Covering ‘The American Presidency’

Fiction vs. reality in coverage of the White House

In Hollywood and the accounts of many of the nation’s leading journalists, events in Washington revolve around the president, who is thought to have virtually unlimited powers to cajole, charm, threaten, or bribe legislators into enacting his agenda. Within this framework, the success or failure of the president’s legislative agenda is typically attributed to his tactics, not contextual factors like party support in Congress.

In reality, the idea that the President can force an uncooperative Congress to do his bidding has been falsified over and over again—not just during President Obama’s administration on issues like gun control, but during previous presidencies. Even Lyndon Baines Johnson, the prototypical presidential wheeler-dealer, became far less persuasive when the national political climate changed after the 1966 midterm elections (one aide commented that by the end LBJ “couldn’t get Mother’s Day through” Congress). And yet journalists and commentators still try to defend their misguided notions of presidential power, suggesting instead that, for instance, Obama is being held back by a lack of personal charm or a failure to twist enough arms in Congress.

The most absurd version of the president-centric journalistic worldview was expressed in a New York Times column by Maureen Dowd, who slammed the White House for not employing “a war room full of charts with the names of pols they had to capture” as she saw in a fictional movie:

The White House should have created a war room full of charts with the names of pols they had to capture, like they had in The American President. Soaring speeches have their place, but this was about blocking and tackling.

Instead of the pit-bull legislative aides in Aaron Sorkin’s movie, Obama has Miguel Rodriguez, an arm-twister so genteel that The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker wrote recently that no one in Congress even knows who he is.

Dowd also criticized Obama for not being tough enough on members of Congress, writing that “Obama should have called Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota over to the Oval Office and put on the squeeze” (an unrealistic Sorkin-esque monologue of political advice) and held “big rallies to get the public riled up to put pressure” on GOP senators in states he won in 2012.

Dowd’s critique was dismissed by observers ranging from Salon’s Joan Walsh to National Review Online’s Robert Costa and ridiculed by President Obama at Saturday night’s White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, where he asked Michael Douglas, who played the lead role in “The American President,” how he accomplished so much more than Obama: “Michael, what’s your secret, man? Could it be that you were an actor in an Aaron Sorkin liberal fantasy?”

The tension between the Hollywood version of the presidency and the actual world runs deep in journalism. Dowd’s column was notable because it let the mask slip, showing how much coverage of the presidency is driven by assumptions that bear little resemblance to reality.

In particular, much of the reporting and commentary we’ve seen blaming Obama for his stalled second-term agenda employs what I call the the underpants gnomes theory of presidential influence (in schematic form: charm offensives, arm-twisting, and war rooms -> ??? -> GOP votes for the Obama agenda!). Like the underwear-stealing “South Park” characters, proponents of the theory leave out a crucial missing step—namely, how exactly those tactics are supposed to change the votes of enough Republicans in Congres to make a difference. While some tactics might make a small difference on the margin, Obama’s powers are far more limited than most press coverage suggests—he can’t offer earmarks to legislators, the bully pulpit is typically ineffective, presidential arm-twisting rarely works, and his direct involvement in legislative debates tends to polarize the GOP against his proposals.

The true extent of Obama’s influence over Congress was more accurately described by Ezra Klein yesterday:

[P]oliticians understand their incentives. Republican legislators have to win primaries among electorates that deeply dislike President Obama. In that world, working with the White House very likely means losing your job. It also means making Obama more popular, which means making it less likely that you and your party will get back into the majority in the next election. And on the other side of this equation is—what? Bourbon with Obama? A speech Obama gave to 2,000 people in your state?

The White House can employ better or worse strategies, of course. But it’s deeply insulting to the grown men and women who populate the U.S. Congress to posit that the only reason they’re acting as they are is that the president doesn’t lavish them with sufficient attention, or campaign in their districts, or twist arms like Lyndon Johnson

So how exactly is Obama supposed to change Republican votes again? There’s clearly an audience for simplistic stories about a president’s success or failure in their dealings with Congress, but reporters have to decide whether they’re in a different business than Aaron Sorkin or if they’re selling another version of the same political fantasy.

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Brendan Nyhan is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College. He blogs at and tweets @BrendanNyhan.