The Barack Obama Administration Should Make Change Gradual

The president-elect should take lessons from his predecessors about how to advance an agenda.

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A few weeks after the 1994 election—the one in which the "Republican Revolution" ended six decades of Democratic rule in the House of Representatives—I got a chance to interview the new House speaker, Newt Gingrich.

The Republicans had seized the House, in part, because Bill and Hillary Clinton had failed to persuade the public and Congress to pass a comprehensive healthcare bill.

There was massive public support for universal health insurance, Gingrich conceded. But the Clinton approach—one massive bill—left too big a target, the speaker said.

Americans could not comprehend what the legislation would do, and what it would mean to them, and were easily convinced by the insurance companies and HMOs and other affected interests that the wiser and safer course was to do nothing.

"They should have done it piece by piece," said Gingrich. Had the Clintons broken their big reform package into manageable chunks and shepherded them through Congress, year by year, they would have had an easier time selling each change to the public and made it harder for the Republicans—and the special interests—to pick them apart.

I bring this up because the Obama transition team, and the Democratic leaders in Congress, are said to be making lists of priorities for the new presidency.

And there is a debate, it is said, between those who want to move forward on a wide range of major policy initiatives and those who think it best to focus on a few big-ticket items.

This is another one of those false choices that the Obama team should ignore.

There is a crying need for reform in so many areas of American government that the Obama administration does not have the luxury—like, say, the Reagan administration in 1980—to focus on one big tax and budget bill, at the expense of other needs.

Yet there is definitely wisdom in prioritizing. Jimmy Carter's administration tried to do too much, at the same time, with too many "major" initiatives.

John Podesta and Rahm Emmanuel were Clinton aides and don't need me to remind them. But the wisest course for the new president may very well be to follow the advice offered by Newt Gingrich. He should advance on a wide number of fronts, but with manageable, digestible proposals.

And so bring change piece by piece.

  • Click here to read more by John Aloysius Farrell.
  • Click here to read more about the Obama transition.
  • Click here to read more about the Obama administration.