Nearly a year ago, in a lengthy New Yorker piece by Ezra Klein on the limits of presidential persuasion, Paul Begala, a White House veteran of the late-20th-century message wars, nicely summarized a troublesome reality for modern presidents: "The Titanic had an iceberg problem. It did not have a communications problem."
That assessment should sink the hearts of progressive activists who earnestly believe that if President Obama would just fight, fight, fight on issues dear to their hearts as well as his--say, gun control--then all would be well, or at least much better. For the iceberg--presently chiseled Mt. Rushmore-like in the forbidding visages of Mitch McConnell and John Boehner--is far more problematic than presidents can be persuasive.
In fact, empirical evidence shows that the harder a president tries--to be persuasive, that is, with those who need persuading--the more likely he is to fail. From the New Yorker:
[University of Maryland's Frances Lee] created a database of eighty-six hundred Senate votes between 1981 and 2004. She found that a President’s powers of persuasion were strong, but only within his own party. Nearly four thousand of the votes were of the [bipartisan] variety.... Absent a President’s involvement, these votes fell along party lines just a third of the time, but when a President took a stand that number rose to more than half. The same thing happened with votes on more partisan issues, such as bills that raised taxes; they typically split along party lines, but when a President intervened the divide was even sharper.
And that was in the nostalgically remembered good, golden old days of bipartisan cooperation; you know, when for instance Ronnie and Tip would roll up their sleeves and slam down a few drinks and exchange ethnic jokes and then in besotted love for their country resolve its keenest problems before last call. Uh-huh.
Even if you buy that happy revisionism, you're still stuck with the irrefutabilities that Obama is no glad-handing Reagan and Boehner, though a habitual Tipster he may be, has never been possessed of a sane and sober House majority.
More than a few progressive voices have been doing handsprings lately over the National Rifle Association's decaying image and declining electoral influence. This essentially misses the point. It's not the NRA that will well-nigh sink effective gun-control legislation; it's the simple reality that President Obama has proposed it, and is now sworn to persuasion on its behalf.
One cannot almost hear the grinding, crackling, and gurgling of the WH's forward deck.