Learning to Use the Power of the Presidency

It's called "the treatment." All presidents administer it, one way or another. The trick is to use the perks of the office and the power of personality to bring around doubters and foes. LBJ was the most outlandish and sometimes outrageous practitioner. With three televisions blasting in the background, Johnson would get about six inches away from the face of some beleaguered or balky senator or cabinet secretary. Sometimes LBJ would beckon the man into the bathroom and continue to cajole or harangue while he sat on the toilet.

Air Force One is a favorite tool presidents use to inspire and overawe. With much guffawing and backslapping, recalcitrant lawmakers are led to a luxurious cabin where they are granted a presidential audience and bestowed with swag, like cuff links with the presidential seal (Johnson gave away plastic busts of himself). Dennis Kucinich, seven-term congressman from Ohio and potential vote-switcher for health reform, was invited aboard Air Force One a couple of weeks before the climactic vote in the House. He had dealt with Presidents Clinton and Bush before, but Obama was different. The president was sitting in shirt sleeves behind a desk, computer to one side, notepad and pen at the ready. "He doesn't twist arms," recalls Kucinich. Rather, the president quietly listened. He was "all business," and sat patiently while Kucinich expressed his concerns, which Obama already knew. Then the president laid out his own arguments. Kucinich wasn't persuaded by the president, he told NEWSWEEK. But he voted for the bill because he did not want the presidency to fail, and he was convinced Obama would work with him in future.

A president's first year in office is often a time for learning. The harshest lessons are beginners' mistakes, like the Bay of Pigs fiasco for JFK. The real key is to figure out how to use the prestige of the office to get things done: when to conserve your political capital, and when and how to spend it. Judging from Obama's campaign, which revolutionized politics with its ability to tap grassroots networks of donors and activists, many expected President Obama to go over the heads of Congress and mobilize popular passions to achieve his top priorities. But on what may be his signature issue, that wasn't really the case.

Obama came close to prematurely ending his effectiveness as president before finally pulling out the stops. In the last push for the health-care bill, he reminded voters of Obama the candidate, fiery and full of hope. But during the health-reform bill's long slog up and around Capitol Hill, Obama was a strangely passive figure. He sometimes seemed more peeved than engaged. His backers naturally wondered why he seemed to abandon the field to the tea partiers. The answer may be that at some level he just doesn't like politics, not the way Bill Clinton or LBJ or a "happy warrior" like Hubert Humphrey thrived on the press of flesh, the backroom deal, and the roar of the crowd. That doesn't mean Obama can't thrive or be successful—even Richard Nixon was elected to two terms. But it does mean that the country is run by what New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wryly called "the conquering professor"—a president who leads more from the head than the heart, who often relies more on listening than preaching.

Obama entered politics as a community organizer, and as a presidential candidate he oversaw an operation that brilliantly organized from the ground up. So it was a puzzle to Marshall Ganz, a longtime community organizer, that Obama seemed to neglect the basic rule of a grassroots organizer: to mobilize and, if necessary, polarize your popular base against a common enemy. Instead, President Obama seemed to withdraw and seek not to offend while Congress squabbled. "It was a curiously passive strategy," says Ganz, who worked for 16 years with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers and now teaches at Harvard's Kennedy School. In a way, he says, Obama's "fear of a small conflict made a big conflict inevitable."

The health-care battle "was a political near-death experience for the president and congressional leaders," says Bill Galston, formerly Clinton's domestic adviser and now an old Washington hand at the Brookings Institution. Galston describes Obama's style as "drift and mastery." He recalls early in Obama's presidential campaign, in the summer of 2007, when the candidate seemed oddly inert as he dropped in the polls. Then he perfected a rousing stump speech, just in time for the run-up to the Iowa caucuses. Obama, says Galston, seems to have his own "inner gyroscope," but he also shows a distaste for the messy business of governing in fractious Washington. "He has something approaching contempt for the hyperreactional government in Washington, where people pay way too much attention to the crisis of the moment," says Galston.

The president doesn't have all that much use for the niceties of international diplomacy, either. Early in his term, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown spoke of renewing the "special relationship" between Britain and the U.S. When he came calling in Washington in the winter of 2009, Brown brought a penholder crafted from the timbers of a 19th-century British ship that blockaded the African slave trade. Obama's Oval Office desk is made from the timbers of a sister ship. In return, Obama gave Brown a lame gift of some Hollywood DVDs and blew him off without a dinner or press conference. Brown has stayed miffed. More recently, Obama has given the cold shoulder to Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu. That may have been more calculated—a rebuff intended to get Israel to act more in line with U.S. interests. One can imagine LBJ exercising the same manipulative disdain.

Even on domestic issues, Obama may be playing a more subtle game than is readily apparent. Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin recalls that when she met with candidate Obama in 2007, she expected to talk about his hero Lincoln, the subject of Goodwin's book Team of Rivals. Yet he also quizzed her and her husband, former Kennedy and Johnson speechwriter Richard Goodwin, about LBJ. He was interested in learning about Johnson's philosophy for dealing with Congress. Goodwin says she now realizes that by working so closely and deferentially with Congress on health care, Obama was taking a page from LBJ's oft-expressed philosophy: "If they're with you at the takeoff, they'll be with you in the landing."

At times the haggling irked him. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recalled for journalists that in mid-January, when health reform seemed nearly sunk, Obama grew impatient as she and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid bickered before him. Pelosi said she told the president he should "ignore some of our, shall we say, frankness with each other." But all the while Obama was paying close attention, says his chief adviser, David Axelrod. "Most people treat lulls when they're not speaking as a place to rest and gather their thoughts until they make the next point. He actually listens," Axelrod tells NEWSWEEK.

In the afterglow of the health-care success, Goodwin thinks that Obama has amassed some good will and mo-mentum he can use to gain more victories. "The telling moment was in the signing ceremony when [Obama] said, 'You've taken your lumps.' And then a congressman yelled out, 'You're right, we did, and we still stood.' When you've been in the trenches together as they were in this fight, it does create relationships that he can now build on and they can build on too," she says.

Goodwin also expects Obama to have a stronger appetite for change now that he's had one big success. "Once you've achieved something that everyone admits is a historic achievement, it does something, I think, inside a president's heart," she says. "LBJ said after he got the Civil Rights Act through in 1964, knowing that he had done something that would be remembered in time only emboldened him to want to do more, because the feeling was so extraordinary…cThe next year, when he proposed voting rights, people around him said, 'No way, you have to let the country heal'…cjust as people might be saying that about Obama. My guess is that what happens when you feel that sense of fulfillment inside is that it makes you remember what the presidency is about, to use power to change the lives of people in a positive way. It will only, it seems to me, make it more likely that he will continue now to go forward with the rest of his agenda."

A knowledgeable White House aide, who did not want to be named, expects Obama to get financial reform out of the Senate—"and then we'll have to surprise everyone on energy." (Translation: getting a climate-change bill through Congress is a much bigger challenge.) But going forward, listening won't be enough. Obama will need to feel the passion of the presidency. At some point he is going to have to go to the people in full campaign mode, and he may have to learn to twist arms, LBJ style, even if he doesn't like to.