When legislation that would have extended criminal background check requirements for gun buyers failed in the Senate two weeks ago, opinion makers began considering the possibility that President Obama's second term -- just three months old -- was already on the cusp of failure.
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Mere days had passed since he'd introduced a budget designed successfully to impress upon political elites that congressional Republicans represent the main obstacle to steady governing in Washington, and already those same elites were regressing to the reflexive view that legislative gridlock is an automatic byproduct of partisan polarization and weak leadership in the White House.
Obama attempted in two separate public appearances this past week -- a comedy routine at the White House Correspondent's Association Dinner last Saturday evening, and a daytime press conference at the White House on Tuesday -- to disabuse the press of the idea that Congress' inability to pass even modest and popular legislation is a consequence of his failure to engage in the mythical armtwisting of LBJ or Lincoln.
"I cannot force Republicans to embrace ... common-sense solutions," Obama said at the press conference, referring specifically to budget gridlock. "I can urge them to. I can put pressure on them. I can rally the American people around those common-sense solutions. But ultimately, they, themselves, are going to have to say, we want to do the right thing. And I think there are members certainly in the Senate right now, and I suspect members in the House as well, who understand that deep down. But they're worried about their politics. It's tough. Their base thinks that compromise with me is somehow a betrayal. They're worried about primaries. And I understand all that. And we're going to try to do everything we can to create a permission structure for them to be able to do what's going to be best for the country. But it's going to take some time."
Considering the incentives of the minority party in a polarized political system with a divided legislature, Obama's remarks rang true. And in that context, his mysterious claim to be creating a "permission structure" for the GOP sounded almost like an allusion to a Rube Goldberg device that could transform Republicans from tireless obstructionists into reluctant partners -- an unlikely contraption, but perhaps the only thing short of total lawlessness that might yield Republican support for a budget deal or any other major bipartisan enterprise.
The intentional vagueness made it the most interesting moment in his press conference. Unfortunately it failed to persuade the very elites who had raised the question of his effectiveness in the first place.