Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Style Points

Sheryl Gay Stolberg's article on Barack Obama's negotiating style in today's NYT strikes me as a really good piece of reporting trapped in a forced and unfortunate analysis.  Her thesis is:
Ever since his days as a young community organizer in Chicago, Mr. Obama has held fast to the belief that by listening carefully and appealing to reason he can bring people together to get results, an approach that in Washington has often come up short.
And yet... her reporting doesn't seem to match that thesis at all.  Her opening vignette is about the House/Senate health care negotiations, but she doesn't finish the story, and in fact what we know is that those negotiations eventually were largely successful until the Massachusetts Senate election rendered them (sort of) moot.  The next two stories are mixed results, with Obama failing to win Olympia Snowe's vote on health care but succeeding with Jay Rockefeller.  And, well, that's it.  The only "failure" story to support "often come up short" is that he couldn't keep Snowe on board for the health care bill when it reached the Senate floor, but of course in any larger sense it's hard to say the president came up short when his position prevailed. 

In fact, the president hasn't lost a lot of close ones in Congress so far.  The stimulus bill and health care in the Senate, and climate/energy and health care in the House, all prevailed in close votes.  There have certainly been setbacks, but those don't seem to be the sorts of cases that personal persuasion might have turned around.  Perhaps that's wrong -- but if so, where's the evidence from the story? 

A larger problem, I think, is that Stolberg constructs a framework in which Lyndon Johnson's style -- "an arm around the shoulder, a full-body lean, a finger poking into the chest" -- is assumed to be the gold standard for political one-on-one influence.  There are certainly plenty of stories of Johnson intimidating, and humiliating, those around him.  And Johnson was without a doubt a master manipulator.  It's less clear to me, however, that Johnson's bullying style was something that a president would want to emulate.  Johnson was also known as an information sponge, someone who knew everything about every Senator, and knew how to deploy that knowledge for maximum manipulative effect. 

Moreover, as effective as the Johnson Treatment was in the Senate and early in his presidency, it was apparently pretty worthless when things started going badly.  This is hardly surprising.  Humiliating people might be effective in bullying them into actions today, but it is unlikely to make a loyal friend for tomorrow.  A better example to emulate might be FDR, who by all reports was at least as good at collecting and deploying information to manipulate others as Johnson, but without the physical intimidation.  A larger point might be that there's no reason to assume that we know what constitutes "toughness" in negotiations.  And, again, Stolberg just doesn't give us very much in the article to support either that Obama has or has not been effective.

What she does give us, however, is some excellent (if true -- always hard to tell with a sitting president whether something is someone's spin or not) into how Barack Obama operates.  Nothing in the story is a great surprise, but there's good detail here to flesh out what we know.  Obama likes sit back; he doesn't, according to Louis Slaughter, dominate a room.  I don't think I've ever heard anyone say anything like that about any other president, certainly not as president; that's an extraordinary claim.  We also learn that he is always in control of his emotions, but that there's "sort of steel in his voice," at least according to Steny Hoyer.  One does get the sense that Obama enjoys a good cop, bad cop strategy, in which he has a succession of people -- White House staff, Congressional leaders -- play the bad cop on his behalf.  I'd say that sounds more like Ronald Reagan than any other recent president, although I'd guess that it's perhaps a more deliberate strategy by Obama than it was by Reagan, who seemed more of a personality-driven conflict avoider.. 

The other, and perhaps less amorphous, important piece of Obama's style Stolberg reports is that "during his 13-month-old presidency, he has had countless one-on-one meetings with lawmakers."  I'd love to see a bit more detail on that, but it strikes me as very interesting, and at least perhaps a good long-term strategy.  For example, just this week Jay Rockefeller did what I'd consider to be a favor to the president by shooting down the attempt to bring back the debate on the public option.  Is that, to some extent, a consequence of the time the president has spend with him?  Can we expect future dividends from the time he spent with Olympia Snowe, even if he didn't win her vote on health care?

So: I do recommend the this story, but as you read it, strip away the evaluative framework; the takeaway here is the details, not the conclusions.


  1. Jonathan:

    As a political scientist who also obsessively reads the major political blogs, just want to say, I am loving your blog, and this post in particular.

  2. What about Silent Cal?

    My recollection is that he didn't even dominate a room when he was alone in it.

    And, while the personalities couldn't be more different, part of the knock against Shrub was that Rove, Cheney, et al would run the show and then he would be the "decider" at the end. Granted, this isn't all that dissimilar to FDR's style of running (some) meetings, but FDR was doing all sorts of Machiavellian schemings in letting one person or the other talk.

  3. Isn't most of the stuff about Coolidge apocryphal?

    I'd be very surprised if anyone dared to dominate a room that President W. was in. They might manipulate him and get what they observer might conclude that Cheney or whoever was "really" running things (perhaps -- we need more info still to know what was true and what wasn't), but I'm pretty sure that W. would not look kindly on anyone who made any of that obvious. Think about the nicknames thing, for example.

  4. Good post, had the same reaction to this article - sets up a theory and doesn't back it up. It has definitely been entertaining reading different commentators invoking LBJ, most implying Obama should twist arms then others criticizing him for acting too much like LBJ, e.g. strongarming Patterson in NY, trying to clear the field for Specter and Gillibrand.


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