In a previous edition of this column, I professed my undying love for “The West Wing” and its president, Jed Bartlet. Speaking as a resident of the People’s Republic of Vermont, I wish we had more Democrats like Jed. Bartlet’s example, combined with age-old presidential theory, can be instructive as President Obama tries to guide the ship of state through the storm of budget negotiations.2989628380

In one episode, President Bartlet and Republican House Speaker Haffley fail to reach an agreement to fund the government. Bartlet had originally agreed to a 2 percent spending cut across the board, similar to our current sequestration. At the last minute, Haffley demands a 3 percent cut. Bartlet says no deal, and the government shuts down. Haffley believes he has the upper hand, as the country will blame Bartlet for the shutdown. Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman makes a bold suggestion: Bartlet should walk to the Capitol, and demand to see the Speaker, decisively regaining the political high ground. Bartlet does so, rallying the media for an all-out assault on the Capitol. When he arrives, Haffley blows him off. Bartlet returns to the White House, knowing that Haffley will now come to him. In a spirited discussion in the Oval Office, the president and the Speaker agree on a budget, putting an end to the shutdown.

What can this episode tell us when viewed through the lens of presidential political theory? One political theorist, Richard Neustadt, advised nearly every president from Truman up to Clinton. In his landmark book “Presidential Power,” Neustadt confirms what everyone in this town knows: The president is actually quite weak. The real power in Washington is in the hands of Congress. Ironically, we tend to associate landmark legislative achievements with presidents, even though Franklin D. Roosevelt could never have created Social Security and the rest of the New Deal years ago nor could Obama have willed the Affordable Care Act into being today without Congress. So how does the president get Congress to do what he wants?

Neustadt argues it is a combination of personal prestige, professional know-how and public pressure. Bartlet and his team realized that their strategy of direct negotiations was not working because the Republicans kept moving the goalposts. They opted for a dramatic display of publicity, coupled with a final round of negotiations on their terms. According to Neustadt, this is exactly the type of power a president can wield to get things done. Subsequent political scientists might disagree. One group might argue that going public and enlisting the populace to pressure Congress is a good strategy. Others say that only direct, personal negotiations between leaders move Congress, as the public neither knows nor cares about petty Washington squabbles.

Obama is the current heir to this complicated political legacy. In terms of style, he is neither a strong-arm like Johnson nor a charmer like Clinton. His cool, professorial demeanor can be agonizing at times. Yet just a few weeks ago, the president was seen wining and dining Republican senators over a budget deal. Direct negotiations with Senate and House leadership have failed, so it was the right decision to side step them. It appears to have worked somewhat, as the Senate is poised to approve a deal that will fund the government through September.

Great presidents, even fictional ones, use all the tools in their arsenal to defeat their political opposition, and do what is right for the country. The next few months are critical not only for our sluggish economy, but also for the legacies of our current crop of politicians. Jed Bartlet would do what needs to be done, and so will Barack Obama. Marching up Pennsylvania Avenue to level with John Boehner would not be a bad start.

Evan Monod is a junior in the College. SPOCK MEETS BARACK appears every other Tuesday.

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