The "Congressionalist" White House
I quite liked Matt Bai's exploration of Barack Obama's relationship with Congress, in part because it read a bit like a sequel to "It's His Party," an article Dana Goldstein and I wrote on the same subject in the waning months of the campaign.
Bai's piece gets at something I think is fairly important: Obama's administration is defined not by an ideological theory but a political theory. The "fight" of the Clinton administration, for instance, was the fight to modernize the Democratic Party. It was the collision between New Democrats and old-line liberals who loathed them. Obama's administration isn't preoccupied with any of those battles. If it has an enemy, it's the gridlock that afflicts the government. It's the Congress, and the filibuster.
And if it has a weapon, it's institutional relationships. Jim Messina, the deputy chief of staff, is Senator Max Baucus's former chief of staff. Phil Schiliro, the legislative director, served the same purpose for Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman. Schiliro's deputy, Lisa Konwinski, worked for Senator Kent Conrad. Vice President Joe Biden has relationships in the Senate that stretch decades into the past. Rahm Emanuel, the former chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, commands the loyalty of a whole lot of new congressmen he helped elect and the respect of a whole lot of old congressmen he helped reclaim the majority. Pete Rouse was Tom Daschle's former chief of staff. And so it goes.
Bai gets one important admission that I've not seen before: Stocking the administration with the proteges of congressional power players was premeditated. “That was a strategy,” Emanuel says. “We didn’t kind of parallel-park into it. We had a deep bench of people with a lot of relationships that run into both the House and Senate extensively. And so we wanted to use that to our maximum advantage.” This has had effects on the sort of policies the administration chooses. Arguments over whether the Obama administration is liberal or conservative, neoclassical or behavioralist, have always struck me as misguided. The evidence suggests that they're Congressionalist. They choose policies based on their sense -- incorporating all their information and relationships -- of what the Congress can understand, defend, and pass. As Emanuel says towards the top of the piece, “the only nonnegotiable principle here is success. Everything else is negotiable.”
(Photo credit: Melina Mara -- The Washington Post Photo )
June 8, 2009; 2:41 PM ET
Categories: Obama administration
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