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Don't Expect Presidential Magic

The presidency of the United States is a very powerful office when it comes to foreign relations and other responsibilities that do not require congressional action. But once Congress--and particularly the filibuster-controlled Senate--gets into the act, the president's power often fails him. Matt Yglesias uses the inability of the administration to get a relatively noncontroversial tax extension bill through the Senate to make this point:

The administration and Harry Reid's office tried quite hard to get the votes together, but they just couldn't. Not because they don't have any leverage or the offices they inhabit are powerless, but because whatever leverage the White House has doesn't change the fact that if a Senator really and truly wants to vote against cloture on a bill nobody can force him to do otherwise.

Now of course it's true that there's more Obama could have done. He could have gone really nuclear on this topic, but he didn't. He left some tools in the toolbox, left some arrows in the quiver. And you can say the same about his advocacy for a "level playing field" public option and his advocacy for the Employee Free Choice Act and his advocacy for carbon pricing and his advocacy for a truly independent consumer financial protection agency and his advocacy for the full version of his stimulus bill and his advocacy for DOMA repeal and one or two dozen other things. But that's actually the point. The White House's failure to engage in a maximum, 100 percent push for each item on the Obama agenda doesn't demonstrate that it's a White House that's time and again betrayed progressive values. It demonstrates that even though in each case you can always do more, you tend to decide to leave some arrows in the quiver because there are so many legislative fights and you can't just be going nuclear thirty times a year.

Matt's argument is aimed at progressives who think that Obama simply doesn't care enough about their priorities to fight for them. But it's also food for thought for pundits who are forever acting as though the president's inability to wave a wand and work magic--say, on an oil spill--represents some terrible sign of personal weakness.