Sunday, February 15, 2009

Emanuel's box score: lots of runs, hits and errors

Counterbalancing the hand-wringers who were convinced throughout the stimulus bill drama that Obama had lost control of the process are those convinced that Obama brilliantly maneuvered the Republicans into exposing themselves as intellectually bankrupt ideologues and poseurs.

One of Andrew Sullivan's readers, for example, cheered an Obama
cool as a cucumber, playing his game, five steps ahead, setting up moves that won't come to fruition for months or years, while his opposition flails at the thin air where he used to be.
Kos blogger JCWilmore made a case that Obama sprang a trap on the Republicans:
Did Obama see that the Republican Party has shrunk to its most hard core activist roots? That the Republican Party has lost the ability to maneuver and make deals? Did Barack Obama know that the Republican Party was in a position where it had no choice but to pander to the very worst of its out of touch base? Did Barack Obama simply want to catch the Republican Party and its leadership on camera while it behaved badly and ignored the American peoples' desire for some kind of economic relief?... Barack Obama brought the cameras and the Republican Party and its leadership performed precisely as expected.
I don't see either of these portrayals as exactly wrong. Obama does plan 'five moves ahead,' in the sense that he develops long-range plans and sticks to them as long as they're working (see: campaign for President). He may have 'laid a trap' for Republicans to the extent of concluding that if they did reject his overtures, the rejection would probably damage them more than it did him.

But there's a tendency too for Obama's supporters, like any charismatic leader's supporters, to credit their hero with superhuman foresight and strategic acumen. Against that tendency, a postmortem from the Obama camp (mainly Rahm Emanuel) reported by Politico's Mike Allen and Jonathan Martin offers a corrective:
White House aides say they have concluded that Obama too frequently lost control of the debate and his own image during the stimulus battle. By this reckoning, the story became too much about failed efforts at bipartisanship and Washington deal-making, and not enough about the president’s public salesmanship....

Meeting with reporters Thursday night, White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel said that there were times during the stimulus debate when “I don’t think we were sharp about the benefits” of the legislation, letting Washington process dominate the message.

Reflecting as “somebody who has been in this town,” he observed that “there’s an insatiable appetite for the notion of bipartisanship here and we allowed that to get ahead of ourselves.”...

During his Thursday roundtable with print reporters, Emanuel pointed proudly to the “set of accomplishments” from Obama’s first three weeks, but acknowledged: “There are things both on the inside and the outside I would have changed.”

“Inside, being how we would have handled certain negotiations,” he explained, noting that given the size and speed of a bill with “these many moving parts, there are differences [of] interpretation.”
The process of trial, error and postmortem implicit in Emanuel's review tracks with Obama's own outline of the policymaking process as he envisions it, reported by Ronald Brownstein in National Journal:
Obama displayed the same instinct -- clarity about his goals, flexibility about his tactics -- in discussing the plan Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner unveiled this week to stabilize the banking and credit system. In the conversation, Obama reprised some of the arguments he's raised to defend the plan from the widespread reaction on Wall Street and Capitol Hill that it lacked specifics. But most interesting was the way he described the proposal as a work in progress that inexorably will evolve as conditions do. "Here's the bottom line," he said. "We will do what works. It is going to take time to lay out every aspect of this plan, and there are going to be certain aspects of any plan... which will require reevaluation and... some experimentation -- [a sense that] if that doesn't work, then you do something else."

Does that MO suggest that Obama will try something other than bipartisanship? No. Brownstein characterizes Obama as firm in his goals, flexible as to process. I was going to write here that Obama sees bipartisanship as a goal, not a tactic. But that's not exactly right; it's neither precisely. It's just hard-wired into the way he operates:
Obama said the near-unanimous Republican opposition, after all his meetings with GOP legislators, would not discourage him from reaching out again on other issues. "Going forward, each and every time we've got an initiative, I am going to go to both Democrats and Republicans and I'm going to say, 'Here is my best argument for why we need to do this. I want to listen to your counterarguments, if you've got better ideas, present them, we will incorporate them into any plans that we make and we are willing to compromise on certain issues that are important to one side or the other in order to get stuff done,'" he said.

Cooperation on the economic agenda, he suggested, may have been unusually difficult because it "touched on... one of the core differences between Democrats and Republicans" -- whether tax cuts or public spending can best stimulate growth. He predicted there may be greater opportunity for cooperation on issues such as the budget, entitlements and foreign policy. And if he keeps reaching out, he speculated, Republicans may face "some countervailing pressures" from the public "to work in a more constructive way." White House aides suggest that regardless of how congressional Republicans react on upcoming issues, Obama will pursue alliances with Republican governors and Republican-leaning business groups and leaders.

Yet while promising to continue to seek peace with congressional Republicans, Obama also made clear he's prepared for the alternative. "I am an eternal optimist [but] that doesn't mean I'm a sap," he said pointedly. "So my goal is to assume the best but prepare for a whole range of different possibilities in terms of how Congress reacts."
That sounds like a blueprint for foreign interaction as well.

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