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Can Obama learn from Bush's domestic playbook?

Guest Blogger

President Bush’s domestic initiatives were often overshadowed by his overseas agenda. In “Bush on the Home Front: Domestic Policy Triumphs and Setbacks,” John D. Graham examines Bush’s efforts on taxes, education, health care, energy and other issues. Here, he argues that Bush’s legislative and executive strategy in an era of stark partisanship may serve as a model for President Obama as he seeks to implement his vision. Graham, dean of Indiana University's School of Public and Environmental Affairs, served in the Bush administration as administrator of the Office of Management and Budget.

By John D. Graham

As members of Congress become increasingly polarized along party lines, President Obama will continue to face difficulty in advancing his agenda. He has already experienced stiff Republican resistance on health care, financial reform, and climate change. In order to overcome polarization, Obama can gain insight from George W. Bush’s playbook -- both his successes and his failures.

Bush’s presidency was marked by a series of legislative successes on taxes, public education, homeland security, health care, energy, and tort reform. Since his wins were accomplished without large Republican majorities in the Congress, a closer look at how he overcame partisan polarization is worthwhile.

Bush rarely pursued a classic bipartisan strategy where he treated Democratic leaders as collaborators from the outset. More commonly, he employed a cross-partisan strategy that included a limited number of key moderate Democrats and a fairly unified Republican base in Congress.

This strategy enabled five successful rounds of tax cuts as well as legislation on energy and prescription drugs for the elderly. The cross-partisan strategy is attractive because it minimizes the number of compromises that must be made to members of the opposing party and reduces criticism of the president among members of his own party.

Bush was most effective when he picked legislative initiatives -- such as public education and health care -- that were already recognized as urgent priorities by many Democrats. Other than his executive action on off-shore drilling, Obama has selected very few domestic priorities with Republican appeal. To find cross-partisan success, Obama should pursue issues such as immigration, homeland security, corporate tax reform, and regulatory reform.

Rather than allowing the Democratic leadership in Congress to control the shots, Obama should invite moderates from both parties to work together. On climate change, for example, moderate Democrats from the Midwest and South can work out a practical compromise with a handful of moderate Republican senators. This strategy may annoy some Democratic leaders, but Obama must control the lawmaking process, or he will be repeatedly rebuffed.

When wavering Republican senators are pressured by party leaders to refrain from collaboration, Obama should bypass the national media and go directly to the local media elites in states represented by wavering Republican senators. By appealing directly to voters and elites of these states, Obama can put healthy pressure on moderates who support the issue. This is a strategy that Bush used quite effectively on tax cuts and energy.

In addition, Obama should appeal to powerful interest groups in states where he lacks the popularity to deliver the votes of moderate Republican senators. When Bush failed to win his early rounds of energy legislation, he compromised with the farm sector by mandating greater use of corn-based ethanol to attract the support of a dozen Democratic senators (including Senator Majority Leader Tom Daschle) from the Midwest. While some criticized Bush’s support for ethanol, the compromise allowed him to make progress on nuclear power, clean coal, oil and gas, and other energy provisions.

Finally, it is not necessary for Obama to belabor legislative struggles when he is likely to win his agenda through determined executive actions. Bush accomplished much of his faith-based agenda and his regulatory reforms through administrative action. Obama is now pushing for Congress to vote on climate change even though such a vote is dangerous for Democrats representing states and districts in the heartland. He should protect these Democrats from controversial votes on climate change by pursuing climate policy under the existing Clean Air Act. Some conservative members of Congress will object, but Obama has enough support from environmentalists on the east and west coasts to block any efforts to obstruct his executive actions.

Although most scholars of the Bush presidency focus on his foreign policy activism in Iraq, Bush was a determined and effective policymaker at home. Obama and future presidents can learn valuable lessons from Bush’s triumphs and setbacks.

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By Steven E. Levingston  |  May 14, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger  | Tags: bush domestic agenda, bush legislative agenda, obama and bush strategies, obama domestic agenda  
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Comments

If President Obama is going to "learn" anything from a former President, I'd rather that former President be Bill Clinton.

Everybody knows that Bush was, and still is, the most hated president in history, so I resent your suggestion that there is anything at all that the American People would want rubbed off from Bush to President Obama.

We have a nice, clean president.

So please leave the scumb bags out!

Posted by: lindalovejones | May 14, 2010 11:19 AM | Report abuse

This is a joke, right?

This strategy enabled five successful rounds of tax cuts as well as legislation on energy and prescription drugs for the elderly.

This "strategy" "worked" because nothing
was paid for--the "successful" rounds of tax
cuts, combined with wars abroad and Katrina-style regulation of the environment,
gave us a 10 trillion dollar national debt. The medicare drug benefit added a 9 trillion dollar liability (over 75 years) to Medicare.
Energy--well, it's obvious that Cheney's secret task force gave us the worst environmental disaster in US history now spewing forth in the Gulf.

