, Salem, MA


May 4, 2013

Shribman: The limited power of presidents


But that is not his way, and one of the reasons the president has trouble prevailing with Congress is that many lawmakers simply don’t like him. Ronald Reagan they liked. Bill Clinton, too. George H.W. Bush had his congressional allies, lots of them, and his son had a few, or enough. But the irony is that Barack Obama, the first man to go directly from the Senate to the White House since John F. Kennedy (and Warren G. Harding before him), doesn’t have many friends in the Congress he left behind.

That is not to say that Obama hasn’t had some congressional triumphs, including the economic stimulus and the victory that may be his most enduring legacy: the health-insurance bill that his opponents call Obamacare, a label his supporters may adopt if the plan becomes a popular success. (The term “Reaganomics” started as a pejorative and eventually became a phrase Republicans embraced with pride.)

But the president’s troubles have nothing to do with the fear factor, mostly because the fear factor is a fantasy.

Perhaps the president who had the most success with a Congress controlled by the other party was Reagan, who used to say that almost anything could be done if the president didn’t care who got credit for the accomplishment.

That is why he was willing to share the spotlight on his biggest second-term domestic initiative, the 1986 comprehensive overhaul of the income-tax system. He didn’t flinch when Democratic Rep. Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, urged Americans in a nationally televised address to “write Rosty” about their ideas about tax overhaul.

And once the battle was joined, the president used persuasion rather than power to win approval of the measure. A case in point was the way he reeled GOP Sen. Robert Kasten of Wisconsin into his camp. Kasten had an independent streak — he had quarreled with Majority Leader Robert J. Dole of Kansas, which one didn’t see every day in that era — and so Reagan scheduled two speeches in Kasten’s home state.

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