, Newburyport, MA


May 4, 2013

Shribman: The limited power of presidents


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.”

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