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Who Shrunk the Presidency?

Newt Gingrich lambasted President Obama for his partisan vitriol at the House Democrats’ retreat this week, contending that it “shrinks his presidency”:

Reagan would never have allowed himself that level of partisanship and that kind of aggressiveness in that kind of setting . . So you could either have a strategy that says, ‘I’m going to go over and I’m going to be bipartisan and I’m going to prove it and here’s how I’m going to it. In which he case he wouldn’t have gone down last night. He would, in fact, have invited Pelosi and Boehner and he would have invited Reid and McConnell down to the White House to collectively hammer out the bipartisan compromise. That’s one strategy. Or there’s the strategy … that’s perfectly reasonable, that says, ‘I won, we won and we’re running over you but we’re going to deliver. … What he’s doing now is Carter-ism because he’s trying to live out both strategies and you gotta figure out which morning it is by which strategy he’s using today. And what that will do is totally clutter who he is.

There is something to that. It speaks to a fundamental challenge for Obama. He does not really have a set of skills (or hasn’t demonstrated that he possesses such skills) critical to governing. He doesn’t horse-trade or arm-twist. He doesn’t persuade on the merits. He dictates, complains and campaigns — ultimately not very effective means for a president. And the high rhetoric mixed with nasty partisanship is not only confusing, but it undercuts what for him was the key attraction for many voters — you remember: his temperament.

Why not argue his positions on their merits or directly engage Congress? He might not think he has to (“I won”), or he might not be very good at it. But the danger is that he will lose the enormous goodwill he has built up — and, if his Congressional majority shrinks, be left with precious little support even to muscle through his agenda.

It is odd behavior for someone whose campaign was so inspiring, who seemed to understand the power of lofty rhetoric and high-mindedness. It is almost as if he’s got the presidency and doesn’t quite know what to do with it. He’d do well to follow the example of other successful presidents: aim high not low, don’t rely on Congress to carry the White House agenda, and remember that once the president becomes a mere pol he’s lost his advantage over every other pol in town.


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