I've been racking my brain all morning, but I really can't come up with another example of a president gambling major legislation on a televised, hyped showdown with the leadership of the minority party. Congressional Democrats have been begging Obama to involve himself more directly, but this is the most aggressive presidential intervention into an ongoing legislative debate that I can remember. Can anyone think of anything even slightly comparable, or is this the opening of an entirely new playbook?I don't think there's anything really very comparable, but I'm not sure that it's all that big a deal. First, the comps.
Budget summits are not unusual at all. Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Clinton all had highly publicized budget summits with (other-party) Congressional leaders. None of these was televised. All were serious working meetings: they were real attempts to reach an agreement over must-pass legislation, generally with a threat of a government shutdown looming over them. I can't think of anything that was really hyped up to the level of a "summit" over non-budget issues, but obviously it is not unusual for the White House and Congressional leadership to meet in order to hash out compromises on major and minor bills.
As far as televised sessions, the ones that I can think of are all at the beginning, not the end, of the process. Clinton's economic summit during the transition wasn't with Congressional leaders, but Obama's health care summit early last year included both Congressional and interest group leaders. I seem to remember that George W. Bush had a televised, or partially televised, meeting with Congressional leaders early in the process of developing education legislation.
So, this is different.
On the other hand, it's far from clear that this is anything other than a public relations gimmick. Not that there's anything wrong with that! As near as I can tell, Obama is responding largely in a symbolic way to conventional wisdom that praises bipartisanship and hates backdoor deals. And there may be a bit of presidential confidence (hubris?) following what everyone believes was a successful confrontation with Republican Members of the House.
But to describe it as an unusually "aggressive presidential intervention into an ongoing legislative debate" doesn't sound right to me. Reporting had White House representatives present in Harry Reid's office as the Senate bill was being crafted from the two committee bills, and I suspect that the books written about this down the road will show that Rahm Emanuel and other White House representatives were fully involved in every step of the way -- and that the president himself was involved when needed. Certainly, Obama's involvement in this televised "summit" is unlikely to be anywhere near as important as was Bill Clinton's personal involvement in budget negotiations in 1995-1996.
Overall, the level of White House and presidential involvement is not unusual at all. The particular format appears to me at least to be an innovation, particularly at this stage of the process. Seems to me that it's a creative and probably nice play, albeit one that is unlikely to be very important in the overall story of health care reform.