The extent to which presidents avoid their predecessors' mistakes (and, too, discern the lessons of their successes) illustrates their governing style. President Obama appears to have learned several lessons from the early days of his most recent Democratic predecessors—and he seems to have missed others.
His approach to healthcare is the clearest example of a lesson well learned. President Clinton, with his wife spearheading the project, prepared an ambitious healthcare overhaul behind closed doors, with insufficient input from Congress, K Street, or the healthcare industry. Input means investment. The resulting legislation had too many vulnerable spots and too few allies. By contrast, the Obama administration started its healthcare push with a daylong White House summit earlier this month. While the cast of characters had hardly changed in 15 years, the players had never before been gathered in the same room.
Another stumbling block involved not reaching beyond the beltway. The Clinton team "quickly discovered that the Democratic Party's grass-roots operation was all but nonexistent, and much the same was the case for liberal and progressive interest groups," recalls William Galston, a Clinton adviser. "The Obama administration believes that it has learned a lesson from that failure."
Indeed: The Obama campaign's powerful grass-roots apparatus has been transplanted into the Democratic National Committee and is now called Organizing for America. It recently got its first marching orders, sending volunteers door-to-door around the country, campaign style, on behalf of the president's budget. And just as important, progressives used the Bush years to build nonparty grass-roots organizations that can also help the president. The group Americans United for Change, for example, started running television ads this week aimed at pressuring moderate, budget-hawk, Democratic senators to support the president's budget.
Obama and his advisers also avoided a classic Jimmy Carter mistake. Carter had barely arrived in Washington before he started picking fights with his congressional Democratic supporters on what he viewed as wasteful spending, specifically dams and other water projects (the 1970s equivalent of earmarks). The fight spoiled Carter's relations with his allies and helped doom his presidency.
After vowing as a candidate to change Washington, Obama took heat for a recent spending package that had roughly 8,500 earmarks. But it made better sense for the president to reluctantly sign the bill than to argue over a relatively insignificant amount of money. Governing involves choosing between competing priorities. On earmarks, he chose, and he chose wisely.
But the president is not choosing among his agenda items. "I know there are some who believe we can only handle one challenge at a time," Obama said on March 10. "We don't have the luxury of choosing between getting our economy moving now and rebuilding it over the long term." Introducing his budget a week later, he admonished naysayers by noting that the American people face many problems. "They have to confront all these problems, and as a consequence, so do we," he said.
Maybe so. This attitude dovetails with White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel's maxim that one should never let a good crisis go to waste (a strategy the George W. Bush administration employed, sometimes with actual crises, to mixed effect). But here again is the failed path of Jimmy Carter, who tried to do too much too fast and accomplished little. There is no question that the American president, Congress, and people have to juggle several issues at once. But passing sweeping reforms requires concentration and focus from all. And pressing on several fronts means not only navigating occasionally conflicting alliances (the coalition that helps with healthcare reform, for example, might be opposed to banking regulation) but also opening up multiple vulnerable areas.
If you're playing defense on numerous fronts, it is harder to maintain control of the agenda. If governing is about making choices, constantly reacting to the day's events is a symptom of lingering campaign mode. The permanent campaign is endemic to today's politics, but the Obama team should remember that an inability to successfully move past the election hurt the early Clinton administration. "I think they're still probably shifting gears," says Al From, the departing head of the Democratic Leadership Council. "You've got to always have a little bit of campaign mode in you because you can't let the debate get completely out of control, but on the other hand, you can't let Keith Olbermann set your policy, or Lou Dobbs."