With new chief of staff Jacob Lew, Obama might be adopting Ike's successful style of dealing with the Hill
Though a former U.S. senator, President Obama has never quite found his groove with Congress, in part because his chiefs of staff weren't the ticket to success. His first, Rahm Emanuel, a former member of the House leadership, was a neighborhood tough who bristled. Next up, businessman William Daley, was too aloof. Now, having installed his fourth (including interim chief Pete Rouse) chief in three years, Obama may have hit pay dirt with Jacob "Jack" Lew, whose nonconfrontational style, honed as an aide to then House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill, has been effective during his time as the president's budget chief. That's the conclusion of a presidential historian and veteran of the last administration—Dwight Eisenhower's—to have smooth relations with an opposition Congress.
"Presidential-congressional relations are an art form, as Ike proved," says Stephen Hess, the former Ike and Nixon aide and longtime Brookings Institution presidential scholar. "Obama organized his White House under the heavy-handed Rahm Emanuel and the uber-executive Bill Daley. Now maybe he has got it right with his newly appointed third chief of staff," says Hess, who has just penned for Brookings a detailed look at how Eisenhower did so well with Congress, a model Obama might be moving toward with his new chief. "Jack Lew, who matured at Tip O'Neill's knee, has the touch to restore some dignity to the process through which legislators and executives disagree," Hess says.
While the president still appears poised to run against Congress in his re-election bid and challenge the rules, as with his recent recess appointments, Hess spells out lessons from Eisenhower that he could follow to rebuild relations with Capitol Hill. What Ike did with congressional relations, unlike most of his successors, was turn over much of the heavy lifting to department heads, weighing in only on big issues like taxes and defense. "He had a strong sense of what belonged to the president and what belonged to Congress," says Hess.
Republican Ike also bit his tongue when talking publicly about top Democratic leaders.
Of course, Ike had something Obama doesn't: strong public approval ratings. And back then, the word of opposition leaders was solid. "When dealing with the congressional leaders, Ike's bargaining chip was his incredible popularity with the American people; what [House Speaker] Sam Rayburn and [Senate Majority Leader] Lyndon Johnson brought to the table was their ability to make commitments that were bankable. Moreover, they were often not far apart."