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The "Congressionalist" White House

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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 )

By Ezra Klein  |  June 8, 2009; 2:41 PM ET
Categories:  Obama administration  
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Comments

Does "success" mean anything in that context? It's an exaggeration to conclude that Obama et al are therefore totally lacking in political/philosophical ideology, but when presented as though that were more or less the case, it's kind of scary. Does it mean we can expect a Palestinian state by the end of the first term -- regardless of whether any Palestinians live in it?

Posted by: JonathanTE | June 8, 2009 3:26 PM | Report abuse

The downside of Obama's inside strategy is that he has asked his base of several million campaign activists for practically nothing (and given them precious little, as well).

I can honestly understand why he came to the conclusions he did -- from the standpoint of improving his likelihood of success, they are by and large not unreasonable. (Would nationalizing Citibank and Bank of America really have worked? Would it have created a political firestorm that would have made other initiatives impossible?) Moreover, the approach he's taken certainly fits his temperament.

But not a thing about his financial bailouts or Afghanistan/Iraq policies (or much else about his first five months in office) has done anything to build the movement that his election could have started.

Hence, his ability to ask that fading movement for something important when it really matters (e.g., a serious public health care option, should he choose to make a stand for it) is now in serious question, at best. The jury's out on what will ultimately happen, but this could turn out to be tragedy of his administration.

Posted by: bcamarda2 | June 8, 2009 4:23 PM | Report abuse

That article also pointed out the inherent problem with Obama's preference of leaving it to Congress to work out the details in health reform, namely, that politicians don't want to do anything risky; ie the status quo reigns supreme. Thus, a liberal policiy agenda item will get watered down and neutered so that it appeases all sides in the health policy debate, which, ultimately, leads to no real change.

Posted by: goadri | June 8, 2009 5:37 PM | Report abuse

JonathanTE has it exactly right: "success" doesn't mean anything unless you have goals that you are trying to reach. It would be like a Utilitarian claiming that he has no theory of what happiness is, but whatever it is he intends to maximize it.

Success can't be defined in a value-free way. It is rudderless without some core of political values (and not just process values, because the same process values can take you in dozens of directions based on the political values you also have).

Posted by: jdhalv | June 8, 2009 10:34 PM | Report abuse

As others pointed out, you need to have some kind of philosophy supporting your efforts before you can state that you've "succeeded" in them.

What bothered me about this, though, is the abandonment of any and all of the old rhetoric about "change". Hiring insiders and coddling Senatorial "centrists" at the expense of House representatives isn't the sort of change that anybody was asking for.

Indeed, considering Rahm's past hostility to anything remotely *resembling* change, I'm not quite sure this Emmanuel Administration is going to change a damned thing at all.

Posted by: DemosthenesofPaeania | June 9, 2009 11:58 AM | Report abuse

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