Media declares Obama's second term DOA, but don't count him out yet

A series of recent pieces, particularly two in the New York Times, have cast the failure of gun control legislation last week as a sign of a weak President Obama who doesn’t instill enough fear in lawmakers to force them to go along him and is unwilling to spend hours on the phone or in person courting them until they bend to his will.

“He still has not learned how to govern,” wrote the Times‘ Maureen Dowd. “How is it that the president won the argument on gun safety with the public and lost the vote in the Senate? It’s because he doesn’t know how to work the system. And it’s clear now that he doesn’t want to learn, or to even hire some clever people who can tell him how to do it or do it for him.”

But this view shows a misunderstanding of both Washington and President Obama. His challenge is not a lack of leadership skills, but the structure and partisanship of modern American politics.

In 2009 and 2010, the Obama now cast as unable to push Congress presided over one of the most productive legislative periods in modern history, as bills passed that overhauled the student loan, health care and banking industries, the first Latino Supreme Court justice was appointed,  “don’t ask, don’t tell” was ended, and an $800 billion provision was enacted to help the economy recover.

It’s the GOP, stupid

The lack of much legislation since then stems from three factors. The first of course is the ideological divide in the country. Republicans gained power after the 2010 elections, and the GOP simply opposes much of Obama’s agenda, like the gun control provision, which would have likely died in the GOP-controlled House even if it passed in the Senate. The second factor is the constant use of the filibuster and other blocking tactics by Senate Republicans, which meant that the gun control legislation failed even as a clear majority (55) members of the Senate actually backed it.

But the most important factor is the broader structure of American politics, which means that the views of the coalition Obama built for Election Day in 2008 and 2012 simply are often not reflected day-to-day in Congress. Senators from tiny rural states like North Dakota can determine the fate of gun control and have the same power as the senators that represent huge states with millions of voters who want expanded background checks like California and Illinois.

Republicans control the House, even though more people voted for House Democratic candidates than House Republicans in 2012. Republican activists, even if outnumbered by those on the left, often either have more intensity and passion on an issue (gun control) or a better legislative strategy (on abortion, the GOP has pushed through numerous restrictions through state legislatures even as most Americans back abortion rights.)

Combine these factors and the 90 percent of Americans supporting background checks doesn’t guarantee passage. And a phone call from President Obama won’t change the votes of many members of Congress, who are hyper-aware of all of these competing factors. To put it in Dowd’s terms, it’s not that Obama doesn’t understand “the system,” but rather that the parts of that system are much different than in 2009.  Some Democrats argue a politician like Lyndon Johnson or Bill Clinton would have adapted more smartly to these shifting dynamics, but remember it was Obama, not Clinton, who was able to successfully push a universal health care system through Congress.

Speeches aren’t solving the problem

So even if it won’t help pass bills, should Obama have a different leadership style? Should he give fewer speeches and more personal meetings with lawmakers? Perhaps, but not because the meetings with lawmakers will work, but rather because the speeches may be even less effective. Citing decades of political science research, Ezra Klein, writing in the New Yorker, wrote, “When you’re running for president, giving a good speech helps you achieve your goals. When you are [p]resident, giving a good speech can prevent you from achieving them.”

Speeches from Obama, or any president, often harden opposition in the other party. Republican lawmakers have privately told Obama they would prefer he not endorse certain legislation, as it makes conservative voters in their states or districts more wary of it.

Obama’s gun control speeches may have forced Congress to take up the issue, but likely also ensured gun control became a blue state-red state issue that made it difficult for conservative Democrats and Republicans to support Obama’s stance without having a backlash back home.

Looking forward, the future of Obama’s agenda is not dependent on his leadership skills or his speeches, but the rest of the political structure. Immigration reform is likely to pass because some Republicans in Congress support it, as does a powerful swing bloc in the electorate, Latinos. A so-called grand bargain on the federal budget deficit has the support of red-state Democrats, some Republicans like Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Wall Street and the op-ed pages of newspapers like the Washington Post, all groups or individuals who have political influence that is larger than the number of voters they represent.  The Supreme Court, which Obama has influenced through his appointment of two liberal jurists, is likely this summer to speed the broader legalization of gay marriage in America.

Follow Perry Bacon Jr. on Twitter at @perrybaconjr