Late last week, I was summoned to a windowed meeting room overlooking the White House to sit with members of one of Washington's nimbler, smarter think tanks. The assembled thinkers tried to convince me that Barack Obama was missing a historic opportunity: The legislation that was traveling under his name was increasingly unlikely to bind the middle class to his presidency or party. Cap-and-trade was a mess. Health reform was going to fail on cost control. And what of jobs? Obama, they said, had to take a firmer hand with the Congress. His hands-off approach was a fiasco. Leadership matters. It's important. It's needed.
Of course, as David Brooks points out, a firm hand with Congress is remembered as the defining mistake of the Bill Clinton's first-term. As you can read in detail here, there was no mistake more consequential than the president's decision to dictate every jot and tittle of his health reform plan to the legislature. Obama's congressionalist approach is an effort to avoid the mistakes of the Clinton years. Predictably enough, that's led to a growing chorus flaying him for making the opposite mistakes.
And maybe that chorus is right. But the implicit assumption of these arguments about strategy is that there is, somewhere out there, a workable strategy. That there is some way to navigate our political system such that you enact wise legislation solving pressing problems. But that's an increasingly uncertain assumption, I think.
Imagine a group of men sitting in a dim prison cell. One of the walls has a window. Beyond that wall, they know they'll find freedom. One of the men spends years picking away at it with a small knife. The others eventually tire of him. That's an idiotic approach, they say. You need more force. So one of the other men spends his days ramming the bed frame into the wall. Eventually, he exhausts himself. The others mock his hubris. Another tries to light the wall of fire. That fails as well. The assembled prisoners laugh at the attempt. And so it goes. But the problem is that there is no answer to their dilemma. The problem is not their strategy. It's the wall.
Photo credit: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais.
UPDATED, 2:33 PM: This entry has been corrected to turn the phrase "jit and tot" into "tot and jittle."
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