), doesn’t have many friends in the Congress he left behind.
That is not to say that Obama hasn’t had some congressional triumphs.
But the president’s troubles have nothing to do with the fear factor, mostly because the fear factor is a fantasy.
Perhaps the president who had the most success with a Congress controlled by the other party was Reagan, who used to say that almost anything could be done if the president didn’t care who got credit for the accomplishment.
That is why he was willing to share the spotlight on his biggest second-term domestic initiative, the 1986 comprehensive overhaul of the income-tax system. He didn’t flinch when Democratic Rep. Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, urged Americans in a nationally televised address to “write Rosty” about their ideas about tax overhaul.
And once the battle was joined, the president used persuasion rather than power to win approval of the measure. A case in point was the way he reeled GOP Sen. Robert Kasten of Wisconsin into his camp. Kasten had an independent streak, and so Reagan scheduled two speeches in Kasten’s home state.
“No threats,” says Peter Robinson, who wrote the Reagan speeches, which were heavy on sweet reason masked as sweet talk. “Reagan just went to Kasten’s home and persuaded the senator’s constituents.” Kasten voted for the measure.
Nor did Richard Nixon, regarded in retrospect as a fearsome pugilist, employ fear in his pre-Watergate dealings with Congress.
“Nixon knew how to deal with Wilbur Mills and Russell Long,” former Treasury Secretary Paul H. O’Neill, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget in those days, said of the former chairmen of the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees. “It wasn’t about vindictive narrow partisanship -- on either side. These guys detested Watergate, but earlier in his administration, they respected Nixon.”
Historical legends warp our perspective on the presidency. In the folklore, Johnson was a political magus, wielding irresistible power from the Oval Office over the Congress. Not so, at least in foreign affairs, where presidents have the widest latitude.
It is true that LBJ won wide running room from Congress by virtue of the huge majorities (414-0 in the House, 88-2 in the Senate) in support of the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which permitted the president to take all necessary measures to fight North Vietnam.
But Johnson’s closest Capitol Hill mentor, Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia, expressed reservations about the administration’s Vietnam policy as early as 1964. By 1966, efforts to revoke the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution began.
That same year, Sen. J. William Fulbright of Arkansas began holding critical hearings on the war, an undertaking that enraged LBJ and led him to refer to the Arkansas Democrat as “Senator Half-bright,” a name that originated with Harry Truman after Fulbright took issue with the 33rd president’s views on the atomic bomb and the United Nations.
The danger in applying brute force to Capitol Hill is that Congress has weapons of its own.
Franklin Roosevelt in his second term tried to purge the Democratic Party of conservative lawmakers who opposed the New Deal, not knowing of course that those very conservatives would be ardent supporters of his polices. He actually campaigned against a number of Southern Democrats, especially Walter F. George of Georgia and Ellison D. “Cotton Ed” Smith of South Carolina, both of whom prevailed -- and neither of whom ever feared the president again.
The president who had earlier campaigned against “fear itself” came to know what all presidents eventually learn: Fear itself is no weapon at all.
North Shore native and Pulitzer Prize winner David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette.