Jewish Journal

Rethinking Obama

How Obama can get Democrats together, productively.

by Raphael J. Sonenshein

Posted on Feb. 12, 2010 at 4:01 pm

I have been feeling angry and alienated as I watch the Democrats in Washington fritter away their electoral mandate. I’ve been asking why Barack Obama can’t be more like Harry S. Truman. I’ve been watching the party’s fortunes cascade downward toward an electoral catastrophe in November.

But I have had an epiphany. Reading “The Audacity to Win,” David Plouffe’s book about the 2008 campaign, it hit me that Barack Obama is not Truman. He is Barack Obama. And when I started to think about Obama’s leadership style, I decided that expecting him to be Truman is pointless and that there is a great deal to appreciate in Obama’s style. Ultimately, though, it is a style that will require improvements to be successful.

Obama is a new kind of leader who has yet to find the best way to make his special skills translate into political power. Even as he gains traction politically, as he has been doing in recent weeks, he will have to solve the problem of how to lead his party to victory in November. He cannot really succeed without a strong party working with him.

I think there is a way of getting there.

In expecting Obama to lead like his predecessors, we miss the reality that his leadership style is horizontal, not hierarchical — the executive style most of us are used to seeing. Obama’s style of leadership is more contemporary, built on setting forth broad principles and then mediating among contending forces to implement his vision. Using the tools of community organizing, he reaches out to opponents and understands their positions. In the process he aims to draw out the best from people, without one person dominating.

In the workplace, we are seeing new styles of leadership replacing the traditional top-down CEO. Much of this is due to the advancement to executive positions of women and other formerly excluded groups. We are finding that different ways of leading are just as effective, if not more so, than traditional command-and-control. I myself have greatly prospered from working in settings with nontraditional leaders — women or members of other groups less favored in power circles — and have seen how well this model can work.

I doubt that Obama could have become the first nonwhite person (not just the first African American) to break into the exclusive White House club if he had a command-and-control style. A black Harry Truman would have been portrayed by an apoplectic media as the “New Angry Black Man.” Obama’s remarkable ability to explain both sides of the racial divide in his high-wire speech in Philadelphia is a vivid example of his ability. It saved his candidacy.

And this style can be tough. At key points in the campaign Obama demonstrated how tough he can be, as when he refused to join Hillary Clinton and John McCain in their demagogic proposal for a summer break in the gas tax, or to succumb to McCain’s challenge to cancel a presidential debate because of the economic crisis. His recent dramatic visit to the House Republican Caucus revealed a unique political style that reminds me of what Tom Bradley’s chief aide, Maury Weiner, once told me about his boss: “People mistake civility for weakness.” Pirates won’t make the same mistake again.

In other words, you can be tough without being Gen. Patton. It’s very 21st century. In fact, this may help explain Obama’s great popularity among young people, who are growing up around different leadership styles. If, as one wag once said, the young Al Gore was an adult’s idea of what a young person should be, Obama may be a young person’s idea of what a grown up should be today.

We’re seeing this play out in real time, but the presidency is a risky place to try out new styles. Washington is not used to it. And though the public seems to respond well, and Obama’s own ratings as a strong leader are remarkably high given the political problems he is facing, his party is not prospering, and there are great — and realistic — fears of electoral catastrophe in 2010. If the elections were held today, the Democrats would suffer devastating losses.

As I see it, Obama needs to make an adjustment to his style in order to help his party help him. If he is going to bring a new leadership style to D.C., he’s got to make it work.

The key to a mediating approach is that the leader/mediator has to be positioned in just the right spot between contending forces and then get them to take collective action. Pick the wrong spot to place your mediating tools, and you will fail. In his first year, Obama placed himself in the wrong spot; however, if he moves over to a new spot, things will change for the better.

Washington’s government today is made up of three main players: The liberal Democrats, quite powerful in the House of Representatives, which I’ll call player No. 1. The moderate/conservative Democrats, nicknamed Blue Dogs, more powerful in the Senate than in the House, player No. 2. Finally, there is the Republican Party, which is highly unified in both House and Senate, which I will treat as player No. 3.

As any skilled negotiator knows, it is better to mediate between two forces than three. Two’s company; three’s a crowd. So a choice must be made. The third player gets left out in the cold.

In Obama’s first year, he placed himself as the active mediator between the Blue Dogs and the Republicans — players No. 2 and No. 3. So we draw a circle around them. (See Chart No. 1.)

Obama’s desire to broker an agreement between conservative Democrats, especially in the Senate, and the Republicans has been his prime goal, and has generated the most commitment from the White House. The result has been that player No. 3, the liberal Democrats, have been ignored. Little White House energy has been exerted to win their agreement.

How did this happen? It was likely a combination of Obama’s genuine belief that he could achieve bipartisan agreements and the Clintonite influence of his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel. In the Clinton era, the key for Democrats was to avoid the liberal label and to cloak any liberal policies in conservative support. Emanuel is known for dropping “F bombs” on people, but to my knowledge, he has reserved this honor for liberals, never for Blue Dogs or Republicans. Recently, he had to apologize for calling liberals “retarded.” He did not apologize to liberals, but those who were offended by the term “retarded.”

Let’s see how this played out in health care. The House moved quickly, and its liberal committee chairs did their research and reported out a solid bill that won an excellent Congressional Budget Office score. But since they were outside the circle, the White House showed little interest. Then Senate liberals did the same thing, and good bills emerged from their committees. The Democrats created the basis for a major victory with most committees on board. But the White House did not talk much about the liberals’ achievement, because they remained outside the circle. Nobody in the Democratic base was told much about the great work being done by liberal members of Congress. Though the Democrats were working effectively, nobody knew it. If a tree falls in the woods and nobody’s there to hear it….

Then, the Senate Finance Com. emerged with Blue Dog centrist Senator Max Baucus’ Gang of Six seeking bipartisan agreement. Suddenly, the health care debate had moved inside the circle. The White House became wide-awake and engaged, praising the committee and the group and telling one and all that here is where the real bill will be written. Senate Democrats, already puffed up with their own importance, mistook doing nothing for wisdom, dithering for deliberation. They were encouraged in this view by Emanuel.

The Finance Committee process became a tragic joke, with Baucus dragging it out, and the Republicans playing the Democrats for time. The Gang of Six held up the bill long enough for Republicans to rally the tea parties in August, and by fall, they had driven the bill into a full stall. So for Democrats, half the year was spent getting the work done and being ignored, and half the year being stalled while the public was watching. A bill finally passed the Senate only after several Blue Dog senators humiliated the leadership by making excessive demands. Emanuel directed Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to give Joe Lieberman everything he wanted to get to 60 votes to end a filibuster.

It didn’t take long for the electoral consequences to kick in. The Democratic base was dangerously demoralized, and a generally successful Congress was easy to label as ineffective. Every day that Max Baucus or some other Blue Dog senator appeared on television explaining why nothing can be done was a clear message to the Democratic base that there is no reason whatsoever to vote for Democrats for Congress. Democratic fecklessness made it hard to communicate to the public the nature of Republican obstructionism.

So how can this be fixed? It will take a simple shift of the focal point, which, if pursued with determination, will change everything. The change in focus may not save the Democrats in 2010, but it could help cut the party’s losses and build a plan for the administration’s and the party’s long-term success.

Let’s redraw the circle, and place Obama between the liberal Democrats and the Blue Dog Democrats. He will be just as much a mediator, in the middle, in this position, because despite the belief among liberals that Obama has sold them out and despite the depiction of him as a radical leftist by the Republicans, he did not run as a liberal ideologue. He ran as a pragmatist. Many liberals simply projected their own beliefs onto him. He can become, therefore, an honest broker between the party’s ideological wings. (See Chart No. 2.)

In this model, Obama’s professional goal, what he does every day at the office, is to forge agreements between these two sides of the Democratic Party, pushing each and not letting either one get away with dithering or with proposing bad ideas. The model Obama used with the House Republicans, “I will listen to your ideas, but they had better be good ones” takes exactly the right tone.

Where now does the dithering senator go? The Republicans are out of the circle, so now the Blue Dogs have nowhere to hide. I predict that if Obama can change the debate in this way, Blue Dog senators will try desperately to get Republicans back into the room, because they do not want to be outed as the real obstacles to success.

