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Monday, February 8, 2010

when the dominos don't fall

This article argues that Obama has a too insular inner-circle which shuts out even members of his own cabinet from policy decisions (with special ire directed at Rahm):
Administration insiders say the famously irascible Mr Emanuel treats cabinet principals like minions. "I am not sure the president realises how much he is humiliating some of the big figures he spent so much trouble recruiting into his cabinet," says the head of a presidential advisory board who visits the Oval Office frequently. "If you want people to trust you, you must first place trust in them."

Not being there it's hard to gauge how valid these complaints are, but even from an outsiders vantage point, this certainly rings true:

Then there are the president's big strategic decisions. Of these, devoting the first year to healthcare is well known and remains a source of heated contention. Less understood is the collateral damage it caused to unrelated initiatives. "The whole Rahm Emanuel approach is that victory begets victory - the success of healthcare would create the momentum for cap-and-trade [on carbon emissions] and then financial sector reform," says one close ally of Mr Obama. "But what happens if the first in the sequence is defeat?"

Insiders attribute Mr Obama's waning enthusiasm for the Arab-Israeli peace initiative to a desire to avoid antagonising sceptical lawmakers whose support was needed on healthcare. The steam went out of his Arab-Israeli push in mid-summer, just when the healthcare bill was running into serious difficulties.

The same applies to reforming the legal apparatus in the "war on terror" - not least his pledge to close the Guantánamo Bay detention centre within a year of taking office. That promise has been abandoned.

"Rahm said: 'We've got these two Boeing 747s circling that we are trying to bring down to the tarmac [healthcare and the decision on the Afghanistan troop surge] and we can't risk a flock of f***ing Canadian geese causing them to crash,' " says an official who attended an Oval Office strategy meeting. The geese stood for the closure of Guantánamo.

An outside adviser adds: "I don't understand how the president could launch healthcare reform and an Arab-Israeli peace process - two goals that have eluded US presidents for generations - without having done better scenario planning. Either would be historic. But to launch them at the same time?"

Again, close allies of the president attribute the problem to the campaign-like nucleus around Mr Obama in which all things are possible. "There is this sense after you have won such an amazing victory, when you have proved conventional wisdom wrong again and again, that you can simply do the same thing in government," says one. "Of course, they are different skills. To be successful, presidents need to separate the stream of advice they get on policy from the stream of advice they get on politics. That still isn't happening."

I actually loved that Obama moved on all fronts to address all these pressing issues, but certainly in hindsight it's looking like a risky strategy.

And, completely unrelated, here's a nice image in honor of J.D.:


Jim said...

I have two problems with second-guessing the decision to do healthcare in the first year. First, would another time have been better? The second year? No...because apparently Congress can't be bothered to work on important stuff in an election year. Which also rules out the 4th year. So the 3rd year then? But what do Democrats say they've done with their "supermajority" in the meantime? And what if you lose it before you have a chance to use it?

Second, from what was known at the time (summer), health reform seemed eminently doable. And it was. And it should've been done. So, in the sense that there was a risk that Congress would screw it up, yeah, it was risky. But surely the political risk of ignoring HCR was as big or bigger. Not to mention the substantive damage done by ignoring the country's biggest problem for another year, two, three.

Lee said...

I also just kind of dislike second-guessing these things because of course its so easy for us to do so, especially now that things haven't gone well, but of course its hard to actually do stuff, especially without the benefit of hindsight. So its kind of cheap.

But, nevertheless, I'll bite: what if, instead of HCR, Obama had tackled, in bundled form: energy/climate/jobs? Of course there was already some good stuff in the stimulus, but I could imagine him making the case that heading off global warming and getting the economy moving again are inextricably linked, and putting forward a Cap and Trade / Green jobs bill to address them both simultaneously.

And bank regulatory reform would have been nice as well. It's worth doing, but perhaps more importantly for the optics of it, because as it is most people just see bailouts, and no punishment for the people who screwed everything up.

I basically agree with Rahm's idea that big successes can create momentum for even more success. I obviously feel HCR is very important, but given the laundry list or world crises we have to address getting some momentum going is more important than any individual issue... but now HCR has stalled and everything's in jeopardy.

Now I'm certainly open to the idea that the problem is not so much that they started with HCR, but that they didn't handle the issue well (i.e. allowed it to bog down last summer). But clearly things haven't been going great, so some second guessing is almost required.

Jim said...

I'm okay with cheap. I like cheap.

Seems to me the climate bill has always been politically more problematic than healthcare. So if the success-begets-success principle should be the guide, energy might not have been the best alternative. Maybe financial reform...but I have to say, it's a bit boring...and it would feel like expending all Obama's political momentum on cleaning up after the Bush years. (Funny, though, the House had no trouble passing *all three* of these bills.)

I think there's a good case to be made that the summer/fall delay in the Senate was actually a political plus, on balance, because it gave cover to moderates looking for ways to support the bill. But still, if we could have just one of those weeks back...we were there.