The Limits of Presidential Power

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I hope that people who’ve been on the Glenn Greenwald side of the Great Presidential Power Debate will give some time and attention to the failure of the tax extenders bill in the United States Senate. This hasn’t been the subject of controversy among Democratic Party leaders, it hasn’t been something progressive pundits have quarreled over, and there’s been no suggestion that the White House cut any kind of secret deals to scuttle it. Which unfortunately has meant that it hasn’t gotten enough attention as an example of what the President can and can’t do.

But as we see today, just because Barack Obama wants congress to do something doesn’t mean it happens. The administration and Harry Reid’s office tried quite hard to get the votes together, but they just couldn’t. Not because they don’t have any leverage or the offices they inhabit are powerless, but because whatever leverage the White House has doesn’t change the fact that if a Senator really and truly wants to vote against cloture on a bill nobody can force him to do otherwise.

Now of course it’s true that there’s more Obama could have done. He could have gone really nuclear on this topic, but he didn’t. He left some tools in the toolbox, left some arrows in the quiver. And you can say the same about his advocacy for a “level playing field” public option and his advocacy for the Employee Free Choice Act and his advocacy for carbon pricing and his advocacy for a truly independent consumer financial protection agency and his advocacy for the full version of his stimulus bill and his advocacy for DOMA repeal and one or two dozen other things. But that’s actually the point. The White House’s failure to engage in a maximum, 100 percent push for each item on the Obama agenda doesn’t demonstrate that it’s a White House that’s time and again betrayed progressive values. It demonstrates that even though in each case you can always do more, you tend to decide to leave some arrows in the quiver because there are so many legislative fights and you can’t just be going nuclear thirty times a year.

Now it is true that I think one problem with this system is that it allows the White House to be deliberately ambiguous about what positions it supports, secure in the knowledge that “the votes aren’t there” for certain things and therefore saying you support them is a freebie. That’s a bad thing, but it doesn’t change the fact that this option is usually available precisely when it’s true that the votes aren’t there.