With the Republicans, not the liberal Democrats, out of the circle, the Republicans will have to work harder to get attention. The door for them to play a role is left open, should they desire to walk in. But the price of admission is a good idea and a willingness to back it up with a vote. But there will still be no logical reason for them to offer one up. Even if a Republican member wanted to vote with Obama, he or she would be looking toward a primary challenge, where the Republican base will have the power. By contrast, no matter how lame the Senate Democrats are, they will rise and fall with the Democratic agenda’s success. And an effective Democratic Congress will be able to highlight Republican obstruction.

Right now, Democrats are suffering everywhere in Congressional races, but it is the Blue Dogs, like Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, who are dead in the water, disliked by Republicans and deserted by Democrats. For the Senate Democrats to win, it is a matter of clarifying their interests, whereas for Republicans, it is a matter of accepting that their obstruction is perfectly rational.

Democrats in Congress are not stupid politicians. But they have, for many decades, lived as if the fortunes of their party do not affect their own political fortunes. That may be why it is so difficult to give them advice on how the party could be more successful. They don’t think that advice has anything to do with them.

But nowadays when a Democratic senator from the Northeast caves in, or announces that nothing can be done, it demoralizes Democratic voters in the Northwest and jeopardizes a colleague’s re-election. When a liberal Congressperson pops off, it may make it harder for a colleague in a border state to survive. And when the president’s agenda is working and seen as successful, every Democrat benefits. The knowledge that the party underlies individual success is the strongest message that Ronald Reagan brought to the Republican Party, and it may explain why so far 41 Republicans have been able to unite to effectively intimidate 59 Democrats and Independents in the Senate. It will take a Democratic president to make the point that unity in the party is essential and achievable.

This revised focus would offer the public a thoughtful, committed group of Democrats working day and night to get something done, while the Republicans sit on the sidelines. With Obama pushing, the liberals can’t posture about their dream bills, and the conservatives can’t hide behind the Republicans. They will be governing. It’s like those signs on the highway: “Your tax dollars at work.” It will visibly be: “Your Democrats at work.”

This is not about ideology, at least among Democrats. There is plenty of room among Democrats for a wide range of ideological beliefs. It is also not a way to help liberals to even the score with conservatives. This is about making the Democrats a productive, practical governing party. Voters care far less about which ideology wins than about which party can effectively solve problems. To get Republicans to vote for Obama’s proposals, the best way is not to negotiate with them to make bills weaker, but to negotiate among Democrats to develop legislation that would make Republican opposition politically costly.

Obama ran for the presidency saying he would change Washington. He thought changing Washington meant ending partisan strife. But in reality, his strategy has been based on the traditional Washington assumption that only Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats matter (watch who gets onto the Sunday talk shows). So if he follows my advice, he could actually challenge the prevailing wisdom.

The White House should encourage the Democratic leadership, especially in the Senate, to be tough. Challenge the rules and norms of the Senate. Talk about using the reconciliation process. Embarrass those who posture. Remind the members that they will all rise and fall together. No more excuses. A united party can get its way, no matter how many seats its majority contains.

This will not be easy to accomplish. After all, the White House helped create this situation. And congressional Democrats are by nature nervous and risk averse.

In his State of the Union address, Obama called out Democratic senators to get moving. He praised the House for moving things forward. These are good steps, but what was striking was that it was the first time he had defended the House or challenged the Senate. It will take consistency, determination and a lot of behind-the-scenes muscle to make the new posture stick. It’s never too late to make things right.

But this change cannot be achieved through speeches and pep talks alone. It will only happen through roll-up-the-sleeves work in the trenches. This football game won’t be won until some uniforms get scuffed up.

Emanuel, the chief of staff with brilliant tactical instincts, will have to decide if he is going to fight this new approach or join it. Is he willing to help President Obama lead a new, successful Democratic party, or will he fight a rear-guard action to keep the old model alive? Obama needs Emanuel’s negotiating skills, and he needs his oar pulling in the right direction.

If Obama pulls this off, he will be the leader he promised to be. And he will get things done. He doesn’t have to be LBJ, or Truman or FDR. He just has to be the best Obama he can be.

That will be more than enough.

Chair of the Division of Politics, Administration, and Justice at Cal State Fullerton

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