I guess is success is defined as destroying the country by transferring wealth from the middle class to the rich, Bush's policies were a sucess.

Posted by: garbage1 | May 14, 2010 3:27 PM | Report abuse

What can Obama learn from Bush?

This isa joke, right? Am I on Candid Camera? Where's Allen Funt?

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | May 14, 2010 3:38 PM | Report abuse

Is this sort of like "What Obama can learn from Tiger?"

Posted by: vrob125 | May 14, 2010 3:57 PM | Report abuse

Is this due to ideology or incompetancy, or both; either way, he's just following his leader.

Posted by: hared | May 14, 2010 6:17 PM | Report abuse

Obama can't learn anything from anyone at any time...he has a textbook case of Narcissistic Personality Disorder...and believes that he is Allah.

Posted by: joesmithdefend | May 14, 2010 7:04 PM | Report abuse

The idea that Obama could find "moderate" Republicans ("from the midwest" for example) to support a comporomise on energy policy is as naive and assinine as the belief that those same non-existent figments might have voted for...pick your Democratic bill...health care, stimulus, Wall Street reform, or any other Democratic initiative.

It might be that Mr. Graham doesn't have access to newspapers or television in his new Ivory Tower home; otherwise he would have realized, as have the rest of the nation, that the official Republican position on every Obama initiative is "Agin' it." Thus one or two Republicans vote for an Obama policy in committee, then have a meeting with Mitch McConnell, and suddenly vote against what they have just voted for when it comes to the Senate floor. Viz Grassley, Snowe, Collins, to name a few.

Bush and the Republicans running Congress between 1994 and 2006 got what they wanted because they A) lied about what was in their bills; B) never bothered to pay for them; C) refused to give up even when they lost (as in the 2000 election itself); D) faced a Democratic opposition that was so cowed by Bush, Cheney, DeLay, and other thugs in Republican clothing that many of them caved.

Wake up from your pipe dream, Mr. Graham. What you remember as a dream of a strong president getting his way by canny politicking, the rest of the nation and the world remember as a nightmare from which we are still struggling to awaken and recover. Please, please, stay in Indiana.

Posted by: adreed | May 14, 2010 10:31 PM | Report abuse

The idea that Obama could find "moderate" Republicans ("from the midwest" for example) to support a comporomise on energy policy is as naive and assinine as the belief that those same non-existent figments might have voted for...pick your Democratic bill...health care, stimulus, Wall Street reform, or any other Democratic initiative.

It might be that Mr. Graham doesn't have access to newspapers or television in his new Ivory Tower home; otherwise he would have realized, as has the rest of the nation, that the official Republican position on every Obama initiative is "We're agin' it." Thus one or two Republicans vote for an Obama policy in committee, then have a meeting with Mitch McConnell, and suddenly vote against what they have just voted for when it comes to the Senate floor. Viz Grassley, Snowe, Collins, to name a few.

Bush and the Republicans running Congress between 1994 and 2006 got what they wanted because they A) lied about what was in their bills; B) never bothered to pay for them; C) refused to give up even when they lost (as in the 2000 election itself); D) faced a Democratic opposition that was so cowed by Bush, Cheney, DeLay, Scalia, and other thugs in Republican clothing that many of them caved.

Wake up from your pipe dream, Mr. Graham. What you recall as a dream of a strong president getting his way by canny politicking, the rest of the nation (and the world) remembers as a nightmare from which we are still struggling to awaken and recover. When the president's smarmy dishonesty wasn't enough, the vice president stepped in with illegal secret deals, threats, the exposure of an undercover CIA agent, and other actions designed to remind opponents what they were in for if they crossed the godfather.

And, of course, an OMB that hid true costs (such as for the Medicare Part D donut hole) in order to get the bill passed, and then acknowledged a 50-percent higher cost than they had promised. Was that under your leadership of the OMB, Mr. Graham? Please, please, stay in Indiana, where you can do no more harm.

Posted by: adreed | May 14, 2010 10:41 PM | Report abuse

The non-partisan point that John Graham makes so well is that, regardless of whether you love or hate President Bush or his policies, what President Obama can do is draw insights from President Bush's playbook in order to be a more effective president. For example, President Bush often picked legislative priorities that were of significant interest to many Democrats in Congress (e.g., public education, health care for the elderly, and more fuel efficient cars). President Obama has not yet identified a single legislative priority that is likely to attract collaborative interest from many Republicans in Congress. In other words, President Obama appears to be preoccupied with the policy interests of his base.

Posted by: EBATL | May 17, 2010 9:47 AM | Report abuse

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