Obama at year one: The end of the inside game
One year ago today, Barack Obama was inaugurated president of the United States of America. This is not the anniversary he was hoping for. Scott Brown's victory in Massachusetts was one of those unknown-unknowns that Donald Rumsfeld so feared: Ted Kennedy's death followed by Martha Coakley's decision to insult the Red Sox and mock the idea that she'd shake hands with voters. Now Obama's first year, which seemed destined to be remembered for its historically successful health-care push, is in doubt.
But if Coakley's hapless candidacy were all there was to the story, Obama's name would be left out of it. It's not, of course, which is why congressional Democrats fear its portents. Americans aren't happy with Obama or his party. Some of the anger is situational, the product of a bad economy mixed with an ugly political system. But not all of it. Obama ran promising to change Washington. Instead, he's done more than any president in a generation to settle into its norms.
They say that no campaign is ever as good as it looks while winning nor as bad as it seems when losing. The same goes for presidencies. Before Brown's unlikely campaign threw the future of health-care reform into doubt, it seemed that Obama's inexhaustible appetite for compromising with the way Washington really worked was going to let him achieve something that had foiled generations of political leaders. Now, it seems to have fomented the very backlash that might doom his health-care bill.
Either way, this was a surprise. In February 2008, I wrote a cover story for The American Prospect setting up the choice between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. "The Manager or The Visionary," I called it. The idea was that Clinton promised a presidency familiar with the ways of Washington and based atop an unending series of discrete, measurable policy achievements. Obama promised something less quantifiable but potentially more lasting: A persuasive presidency that changed the way Americans thought about government. A presidency based more on the transformative template of Ronald Reagan than the ameliorative approach that came to define Bill Clinton.
It was a distinction Obama drew many times during the campaign. "I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not," he famously said. In another lauded speech, Obama went to the New York Stock Exchange and echoed Franklin Delano Roosevelt's call for "a reappraisal of values."
But that candidate bears little relation to this president. The speeches are over, for one thing. Obama's use of the bully pulpit has been rare and restrained. He gave a major address on health-care reform when he needed to save the legislation in the Senate, but he didn't begin health-care reform with a big speech meant to explain the issue and his approach to voters. He talked up the passage of stimulus at his first press conference, but he never did what FDR did with the banks and explained clearly and slowly why stimulus was needed. A president who promised persuasion has instead offered legislation. And his speeches have been timed to affect the legislative process, not to convince the country of his cause and leverage popular support in his negotiations with Congress. It's been all inside game, pretty much all the time.
Similarly, the legislation itself has been built to pass rather than built to convince. Financial regulation, for instance, has never been about what should be done to the banks, but has instead focused on what Congress can find the votes to do the banks (though Obama's apparent insistence on the Consumer Financial Products Agency is a welcome surprise, even if it's only being communicated in private meetings with Chris Dodd). Health-care reform was compromised to begin with and then cleaved of its most popular elements as the process wore on. The administration knew the stimulus was too small when they sold it, but they never argued for a bigger package, and have resisted calling for a follow-up.
That's not a bad strategy, per se. Obama's presidency has tried to show, not tell. He's not given speeches about how government can work. He's not tried to change minds about the theoretical possibility of government working. He's tried to make government work. Winning achievements, not arguments, has been at the center of the administration's agenda.
But that's meant letting the government work. And that turns out to be an ugly thing, full of deals with pharmaceutical companies and concessions to Nebraska and delays and press releases and controversy and anger and process stories and confusion. Americans don't like Washington, and they like it less when they see it more. Obama's strategy has meant they see it constantly, and there's no one really guiding them through its thickets. The country is trapped in a sausage factory, and they want out.
Obama's focus on achievements has also meant an acceptance of Washington's procedures. Gone are the promises of transparency and bipartisanship, neither of which is really possible if the other side doesn't want to work with you to get things done and you don't want to let them destroy your agenda. And Obama and the Democratic Congress are laboring under the weight of the major thing Washington has achieved in recent memory -- the hideously unpopular, though genuinely important, bank bailouts, which did much to convince voters that Washington is playing a rigged, inside game.
This is a conundrum for many presidents: If you can't pass legislation without winning a vote in Congress, how do you keep your legislation from being tainted by its association with Congress?
Obama hasn't answered it. But more surprising, he hasn't really tried. The White House has played an inside game, focusing on helping Congress pass legislation rather than helping the public understand it. That game was almost enough to pass health care -- and it may still succeed on that count. But Brown's election throws it into doubt.
There's been a lot of talk from the White House that they will sell health care after it passes. There was clearly the theory that they would save the banking system and the improving economy would make their argument for them. It's not happening. The inside game is pretty much over. And if it's not now, it will be soon, when Democrats in Congress don't have the votes to carry Obama's agenda.
Going forward, Obama is going to have to make Washington work without letting the way Washington works drag down his presidency. And that means he'll have to begin speaking to the country more clearly, rather than hoping his accomplishments will speak for themselves. These criticisms are always easy to levy, and communicating to a country of 300 million people that doesn't want to watch long policy speeches is easier said than done. But Obama will have to try, because soon, he will have no other choice.
Photo credit: AP Photo/Ron Edmonds.
January 20, 2010; 10:10 AM ET
Categories: Obama administration
Save & Share: Previous: 'Think of everything you could do while serving in Congress. Would any single act be bigger than this?'
Next: The deficit commission cometh
Posted by: wisewon | January 20, 2010 10:17 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: truck1 | January 20, 2010 10:24 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: scarlota | January 20, 2010 10:27 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: luko | January 20, 2010 10:36 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: pj_camp | January 20, 2010 10:39 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: Athena_news | January 20, 2010 10:42 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: janinsanfran | January 20, 2010 10:42 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: hemmeralex | January 20, 2010 10:42 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: mschol17 | January 20, 2010 11:07 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: visionbrkr | January 20, 2010 11:07 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: edwardallen54 | January 20, 2010 11:20 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: Mimikatz | January 20, 2010 11:21 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: BigTunaTim | January 20, 2010 11:43 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: mayelinden | January 20, 2010 11:45 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: mminka | January 20, 2010 12:00 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: JimPortlandOR | January 20, 2010 12:09 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Athena_news | January 20, 2010 12:09 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: goadri | January 20, 2010 12:16 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: raisedbywolves1 | January 20, 2010 2:01 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Kevin_Willis | January 20, 2010 3:10 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: onewing1 | January 20, 2010 3:21 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: revtoby | January 20, 2010 4:12 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: msa_intp | January 20, 2010 8:09 PM | Report abuse
The comments to this entry are closed.