Just how far can the bully pulpit of the presidency go?
In his Thursday news conference, President Obama appeared finally to publicly confront the limits of his office. For several weeks he has been traveling state to state banging the same drum with the same message: pass the American Jobs Act right away, and pay for it with higher taxes on the wealthy. But with little progress, and scant chance of the package getting through both chambers, Obama took the rare step of lamenting his powerlessness.
“Look, we have a democracy, and right now, John Boehner is the speaker of the House and Mitch McConnell is the Republican leader,” Obama told a roomful of reporters. “And, you know, all I can do is make the best arguments and mobilize the American people so that they’re responsive.”
Obama’s approach during his East Room press conference was markedly more measured, even exasperated, compared with the populist tone he’d taken in recent weeks. Rather than vilify Republicans for their defense of the wealthy, he returned again to trying to win the intellectual high ground.
Through an unruffled tone and only occasional fist thrusts, Obama recited his oft-repeated claim that the Jobs Act’s main components—infrastructure and education investments—had been supported by Democrats and Republicans in the past. If Congress failed to pass it, he said, all members would have explaining to do. Polls by both CNN and Gallup have generally backed the argument, showing decisive majorities of respondents supporting the bill.
Yet the president was faced with an existential question about his own relevance. Why, one reporter asked, was he relying just on public rhetoric, rather than the sort of legislative dealmaking, often behind closed doors, that is often more effective? Why not host Republicans for negotiating sessions rather than demagogue them during political rallies?
“So far, they haven’t been responsive to, not just me, but public opinion.” he said. “We saw that during the debt-ceiling vote, but we’re just going to keep on making the case.”
All I can do is make the best arguments and mobilize the American people so that Republicans are responsive.
An alternate explanation may lie in the presidency itself, and not necessarily the man holding the office. White House officials, including several from past administrations, have noted the shrinking influence of the office.
“Look, it’s the biggest megaphone there is in politics, but it doesn’t have the reach it once had,” Press Secretary Jay Carney told Newsweek last week.
With waning influence, Obama had tried in recent months to put public pressure on Republican leaders. During the debt-ceiling vote, he delivered a primetime statement to the nation urging voters to flood congressional phone lines. Yet Obama’s travels around the country haven’t had the same impact on members of Congress and their attitudes.
While the bill’s prospects are still uncertain, it has shown signs of life. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced Thursday morning, around the same time that Obama was speaking, that the Senate would vote on the bill later in the day. The only caveat was substituting a different funding mechanism—a 5.6 percent surtax on millionaires—for the other high-income tax increases Obama had initially proposed.
With that revision, the Jobs Act has a shot at passing the Senate. And Reid has been around Capitol Hill long enough to know not to bring a bill for a vote unless you’re sure you have the votes.
But the more difficult problem is still in the House, where top Republicans, including Majority Leader Eric Cantor, have already pronounced the bill dead. That reality has left Obama with a shrinking number of options—or perhaps only one.
“I'm dealing with a Republican majority leader who said that his No. 1 goal was to beat me,” he said almost wistfully. “So, yeah, I’ve got to go out and enlist the American people to see if maybe he’ll listen to them if he’s not listening to me.”