Monday, October 10, 2011

Party Trumps Style


Matthew Dickinson had an interesting post over the weekend in which he compared Barack Obama's style to....uh oh, Jimmy Carter. Dickinson makes the case that like Carter, Obama "is a president who leads not on the basis of a core set of political convictions or principles, but instead by laying out policy solutions developed on their merits and then trusting that others will follow his lead primarily due to the logic of his argument."

I'm not sure that's true about Obama -- as Dickinson notes, it's still a bit too soon to know what to make of the evidence we've seen to date. Standard reminder: contemporary accounts of Dwight Eisenhower got a lot of things importantly wrong. But it's worth thinking about the possibility that Dickinson is correct.

What I'd point out, however, is that Obama's presidency sits in a very different party context than Carter's did, and that explains the much better relationship Obama has with Congress. While Carter did have some senior staff who had a strong party background, his White House was a very personal operation: folks such as Hamilton Jordan, legislative liaison Frank Moore, and OMB director Bert Lance were very much Carter people and, in these and other cases, had little connection to the Democratic Party. That wasn't true about Obama-era equivalents such as Rahm Emanuel, Phil Schilero, and Peter Orszag. As a result, even if it's true that Obama's instincts were to ignore politics, the people around him have been likely to temper those instincts, not reinforce them. And as a result Obama's relationship with Hill Democrats -- though of course rocky at times -- has been far better than was Carter's. In general, while Dickinson is concerned that a "problem solver" style may have the inherent danger of leaving a president with little "political foundation", my sense is that the current party context almost guarantees that any president will have a far stronger and far more partisan foundation than Carter (or Nixon, Johnson and Kennedy) could count on.

Where was Obama's staff weak? Carter's staff, above all, specialized in Jimmy Carter. Bill Clinton's staff learned part of that lesson, adding Hill experience and therefore party connections. Obama's staff improved on Clinton's by adding White House experience. But none of them had much in the way of experience with the departments and agencies of the executive branch, and that's been in my view a possible explanation for why Obama hasn't been quick to use that part of the presidency to his benefit (and the nation's benefit).

At any rate, I do recommend Dickinson's post, although again I urge everyone (as he does) not to jump too quickly to conclusions about what happens behind closed doors based on selective (and usually self-serving for someone) early leaks.

[Update: I think it's a little sloppy of me to say that "none" of  the Obama personnel had exec branch experience; Melody Barnes, for example, worked briefly at EEOC -- and of course Larry Summers knew a bit about the Treasury Department! So I should have said few had such experience, not none]


  1. Obama's legislative successes have mostly come in either responding to the economic crisis (stimulus, Dodd-Frank) or enacting long-standing party goals (ACA, ending DADT, Lilly Ledbetter). There really hasn't been an Obama agenda, per se. As I recall, Carter was mostly interested in passing legislation of personal interest to him, but no one else.

  2. When you run an administration "not on the basis of a core set of political convictions or principles, but instead by laying out policy solutions developed on their merits" you are, in fact articulating a core political conviction.

    Privileging the execution of policy solutions over party entrenchment, while the two feed off and support each other, does a core political conviction... that what is desirable is above all what is workable.

  3. Wasn't there much less business experience in Obama's executive branch than previous presidents? Perhaps this was the problem.

  4. Clearly the lack of business experience in Obama's executive branch is the source of it extreme hostility to business. Banking, the auto industry, health insurance industry, telecom -- everywhere its anti-business lash has been felt.

    Or not, as the case may be.

  5. Carter was never particularly attached to Health Care Reform prior to his ascent to the Presidency.

    His attempt at passing it is probably the best illustrated comparison between the two White Houses and in particular, their in-party relations:

    Carter tried to pass HCR in a series of discrete pieces that together, rather than a huge omnibus bill. In so doing, he front-loaded all the stuff that infuriated stakeholders in the industry(cost controls) without offering them something in return or engaging the citizenry or talking to players in either House in a productive fashion. Carter's failed HCR in the run up to the 1978 Party Conference in Nashville helped spark Senator Kennedy's run for the Presidency. This was an outgrowth of the Carter White House coming from Georgia and all the post-Watergate anti-establishment feeling. It's more a pity that it wasn't Presidency Sanford.

    This contrasts the Obama HCR in which stakeholders in the industry and in the Senate were engaged. It diminished the maximum scope of reform, but Ben Nelson's HCR was always going to be far to the right of Dick Durbin's public option. It took far longer, but the final bill passed strongly resembles Baucus' Chairman's mark from January 2009. Though hardly a smooth process, with real policy losses for increased plausibility of passage in the 60 vote Senate, it demonstrates just how perilous it is to run entirely out of synch with Congress.

    In the imaginary universe where I have free time, or if Mr. Nexon and Mr. McDonough have time, a tryptic of Carter-Clinton-Obama HCR would be great.

  6. This conversation recalls the Audacity of Hope, where Obama comes across as a very reasonable moderate, taking great pains to point out the many strengths of Republicans like Reagan. In Dickinson's formulation, perhaps this would be Obama the logician: incorporating the merit in your opponent's position into a comprehensive, multipartisan solution.

