President Obama, like all presidents, often says he “wants” or is even “fighting” for something, but in fact puts no real effort into actually making it happen. It could be he doesn’t want to spend political capital because he thinks it is a lost cause, thinks it is fairly unimportant, or even doesn’t really want it, but thinks it is smart politics to pretend he does.
That is why it is important to recognize what a president acting as a “fierce advocate” actually looks like so you can distinguish the real thing from empty rhetoric. We are seeing a what a real full-court press from the administration is when it comes to the START treaty.
- It starts with actions like having your Director of National Intelligence tell senators his opinion about the ratification of a new START treaty: “I think the earlier, the sooner, the better.”
- You get as many respected experts, like former Secretary of State Colin Powell, to join you in the push for legislative action, both publicly and privately.
- You have the Vice President, Secretary of State, Defense Secretary, and Director of National Intelligence all personally call senators, like the just-sworn-in Mark Kirk (R-IL), to tell them how important it is that they support the legislation.
- Make life uncomfortable for those who oppose the legislation by having the Senate Majority Leader threaten to keep the Senate in session during the holidays if they try to kill it through delaying tactics.
- Put Vice President Joe Biden on TV to make the case that failure to pass START puts the country at risk. “I hope I don’t get in the way of your Christmas shopping, but this is about the nation’s business. This is national security at stake. Act. Act.”
- Then, the next day, have Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hold a bipartisan press conference to push the Senate to ratify the START treaty.
- If that is not enough, then, at a press conference with your top generals, you have them advocate for the treaty with the strongest language possible, such as “All the Joint Chiefs are very much behind the treaty. We need START, and we need it badly.”
This is what fierce advocacy on an issue looks like from the White House: making the case to the public through a series of important surrogates, and heavy private lobbying of individual members of Congress.
Because this is a treaty, the president’s room to maneuver is constrained on this issue by the Constitution, but on most other issues, a president can enhance his push with threats. It can be small, like promising to kill a senator’s pet project, or as sweeping as threats to use executive orders to get the same result, push it through with reconciliation, or even call for the nuclear option to eliminate the filibuster, as George W. Bush did with some of his judicial nominees.
If you see the administration using this multi-pronged, public and private push on an issue, you can be confident it is something the president really wants to make it happen. If you don’t see this across-the-board push from the White House, you know the President’s commitment to the issue is soft at best, and, at worst, he is really signaling to the people that matter that his promises are empty rhetoric he doesn’t want to see fulfilled.
Compare the White House action on START with the “if there is time” approach to DADT. Th latter is not fierce advocacy.