Activity, Popularlty, and Success
IN the early weeks of the Bush administration, a political cartoonist showed an elegant president poised on a tennis court, racket in hand. Across the net was a heavyset, unshaven opponent, Congress, clutching a bowling ball. Things did not work out exactly as the cartoon predicted. Bush threw several bowling balls of his own, in the way of vetoes, to knock down congressional legislation. Congress, meanwhile, was often busy picking up pins or tying its shoelaces. Nevertheless, the cartoon is a useful reminder that there are two sides of the net and two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue to keep in perspective. As we look at the modern presidents' legislative achievements, we should keep this perspective in mind.
That presidents have the power to persuade Congress is a truism of American politics. Their popularity in the country and reputation in Washington bolster their congressional success. The New York Times remarked on this at the beginning of 1990: "In heading off what looked ... like a sure defeat, President Bush proved today that a popular leader, if sufficiently aroused, can still change votes on Capitol Hill." 1 Indeed, so strong is this accepted wisdom that presidents are judged by their apparent, and superficial, success. Writers assume that presidents can persuade Congress and that some do so better than others. Wilson's New