A lot of important events happened last week, but most of them didn’t have a whole lot to do with what President Obama did or didn’t do.
Here’s an interesting question, was last week Barack Obama’s best week ever? It certainly was an important week, we saw the Senate essentially approve the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal that’s long been a priority for the Obama administration, a crucial Supreme Court case protecting Obamacare from attempts to sabotage it’s state based health insurance market places, as well as a historic Supreme Court case that legalized same sex marriage for the entire country. And Obama rounded out the week with a eulogy at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston that many observers are calling possibly the best speech of his career.
You can see why some folks are announcing last week to be Obama’s best week ever, and some are going so far as to say that “he would have been a failed president” had he not been able to pull off such a momentous series of victories.
Personally I think this gets how the presidency actually works all wrong.
Clearly all of these events, from the response to the Charleston massacre to legalizing same sex marriage, are incredibly important events for the country and should be treated as such. But forces outside of President Obama’s control largely drove them.
After all presidents don’t have a whole lot of influence in the short term over the Supreme Court. Sure Obama gets to hire a Solicitor General who will argue the government’s case before the court, but outside of that presidents largely just wait to see how the court rules. The Supreme Court is a separate institution from the executive branch and under the Constitution it’s deliberately designed to be hard to influence by outside forces. Presidents ignore that reality at their own peril.
Likewise I’d agree that Obama’s eulogy was probably the greatest speech of his career, and that it was incredibly important to millions of Americans, but that doesn’t change that fact that the evidence is pretty clear that great speeches don’t lead to big changes in public policy.
After outlining some of the challenges Obama hasn’t over come political scientist Jesse Rhodes summed this up pretty well a few days ago:
Put simply, Obama has “won” in areas ripe for achievement, and “lost” where prospects for victory were never good to begin with.
Consider Friday’s Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage. While the decision is a remarkable victory for supporters of gay marriage, the president included, the fact is that public opinion shifted dramatically and irreversibly in favor of marriage equality well before it was handed down, making change of the type heralded by the ruling all but inevitable. President Obama may have played a small role in helping move public opinion along, but the real credit goes to the tireless efforts of marriage equality activists, as well as broader cultural and generational shifts.
When it comes to the Affordable Care Act, Obama deserves an enormous amount of credit. There’s little doubt that the Act would not have become law but for Obama’s willingness to stake his presidency on its enactment. At the same time, though, Obama benefited tremendously from strong support from congressional Democrats, as well as from public backing for “doing something” about health care reform. Arguably, the Supreme Court’s vindication of the law reflects its deference to Congress’s authority—as well as its unwillingness to cross millions of Americans who depend on the law for health insurance—as respect for the president’s achievements.
In short, major victories associated with Obama’s presidency are due in significant part to broader forces over which he had limited control.
And what of Obama’s failures to address gun violence, racial injustice, and economic inequality? In each of these cases, the president faced sharply divided public opinion, staunch resistance from powerful interest groups, implacable opposition from congressional Republicans, or some combination of the three. While there’s a debate to be had over whether Obama could have done more in each of these areas, in America’s highly fragmented political system obstacles such as these are almost always insurmountable. In fact, a case can be made that Obama has talked more, and more honestly, about each of these matters than any president in recent memory.
I think that’s exactly right. Simply put our political media, and the American public in general, focus way to much on who sits in the Oval Office, and way to little on everything else. There have been momentous changes in American society during the Obama years, but laying most of the credit or the blame for that matter, on Obama’s doorstep doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
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