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Limited power of presidents
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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.
It's bunk.
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.
Dwight Eisenhower, today almost everybody's idea of a strong president, heard it. Harry Truman, who supposedly gave 'em hell, heard it. And there were days when LBJ heard it, too -- because Johnson's bullying days all but ended when he left the Senate and entered the executive branch. He bullied as Senate majority leader, he bleated as vice president and he beseeched as president.
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 whining?
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, doesn't have many friends in the Congress he left behind.
That is not to say that Obama hasn't had some congressional triumphs, including the economic stimulus and the victory that may be his most enduring legacy: the health-insurance bill his opponents call Obamacare.
But the president's troubles have nothing to do with the fear factor, mostly because the fear factor is a fantasy. 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, particularly Lend-Lease, as World War II approached.
The president who had earlier campaigned against "fear itself" came to know what all presidents eventually learn: Fear itself is no weapon at all.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (dshribman@post-gazette.com).