Can Obama learn from Bush's domestic playbook?
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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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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