The Whole World in His Hands

Overstating the president's power, again

As any middle-school social studies student knows, the American system of government consists of three branches: the executive branch, which enforces the laws; the judicial branch, which interprets the laws; and the legislative branch, which makes the laws. The political press, though, often seems to be operating under a different model, one in which the president is less the top executive than a philosopher-king. A recent case in point: a Politico story published this week under the headline, “Public option fate in Obama’s hands.”

The piece’s lede:

The Senate Finance Committee spent more than five hours debating the public health insurance option Tuesday before voting down two Democratic amendments to add it to the bill.

But the one person who will effectively decide its fate wasn’t even in the room.

That person, of course, is Barack Obama. And just to drive the point home, the story continues:

In the Senate, Obama will work closely with Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who speaks with White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel several times a day. But the final decision rests almost entirely on the president’s shoulders.

Even assuming that this is overstatement for effect, it’s still at odds not just with those long-ago civics lessons, but the underlying logic behind much of American political journalism. Every day that Congress is in session, a horde of reporters swarm Capitol Hill, tracking the latest negotiations and deal-making. Many of them work for Politico, which publishes a useful “Daily Congress” newsletter to keep its readers
abreast of the latest legislative developments. If the final decision on one of the most contentious aspects of the top domestic policy debate will be made “almost entirely” in the White House, what is all that activity for? Is it beside the point?

It’s not, because the president doesn’t get to make legislative decisions on his own. In fact, as the article gets deep into the weeds of the debate over the public option, a different picture emerges. This passage comes near the end:

As jockeying gives way to voting, Schumer and other public plan proponents are expected to tweak the proposals to attract moderates, and to move the bill closer to 60 votes. If Democrats show movement towards the public option, the White House could be less inclined to go with one of the weaker compromises, such as Snowe’s trigger plan or Conrad’s nonprofit insurance cooperatives.

That sounds like an entirely plausible scenario. But it is one in which the range of political possibilities is dependent on the actions of various individuals, many of them elected members of Congress, each of
whom have independent agency and the ability to form coalitions and operate strategically. There is no “one person” who will “effectively decide” the outcome—and suggesting that there is gives readers the
wrong impression of where power lies and how decisions are made.

Now, it’s also possible to underplay the president’s role, and his responsibility. As the article correctly notes, Obama will surely play a role in some of the key strategic decisions yet to be made, including whether to try to use “reconciliation” to pass a bill and how hard to press reluctant Democrats not to support a filibuster. And given the resistance within the Democratic caucus, it’s hard to see how a public option can pass if the White House doesn’t eventually come out more strongly in favor.

But there’s a wide gulf between noting that the president is an important player and stating that the outcome is in his hands—and too often, the press comes down on the wrong side.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.