John Gardner, the estimable founder of Common Cause and former secretary of health, education and welfare, said one of the conditions for effectiveness in Washington is to employ “inside-outside alliances.”
He was talking about citizen action. The need to walk that line between outdoor politics, summoning public support with some explanatory eloquence, and indoor politics, making the essential compromises, cutting the deals with legislators and vested interests, that are the essence of most vibrant democracies. This is even more applicable to governing.
President Barack Obama’s inability to practice this art over the past year is a major factor in some of his difficulties. While winning legislative victories on the economic stimulus and health care, the administration allowed the opposition to define the measures.
“There’s a disconnect,” says Bill Carrick, a top Democratic strategist in California. “They’re doing some good things and people don’t know it.”
This isn’t simply a matter of message or public relations. Obama advisers delude themselves when they say that most of their setbacks stem from process issues such as not televising the health-care deliberations on C-Span.
Obama has saturated the media with interviews -- far more and diverse than anything his predecessors did -- and the public arena with speeches, some superb. Yet he has failed to convey any overarching vision; his initiatives aren’t centrally connective.
Defining the Message
Thus, the stimulus bill, to most Americans, was about parochial pork-barrel projects, not about the millions of jobs saved and the more severe economic dislocation it avoided. To be sure, the stimulus was bracketed between and associated with the U.S. Treasury’s Troubled Asset Relief Program, which most Americans see as an unconscionable bailout of Wall Street fat cats, and the rescue of the auto industry, which remains unpopular though it’s turning out pretty well.
To many in the public, the health-care bill was more a matter of death panels or special deals for Senator Ben Nelson and Nebraska or labor unions than about insuring 30 million more Americans, or ending discrimination against people with pre-existing conditions, or, most important, improving the economy and creating jobs.
Deals always are cut to grease legislation, the bigger the spending or tax measure, the more special provisions. The issue is, which dominates: the pieces or the whole?
Reagan Tax Cuts
A telling example is Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts in 1981, the centerpiece of that president’s agenda. He proposed huge but simple across-the-board tax reductions intended to spur economic growth. A congressional bidding war ensued and the bill was laden with so many corporate loopholes and special favors that budget director David Stockman later said “the hogs were really feeding” as it “just got out of control.” The end product was so bad that Reagan had to increase taxes each of the next three years.
Yet that wasn’t the message conveyed. Reagan’s optimism in articulating the purpose overwhelmed any criticism of the particulars.
By contrast, the Obama White House, which was intimately involved in shaping the particulars of both the stimulus and the health-care bill, became so obsessed with the inside game that it lost sight of the vision or the narrative. Supporters had little idea what they were supposed to be supporting.
Many Americans embrace the concept of overhauling health care and many of the particulars of the Democrats’ plan. It is the vague Obama plan, as defined by his opponents, that worries them, even in Massachusetts.
This discord, or disconnect, is more important for the White House to try to address than the other suggested changes to the Obama presidency.
The political left insists the problem is the president has lost his moorings and needs to energize the liberal base. The reality is that Obama is no left-winger, and liberals lack a majority in the Congress and the country.
The other side says, move to the center, eschew those far-out policies. This is equally false. The health-care measure rejects any government option and is embraced, in varying degrees, by the drug and insurance industries and the medical associations. They aren’t members of any liberal cabal; neither is Obama; he’s a pragmatic progressive.
No Time to Wait
Well, some say, then he took on too much; he should have waited to take on health care. The current measure’s fate hangs in the balance. But if Obama had waited there is little chance any major effort would have been enacted in his presidency, whether it’s one or two terms. Ask former President George W. Bush about entitlements.
The Obama slide has little to do with ideology or a too-ambitious agenda. Is a reflection of both the difficulty of the situation he inherited and the administration’s inability to balance conflicts, which is what effective leaders do.
In few places is this value more necessary than the approach to big banks and Wall Street. Anti-corporate populism is a bankrupt policy for governance and often has a short political shelf life. Still, Obama can ill afford to cede the very legitimate populist anger over bailouts and bonuses and back to business as usual on Wall Street.
On this, he is off to a good start by channeling this anxiety into more than just a populist rant with the looming presence of Paul A. Volcker and the “Volcker rule” on limiting banks’ risks.
State of the Union
The president threaded some of these needles in his State of the Union speech last week, adhering to his basic principles and articulating them well, while offering some concessions to political opponents. It won’t be easy to build on that over the next few months.
It is harder, the Obama camp is right, because they inherited from the Bush administration a terrible mess: a fragile economy, out-of-control budget deficits and a dysfunctional and dangerously expensive health-care system. Recently, one top Obama aide lamented to the president how much better it would be to govern in good times.
“If it were good times,” Obama responded, “we wouldn’t be here.”
(Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)