Why Pundits Cling to Idiotic Theories About Obama’s Power

Political scientists and poli-sci minded journalists have recently upped the snark and condescension aimed those in the media who don’t understand that the president can’t make people do things they don’t want to do. (For good examples, see Ezra Klein, Jonathan Chait, and Brendan Nyhan.) The bottom line in all these pieces is that people need to admit that there simply isn’t any secret sauce of leadership, messaging, or glad-handing that will get Republican congressmen to take votes that jeopardized their reelection.

But while Klein, Chait, Nyhan, and Co. thankfully take an axe to ignorant punditry, I think they gloss over a key explanation for why the myth of presidential power is so widespread and so difficult to kill: If the president truly lacks the ability to get important things done, it means the media has failed to uphold it’s most indispensable public responsibility.

At the moment, the cause of Obama’s powerlessness is that members of the opposition party have abandoned the desire to govern in order to ensure their own personal reelections. With an opposition that doesn’t have a modicum of interest in cooperating, there’s nothing Obama can do to pass necessary legislation. In the face of poorly aligned incentives, our political system is floundering.

But the media fancies itself as the guardians of our great democracy, and so if our political system is broken, it’s because the media failed to prevent it from happening. After all, if it’s truly impossible for us to pass climate change legislation, why did our great newspaper columnists not warn us that such an outcome was fast approaching?

To combat the dissonance caused by the realization that they failed to prevent our political system from rotting, pundits will cling to any tangible explanation for Obama’s failure. He just needs to exhibit more leadership, make better speeches, or recreate scenes from popular hollywood films. Publishing these evidence-free analyses may seem like a difficult thing to do, but it’s not as difficult as admitting that you’ve failed at your job and let the country down. And so while may seem absurd to us for Maureen Dowd to suggest that Obama should take advice from an Aaron Sorkin character, to her it’s much less absurd than the alternative, which is that she completely missed the breakdown of our political system as it was happening right under her nose.


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