    This got me thinking about the conception of politics as horse-trading and how, at least these days, politics isn't really horse-trading the way folks define it. Horse-trading involves consideration; it requires both parties to feel better off for having made the trade. When you give me, a small businessman, a dollar for a Milky Way bar, presumably we are both happier with the trade than without.

    Obama's approach makes a lot of sense in the context of horse-trading as we typically conceive it. Obama singing the praises of Reagan would be like me, the small businessman, singing the praises of the Milky Way bar you want, which should increase the amount you're willing to pay for it, thus eventually making me happier as the small businessman.

    But politics these days isn't really like freely-entered trade where consideration accrues to both sides; its more like a game of chicken between hot rods on a Friday night on a deserted country road.

    In which context, Obama's logic and praise for his opponent sounds like saying that the car across the way is really impressive and fast and well-built...intimidating...the result of which should be that the teen across the way hits the gas a little harder, with a bit more abandon, than he might have otherwise. Interesting.

  7. If there is a second Obama term, it will be interesting to see if he gets better at manipulating the levers of power within the executive branch and among the various departments of the federal government.

    It's early days yet, but Gov. Patrick (D-MA) seems both more confident and more effective as an executive in his second term in office. (Like Obama, Patrick had little executive experience prior to becoming governor.)

  8. To Davis

    My point wasn't that this administration was hostile to business (although one could argue that they are hostile to small business firms), but that lack of business experience prevents an understanding of the real world effects of their legislative program.

  9. @Anonymous7:47am; I doubt it. You're looking at inexperieence generally. Where you're not seeing results, that may be the purpose of the program.

    In terms of "levers" does anyone know how a lever works? Isn't it more an understanding of what the government can do and what it can't do? Sherrif Biden should have know that a push for ready spending means road money -- which is pretty much wasted. Same with other programs.

    If I imagine myself a hell of a lot smarter and with 10+ more years of experience, I still couldn't really understand the "levers". What you can learn to understand is the limitations.

  10. Yes, Obama's closest comparison would be to Jimmy Carter.

    Both postured as saviors, and we raised them up as such. Carter grinned amiably, aw shucks, after all the Nixonian dirtiness, and was never gonna lie to us, and grew serious and sober at all the proper moments. Obama speechified gloriously, and was going to heal the sick and make the ocean levels stop rising, and following the evil Bush, he was going to bring us together.

    Neither had/has a clue about leadership.

    Carter, although he was extremely smart, was too buried in the detail, and couldn't see the larger picture (typical of those in Rickover's handpicked officer corps), as required to act as president, and respond to the real world, in real time, in the real world of politics, in which you cannot control the minor details or even many of the major ones.

    Obama, not nearly as smart as Carter, and not interested in any of the details, rose above it all and outsourced it all to Congress, and waited to exercise his penmanship. Pelosi drafted Porkulus. Waxman drafted Cap & Tax. Waxman/Pelosi drafted a health care bill, which the Senate threw in the garbage, amending the House bill with what was to become our current ObamaCare. It was really BaucusCare, as mentioned by someone above, but unfortunately for Obama, and fortunately for Baucus (until election 2014, that is), it will forever be referenced as "ObamaCare".

    Obama was gonna get the blame for everything, as always. So he should have gotten involved in what it was he was gonna get blamed for. That means he had to tell the House to forget about Cap & Tax, a vote which eventually helped kill Pelosi's bunch in November 2010. He needed to instruct the House that they needed to bring on some R cover to make Porkulus become bipartisan Stimulus. He needed to force Baucus back to the table to wrangle +5 R votes for what should have been the 2011 Bipartisan Health Care Reform Bill, rather than gunpointing a Christmas Eve vote in the Senate, and gunpointing the follow on House vote, which was the final Congress killing action that flipped so many seats last November.

    And now we are made to understand that Geithner is running around doing whatever he wants? He ignores Obama? If that's true, this Obama guy is less invested in the details than we know, if even the bureaucracy is on the loose, unmanaged. The other hit piece in the NY Post the other day says Obama speaks to only a few people now. I take that with a shovelful of salt, but as this guy has never held a leadership position in his life, it wouldn't be surprising that he'd recoil from the horror of frequent rejection and personal unpopularity. He's never had to face rejection. It's new to him. He's thin skinned and inexperienced, and that'd be a natural reaction... to hole up among friends.

    Carter too deep into the detail, and unable to see the bigger picture. Obama detached from detail, and unable to step forward and see any picture. Either is a recipe for policy and/or political failure. We're seeing extremes of both now.

    So it's election 1980 redux. Obama is Carter, Romney is George H.W. Bush... but who is the Ronald Reagan?

  11. Anonymous said...

    "Wasn't there much less business experience in Obama's executive branch than previous presidents? Perhaps this was the problem."

    Perhaps you should cast your mind back to 2000, when the 'MBA President' had the 'CEO Cabinet'.

    When you consider the sh*tstorm that they left us, Obama has done well.

    "To Davis

    My point wasn't that this administration was hostile to business (although one could argue that they are hostile to small business firms), but that lack of business experience prevents an understanding of the real world effects of their legislative program."

    Big business has made out like gangbusters, so please don't pretend otherwise.


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