Finley: Poor-mouthing the presidency

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

Diehard defenders of Barack Obama's disintegrating presidency have shifted to a new story line: It's not that the president is doing too little, it's that we expect too much.

Under this evolving narrative, Americans have an unrealistic image of what a president can actually accomplish with the powers allotted the office by the Constitution. Blame it on West Wing, on the heroic tales we were fed in school, or on presidents who, on the campaign trail, promise to turn back rising tides and calm a growling world.

One writer recently called it the myth of the magical presidency, making the case that Americans don't understand how effectively Congress and the Constitution can tie the executive's hands. Obama himself has used the phrase "I'm not a dictator" a half-dozen times during his tenure to describe why he isn't making progress on key initiatives.

His paralysis on a tumultuous world stage is being shape-shifted into a positive attribute — Obama is moving with caution, acting with prudence to avoid foreign entanglements that the hot-blooded George W. Bush rushed toward.

He's no cowboy, this president.

But the poor mouthing of the presidency doesn't wash with either history or today's reality. The office gives Obama plenty of power. He just doesn't know what to do with it.

Other presidents, from the great to the mediocre, have faced a hostile Congress and still managed to get things done. Yet since squandering his veto-proof congressional majority, Obama has been impotent. And that's largely his fault. The president gambled that instead of doing the hard work of building alliances across the aisle, of horse-trading to get deals done, he could prevail by haranguing and humiliating his Republican opponents every single time he opens his mouth.

While he's been effective at destroying public respect for the Congress and marginalizing the GOP, he hasn't built the relationships necessary to make things happen in Washington. He's aloof even from his own party, with few true friends among the Democratic lawmakers he mostly ignores.

House Republicans hated Bill Clinton, too. They tried to run him out of office. And yet he never hit the wall that blocks Obama. It wasn't just his charm; Clinton knew how to do politics. Obama doesn't. Rather than work honestly with Congress, he's trying to makeover the nation with executive orders. But Obama's pen and phone are no substitute for the finesse required of consensus governing.

The president just doesn't want to grab the turkey leg. He crafted a foreign policy based on the contradictory doctrine of leading from behind. The result is that the world is being jerked around by despots and devils, without a strong American president to rally it to action. It's been nearly a century since the United States held such diminished international influence.

Americans have high expectations of their presidents because in the nation's darkest hours, great leaders have always risen to confront the great challenges. In this dark hour, Obama is shrugging. That's not the fault of the office, but rather of the man who sits in it.



Follow Nolan Finley at detroitnews.com/finley, on Twitter at @nolanfinleydn, on Facebook at nolanfinleydetnews and watch him at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays on "MiWeek" on Detroit Public TV, Channel 56.