Gnomes, Lanterns, and Sorkin, Oh My!
A Challenge to the Practice of “Be a Leader” Journalism
An unstoppable force is finally meeting an immovable object. Cries of “C’mon, LEAD, man” are permeating media coverage of President Obama’s handling of the background checks bill, proposed immigration legislation, and the sequester are running into a small, persistent band of rebels who are, quite rightly, crying foul.
Brendan Nyhan describes it as the “underpants gnome” theory of political influence where super-leadery leadership, complete with arm-twisting, public appeals, and war rooms with names of persuadable congressmembers on a tote board magically lead to partisan political opponents caving to support the president. Both Nyhan and Greg Sargent have called this the “Green Lantern Theory of Presidential Power,” which is similar to the underpants gnome theory, but adds the claim that any failure of the president to bend Congress to the president’s will is a sure sign of a weak, irrelevant commander-in-chief who should be flogged by those who know what leadership is.
If only, Maureen Dowd of the New York Times keeps arguing, Barack Obama was more like a pretend president, like Aaron Sorkin’s Andrew Shepard in The American President, things would start getting done. Sargent, Nyhan, and others have written about how incredibly absurd Dowd’s argument is and I, and others, have expressed an almost rubber-necking a car accident fascination with her doubling down on the claim even after the president himself mocked it at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner and during a press conference earlier this week. The American President ends with Shepard’s big speech calling out his opponents. The sequel should start with Sean Hannity playing Shepard’s promise from his big speech, “I’m going to get the guns” over and over as Shepard’s high-octane press conference moment failed to sway public opinion and further mobilized his opposition.
Dowd is not alone. She and many other reporters and columnists (like Ron Fournier and David Brooks) seem to believe that the president needs to be more of a leader and that being a leader begets policy success. I’d like to issue a challenge to those columnists and reporters who believe this. To do so, I’ll use another Aaron Sorkin vehicle, The West Wing, to present the challenge. When Nobel Laureate and President Jed Bartlet is debating Hunky Dipsh*t McGee, er Robert Ritchie, in his re-election run, Ritchie stumbles upon a convenient, sleek set of ten words that purport to illustrate one of his policy positions. Bartlet goes all “show me the money” on James Brolin’s Ritchie and says
Here’s my question: What are the next ten words of your answer? Your taxes are too high? So are mine. Give me the next ten words. How are we going to do it? Give me ten after that, I’ll drop out of the race right now. Every once in a while… every once in a while, there’s a day with an absolute right and an absolute wrong, but those days almost always include body counts. Other than that, there aren’t very many unnuanced moments in leading a country that’s way too big for ten words. I’m the President of the United States, not the President of the people who agree with me.
Truth be told, I’m cutting Sorkin a break here as Bartlet begins the soliloquy by saying “ten-word answers can kill you in political campaigns” even though there isn’t much evidence that they can.
But the point here, and the challenge, is this: what do Dowd, Fournier, and others mean by “leadership?” What do they propose that President Obama should do after he drinks with, golfs with, calls, grabs a movie with, arm-twists, photobombs, or subtweets his opponents…and they say “No. We actually fundamentally disagree with you and your ideas. We think that our ideas are better and even prefer nothing to happen to your ideas happening. In fact, if your ideas happen and work, that’s bad for us too. So…no.”
What then? What would the leaderiest leader do? I suspect the answer is “go public.” But, that is a strategy that is rarely successful, especially since most lawmakers who, say, voted against the recent background checks bill in the senate represent people who wanted them to vote that way. What is more, as several folks recently pointed out, supporting the president is a big risk for Republicans who do not want to get primaried – presidential involvement can even further polarize the debate. Or, as fake President Bartlet once said to a prominent gay supporter who wanted the president to advocate for gay rights, “I’m a human starting gun!”
So, what are the next ten words, believers in the power of presidential leadership? And what are the ten words after that?
I actually think there are useful things for reporters and columnists to do on this score. This is because I am sympathetic to the idea that millions of people voted for President Obama to try to do the things he said he was going to do. In fact, most presidents, including President Obama, do just that. But, I do admit that it is very unsatisfying to be told that our institutional structures, composition of the legislative and executive branches, factors that affect elections results, and unlikelihood of success should somehow equate to a claim that the president (or any leader for that matter) should stop trying to implement her or his platform. Of course the president should try to do what he and someday she says he’s going to do. What’s more, of course reporters should focus on how that process unfolds.
Here is where good journalism can and should come in (and often has! Really!). Given how hard it is to govern in a highly polarized, divided government, reporters and columnists are in a unique position to position themselves in a realistic political context and and begin to answer the questions: what is the president doing to get things done, why is the president doing that, and how likely is it to work? It’d be even better if those same questions were posed to Congress too!
Reporters should be investigating:
- How the president is using the powers of his office to run around Congress when possible
- How he is or isn’t trying to help, cajole, beg, or persuade members of his own party to be unified
- What strategies he is using (if any) to target folks in the opposite party
- What he is doing to engage the public
- What issues he is spending time, energy and resources on
- What promises he seems to have abandoned
- What incentives, electoral and policy, do congressional Democrats and Republicans have that encourage and discourage compromise, stall-tactics, and good governance more generally
- Finally, how the political landscape (public opinion, partisan make up and rules in the House and Senate, electoral time horizons, the state of the economy, idiosyncratic yet important events that pop up like the Boston terror attack) affects President Obama and Congress’ goals and behaviors.
Stories about these issues can remind voters of what President Obama – and congressional Republicans and Democrats – are up against as they try to produce policy to strengthen the economy, improve education and health care, lower crime, keep the country safe, protect the environment, address social policy questions, and win elections.
The country needs a vibrant, engaged, smart news media to explain how the context (things academics know a lot about) affect what politicians are doing (things reporters know a lot about). To go all Sorkin on you again, we want the truth…we can handle it. We’d even be better for it.