- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 14, 2003

The Palm Restaurant is one of Washington’s most venerable watering holes. Near the corner of 19th and M streets NW, it’s also the intersection of the capital’s policy and media elite. Inside the noisy steak joint, the walls are replete with artist’s renditions of Beltway movers and shakers. Many, however, are misleading — inaccurate depictions of the people they represent — a common problem when using caricatures to symbolize reality.

Yet, caricatures are king in this city — shorthand ways to describe complex political issues. Quick sketches of intricate people and events, however, can also mislead. Nowhere is this more evident than the way some in the media and the public view the role of the president in the policy-making process.

Beginning with the State of the Union, the media speculates about whether the White House is winning or losing, up or down, like baseball fans track box scores. This obsession assumes all presidents enter the process with the same political tools, and Congress only follows. Media pundits love this score card approach — assessing the fate of thepresident’s tax bill, his faith-based proposal, the White House’s prescription drug plan. But this view is about as accurate as the 1980s vintage drawing of Larry King at the Palm. All presidents are not created equal when it comes to political and institutional resources, and definitely not the only game in terms of the agenda-setting.

As Harvard’s Richard Neustadt notes, the Founders created a government with “separate institutions sharing power.” The president may lead alone in some areas, but Congress is an equal partner in lawmaking; often its agenda is more important than the White House’s. True, sometimes the president initiates, other times he follows, but it’s always symbiotic. Isolating the president outside of this context results in a fundamental misunderstanding about how Washington works.

Consider the media’s almost hysterical preoccupation with whether President Bush will convince lawmakers to pass a $726 billion growth package (anything less is now a “loss”). Indeed, Congress modified and, yes, reduced the size of the package, but instead of legislative reversals, these developments are normal and may prove positive for the president and his partisans in Congress.

Political scientist Charles O. Jones in his classic, “The President in a Separated System” agrees: “Focusing exclusively on the presidency can lead to a distorted view of how the national government works. The plain fact is the United States does not have a presidential system. It has a separated system ? No one, least of all presidents, the Founders reasoned, can be entrusted with excessive authority.”

Why is there an inordinate amount of attention to what the president wants and gets? The reason, according to Mr. Jones, goes back to Franklin Roosevelt. Considered the first “modern” president, FDR also served during extraordinary historical circumstances. With large majorities in Congress, the end of the Depression and World War II as backdrops, Americans began to focus on the singular importance of the presidency and FDR’s legislative success as a benchmark for subsequent White Houses.

Yet, focusing on the president’s record of accomplishment without considering institutional, historical and policy circumstances is a mistake. For example, during the middle of Roosevelt’s presidency, in addition to a huge majority in the House, the Senate in the 75th Congress (1937-1939) included 75 Democrats and only 17 Republicans. Similarly, when lawmakers passed the Great Society programs in the 89th Congress (1965-1967), LBJ’s party included 68 Democrats in the Senate, compared to only 32 Republicans. Legislative success is a little more of a downhill bicycle ride with those numbers.

President Bush faces a different set of political circumstances. Unlike FDR and LBJ, there are not even enough Republican senators to break Democratic filibusters. Moreover, given the numbers, moderate Republicans, particularly in the Senate, possess a great deal of leverage in shaping policy.

Yet, he also seems to understand these nuances of power, showing, for example, a willingness to accommodate congressional adjustments to the growth package. “We must act — and the ‘we,’ in this case, is the United States Congress,” the president said in New Mexico earlier this week.

Unlike many that focus only on the president’s policy demands, Mr. Bush’s caricature includes an appropriate amount of realism in his sketch. The president will push hard on Congress to adopt as many of his initiatives as possible, and seem unbending to a point, but then he will pivot and bow to the realities of power sharing with lawmakers. He will do this out of necessity, but also because gathering in the Rose Garden with his Republican allies in Congress — after incorporating their ideas and initiatives in a final legislative product — paints a handsome political portrait as well.

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