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Opinion

May 4, 2013

Shribman: The limited power of presidents

You can hear the huffing from here. It began with the budget battle, reached a cruel crescendo with the gun vote and culminated in the question the president had to field at his press conference last week about whether he’d run out of “juice” to pass his agenda: Barack Obama isn’t strong like Richard Nixon. He can’t strong-arm like Franklin Roosevelt. He’s afraid to pressure like Bill Clinton. No one’s afraid of him like Lyndon Johnson.

It’s bunk.

The hoariest piece of folklore in the capital involves presidential strength and the fear it inspires, and the commentary always goes like this: Presidents of the past had it, and the current president doesn’t.

Dwight Eisenhower, today almost everybody’s idea of a strong president, heard it. Harry Truman, who supposedly gave ’em hell, heard it. And there were days when LBJ heard it, too — because Johnson’s bullying days all but ended when he left the Senate and entered the executive branch. He bullied as Senate majority leader, he bleated as vice president and he beseeched as president.

Today the Greek chorus is singing that Obama should have had an easy time bringing the Senate around on the gun bill. Might I whisper something in the ear of all those whinging and whining? This might say more about the Senate and its traditions than about the president and his prerogatives.

The disparity between the 80-plus percent who in some polls supported gun-sale background checks and the 54 percent of the Senate that supported the legislation is astonishing, perhaps without precedent. So maybe the president could have done a better job. Maybe Obama was too reasonable — you hear that word a lot in connection with the 44th president — and not sufficiently forceful — a word you rarely hear about Obama.

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