‘There are Be-ers, and There are Doers’

There’s a good article by Matt Bai in the Times Magazine this week that tries to articulate what Obama is doing differently from Clinton and Carter to keep the Democrats in Congress on his side, so that he can pass his domestic agenda — and succeed where both Clinton and Carter failed.

Instead of a top-down approach — Clinton handing Congress a 1,000-page health care bill — Obama is, by design, not dictating, instead giving a broad policy framework, and letting the legislators hammer out the details. Congress is filled with professional legislators who like to legislate; they don’t like to be told what to do. Ronald Reagan, the article notes, used this same strategy to reform the tax code and shore up Social Security in his first year in office.

Here’s the nut:

Obama has an entirely different theory of how to exercise presidential power, and he has consciously designed his administration to avoid Clinton’s fate. …Obama seems to think that the dysfunction in Washington isn’t only about the heightened enmity between the parties; it’s also about the longstanding mistrust between the two branches of government that stare each other down from twin peaks on either end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

To this end, Obama has appointed Congressmen and Senators to key positions (think: Rahm Emanuel and Joe Biden), filling his administration with “dozens of … former top-level Congressional aides.”

At the same time, Bai concludes that Obama can’t be too removed by the legislative process — particularly if he is seeking passage of laws that may be politically unpopular.

It’s fine for a president to stand back from the process — but not so far back that Congress thinks he’s trying to duck the consequences or that the public comes to see the whole enterprise as just another Congressional spending spree.

The stimulus bill, for example, was not going to pass without Obama hitting the campaign trail — in Indiana and Florida — and rallying public support.

It’s a difficult balancing act, Bai concludes, and one Obama won’t easily sustain during the upcoming health care debate.

Still, I was left with a sense that — as with the election campaign — Obama’s vision has as much to do with process, and learning from the mistakes of the past, as with ideas.

There is an incredible quote from Max Baucus, the Montana Democrat who is the Senate point man on health care, and who seems pleased with Obama’s inclusive approach to lawmakers.

“How do I say this delicately?” he asked. “President Bush, he liked being president. You know, there are be-ers, and there are doers. And I think he liked being president, as opposed to doing.” Obama, on the other hand, strikes Baucus as a doer. “You’ve really got to work at it, rather than just enjoying the job,” he said.


2 Responses to “‘There are Be-ers, and There are Doers’”

  1. Loyal says:

    Obama is providing a path to getting things done, letting the things be molded by the fitters into square or round shape so they can get through the holes that otherwise are road blocks. And then he gets on teh bully pulpit as need be. I think this is what used to be known as leadership.

  2. Neurotic Dem says:

    Great point, Loyal. I agree. There’s a risk, too, as we’re already seeing on health care: institutions, individuals, and organizations (ie, the AMA), are already attacking the parts of the health care plan they don’t like, and there is not yet a political consenus on the sum of the parts. But I think overall, he is exercising leadership — as you say — at the highest level, and that gives us the best chance of getting this thing done.

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