This report was written by David Sirota.
When a Republican is president, Democratic politicians, pundits, and activists will tell you that the presidency is an all-powerful office that can do anything it wants. When a Democrat is president, these same politicians, pundits, and activists will tell you that the presidency has no power to do anything. In fact, they will tell you a Democratic president cannot even use the bully pulpit and other forms of pressure to try to shift the votes of senators in his own party.
A tale from history proves this latter myth is complete garbage — and that tale is newly relevant in today’s supercharged debate over a $15 minimum wage.
In that debate so far, we have seen Democratic senators prepare to surrender the $15 minimum wage their party promised by insisting they are powerless in the face of a non-binding advisory opinion of a parliamentarian they can ignore or fire.
That explanation is patently ridiculous and factually false, so Democratic apologists are starting to further justify the surrender by suggesting that even if the party kept a $15 minimum wage in the COVID relief bill, conservative Democrats such as Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema would block it anyway.
The White House itself is now falling back on the idea that it doesn’t have the votes to do much of anything, insinuating that Joe Biden — who occupies the world’s most powerful office — somehow has no power to try to change the legislative dynamic. And this spin is being predictably amplified across social media.
To be sure, there is no guarantee that Manchin or Sinema could be moved. Maybe they couldn’t, but maybe they could, considering they have both previously supported bills to increase the minimum wage. And we know they may be sensitive to pressure. After all, Manchin recently freaked out and whined that “no one called me” when Vice President Kamala Harris dared to do one straightforward interview with a West Virginia television station.
Whether such pressure ultimately works, the point is indisputable: It is laughable and preposterous to argue that a newly elected president has zero power to even try to shift the dynamic.
And yet, whether you call this all deliberate deception or learned helplessness, this fantastical myth of the Powerless President will inevitably be used to shield Biden from criticism for abandoning his pledge to fight for a $15 minimum wage.
The apologism is particularly absurd because unlike his predecessor Barack Obama, who was a relative newcomer to politics, Biden’s major selling point was that he knows “how to make government work.” The guy explicitly pitched himself as the best Democratic presidential candidate by suggesting that in an era of gridlock, he knows how to make the Democratic agenda a reality and Get Things Done™, like master of the Senate Lyndon Baines Johnson.
That’s where LBJ himself comes in to destroy the narrative that Democratic presidents in general — and Biden specifically — are inherently helpless.
“Lyndon Told Me To”
In 1964, Johnson was trying to pass Medicare, but two conservative Democratic senators threatened to take down the entire legislation over a tax issue. In a story flagged by economist Stephanie Kelton, the New York Times noted that months before that legislation passed: “Opponents proposed a large and popular increase in Social Security benefits (and taxes) which would have made passage of new Medicare taxes almost impossible. At the last minute, Senators George Smathers of Florida and Russell Long of Louisiana, both Democrats but Medicare opponents, switched and voted to save Medicare. ‘Lyndon told me to,’ Senator Smathers explained.”
The pivotal story was recounted in more detail in The Heart Of Power by Harvard University’s David Blumenthal (a former Obama administration official) and Brown University’s James Morone. They noted that presidents can play a particularly unique role in these situations, and they warn against presidents who refuse to leverage their offices to push their agendas:
Johnson knew there was an indispensable role that only he could play: he could best publicize the idea, build support, jawbone interest groups into line, and organize (and lobby) the congressional coalition. When reporters asked Senator George Smathers (D-FL) why he had switched his vote and salvaged the administration’s Medicare proposal in 1964, he responded, simply, “Lyndon told me to.” Presidents win complicated reforms by doing what the office of the presidency is uniquely designed for — publicizing and persuading….
There is, of course, a danger at the other extreme — that of the disengaged executive. The president chooses his analysts, gives them directions, and decides when the debate is over. The staff always knows when the boss has lost interest — and the issue, no matter how well staffed, is probably doomed.
There has been a lot of dishonesty and deception floating around Democratic Washington these days. There was the lie two months ago that $2,000 checks would be coming “immediately” to a desperate nation struggling through a pandemic. There is the lie about the parliamentarian supposedly being the reason the $15 minimum wage is stalled. There is once again the lie of a forthcoming “public option,” which Democrats promised but which is barely being discussed at all, and is not part of the COVID relief legislation.
But the LBJ story shows that the mendacious narrative of a helpless Democratic president is the most pernicious lie of all.
“Fighting Our Guts Out” Vs. Preemptive Surrender
If this lie about a Powerless President seems familiar, that’s because it was trotted out during the last Democratic presidency, when Barack Obama refused to lift a finger to pressure similarly conservative Democratic senators to support a wildly popular public insurance option or a union card check initiative that he explicitly promised. He had enormous congressional majorities and a huge election mandate, but didn’t bother to go to Democratic states to build Democratic voter pressure against recalcitrant Democratic senators.
On the contrary, Obama’s chief of staff berated progressives trying to pressure conservative Democrats over health care reform and Obama simply surrendered. Meanwhile, obsequious liberal pundits scoffed at a so-called “Green Lantern Theory,” mocking those who suggested that the most powerful man on Earth has any power to influence elected officials in his own party. Obama is still pretending he couldn’t do anything.
Now we see this same Powerless President narrative in the minimum wage fight — and if you look closely, the Biden administration is all but admitting it’s a lie.
After all, the White House continues to say it is “fighting our guts out” for Neera Tanden’s nomination, even though it might not have enough Senate votes for her confirmation. And yet, the same White House is simultaneously retreating on the minimum wage, seemingly unwilling to force a floor vote on the issue, even though presidential pressure, legislative brinkmanship, and negotiation could change the outcome.
In the Tanden situation, in fact, the Biden team is acting like a White House’s power of persuasion and legislative arm twisting can potentially move votes for something a president cares about — in this case, the nomination of a Washington insider to a fancy White House job.
The real story, then, is that Biden seems unwilling to use the same influence to push as hard as possible for a minimum wage increase that would boost the pay of millions of Americans during an economic emergency.
He has the power to at least try — he just seems unwilling to.
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