President Barack Obama with relatives of gun-violence victims in April 2013. Photographer: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Make Journalism Easy: Just Blame Obama

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Ron Fournier's column yesterday attempts to connect all of President Barack Obama's failures or disappointments in office, or just whatever is going wrong in the world, to the president's supposed belief in his own "almost blinding righteousness." Apparently, the problem is that Obama keeps being right, but doesn't recognize that just being right isn't enough. Here's an example:

Americans don't favor military action in Syria and can't stomach genocide. That may be right, but wavering on a "red line" and dithering on a decision projected weakness. Months later, Syria is flouting chemical-weapons deadlines imposed in the deal that Obama cut via Russia.

Wait a minute! This shows Obama (for better or worse) altering course when he bumped up against reality. He wanted military enforcement of a "red line." When no one else wanted it, he moved on and got a deal. How is that being blinded by righteousness?

It's unclear what might have been a better option for Obama, or how he might have achieved a better outcome. Projecting a tough image in Syria would have done...what? Convinced Bashar al-Assad to surrender? Does Fournier really believe that?

Here's another example:

Most Americans support background checks on guns. Polls show that Obama was right, especially in the immediate aftermath of the Newtown shootings, but he underestimated the strength of the gun lobby and couldn't build a coalition in Congress. Obama himself is frustrated with the inability to translate into legislative successes his campaign's brilliance at mobilizing people to vote. If he had managed to make that leap, gun control might have been the initial beneficiary.

I have no idea whether Obama failed to appreciate the opposition to background checks, or just decided that proceeding even with slim odds of success was better than accepting defeat. I am sure, however, that understanding the strength of the opposition in Congress wouldn't have helped to build a winning coalition against that opposition. Why? Because it was strong opposition.

Fournier's claims about a "grand bargain" and about immigration reform are also pretty hard to take. On the first, he believes, despite all evidence to the contrary, that Republicans were willing to vote for a deficit-reduction package that also contained significant new revenue. On the latter, he understands that Republicans have opposed immigration reform, but still blames Obama for not getting it done.

And by choosing Debo Adegbile to head the civil rights division, Obama is somehow responsible for those who scuttled the nomination and were able to "set a precedent that defense lawyers can be disqualified for their client's actions." In this worldview, others can be criticized or make mistakes, but the president of the United States is always responsible.

Obama certainly has made mistakes. But understanding the presidency requires separating what the president does from what everyone else does, and understanding the limitations (as well as the potential) of the office.

Fournier's conclusion:

Historians score presidents based on what they accomplish with the allies, the enemies, and the circumstances dealt to them. This will not be known as the Era of Republican Obstruction. We are not at the dawn of the Russian Century. Right or wrong, it's on Obama— and that should be enough.

Historians and political scientists consider the context when they seek to explain what presidents do; they don't simply say that "it's on" the president. That's bad analysis. And even worse politics.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

(Jonathan Bernstein covers U.S. politics for Bloomberg View. He is co-editor of "The Making of the Presidential Candidates 2012." Follow him on Twitter at @JBPlainblog.)

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