The Audacity of Patience

A single tactical choice early in Barack Obama's quest for the presidency set the course for all the events that followed -- Obama's securing of the Democratic nomination and surprisingly smooth path to resounding victory in the general election. After Sen. Hillary Clinton defeated him in the New Hampshire primary, rather than pouring resources into the very next primary states, Obama campaign manager David Plouffe looked weeks into the future. He deployed staff to states that wouldn't vote for another month and implemented a long, patient strategy of assembling a majority of delegates, one at a time, in friendly and unfriendly states alike.

The move broke all the rules for an insurgent candidate, which is what Obama was at the time. There is a tried-and-true strategy for insurgents -- what President George H.W. Bush in 1980 called "Big Mo" -- momentum. Only a wave of victories in early states can overcome the superior nationwide organization of an establishment candidate like Clinton, the theory goes. Insurgents can't waste time thinking about the months ahead. Momentum is a rapidly depleted resource.

Plouffe's choice was not the last time that the Obama campaign would gamble on patience and the long view, despite admonitions from those with more experience that he was blowing the moment. Only six weeks before Election Day, William Galston, a political theorist and Democratic campaign brain since the 1970s, led a chorus of public criticism, warning Obama, "You are in danger of squandering an election most of us thought was unlosable," as John McCain seemed to "win the news cycle" on too many days. Then the financial crisis broke, and while McCain was frantically trying to seize the role of bipartisan broker on an issue he knew nothing about, it was Obama's calm clarity that lured a wave of moderates, independents, centrists, and prominent Republicans into the ever-widening circle of his coalition.

Obama will need a full reservoir of that same patience in the White House, because he'll face similar frantic pressure and second-guessing. He will be surrounded by a crippling crowd of people and groups convinced that if their own No. 1 cause isn't enacted in the first 100 days, it will never happen. The conventional wisdom about the presidency is very much the same as the advice Obama was given in the primaries: Move quickly. Overwhelm the forces of the establishment. Use the momentum of the election to achieve the biggest things possible. You'll never be more powerful than on Jan. 21.

If Obama ignores this conventional wisdom, he will not do so because he's crazy or lazy but because he's taking the same approach to governing as he took to the election. It will mean he's taking the long view, gambling on patience, and carefully putting into place the pieces that win lasting majorities for progressive policies, just as he won a majority of delegates and a majority of votes in the election.

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On the day after the 2004 election, George W. Bush declared, "I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it." He announced that he would privatize Social Security and revamp the tax system by the following spring. In Bush's version of the conventional wisdom, the presidency was a rapidly depreciating financial asset, and he had to act quickly.

But Bush was wrong. The error was fatal. The collapse of his own presidency, the Republican brand, and the McCain candidacy can be traced to that moment of macho strutting as surely as to the "Mission Accomplished" moment on the USS Abraham Lincoln. The fact was Bush had earned no political capital; he had no mandate for the policies he now intended to pursue. All he had won was the raw institutional power of the presidency and control of Congress. He pushed that power further than any president before him, including Richard Nixon. And in doing so, Bush found its limits. The institutional power of the presidency, combined with a compliant one-party Congress, can start wars, enrich predatory capitalism, and destroy long-established norms, but alone it cannot do what Karl Rove aspired to, which was to build a new and lasting political order. That work requires patience and diligence.

Bush's mistake was an unsurprising one. It is rooted in the naïve idea that presidents get a mandate from their election in the same way a gyroscope gets its spin. The bigger the victory, the bigger the mandate, and as time passes, the mandate diminishes. Bush didn't have a big victory in 2004, but it was at least a solid, uncontested affirmation, and he decided that with a little extra spin and some abuse of power, he could get more out of it.

For all the romance of Franklin D. Roosevelt's first 100 days, history suggests that presidents do not get a mandate as a mechanical function of their electoral margin, but in fact they build it over time. They earn it not by winning but by governing. They assemble coalitions and use them again and again, and build institutions and make them work. While many good policies and necessary emergency measures were passed in the first 100 days of the New Deal, the innovations that lasted -- those that defined politics until Reagan -- came later, after FDR had consolidated power, forced the Supreme Court to accept a new set of assumptions about government's role in the economy, and won the 1934 mid-term election. Similarly, Reagan did not win a decisive mandate for conservative policies in 1980; rather, like Obama, he was the beneficiary of a coalition made up of equal parts support for his conservatism and revulsion at the previous administration's incompetence. It was not until August 1981, when he assembled bipartisan coalitions to pass his budget- and tax-cutting plans, that Reagan can be said to have had a mandate for conservative policies.

This is not to say that there aren't things that need to be done immediately, such as economic stimulus, closing Guantánamo, and a plan to get out of Iraq. But the changes that will bring about a new political era call for a more patient and steady approach.

Like Roosevelt and Reagan, Obama has the opportunity to become what the political scientist Stephen Skowronek calls a "reconstructive leader," a type that he notes often follows a failed presidency. "John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, James Buchanan and Abraham Lincoln, Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan -- these repeated historical pairings ... suggest nothing so much as an intimate connection between manifest incapacity and towering success in presidential leadership," Skowronek wrote the year George W. Bush was elected. Reconstructive leaders "are party builders; they use their authority to consolidate a coalition that will support the new agenda and dominate electoral politics."

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If Obama is to be a reconstructive leader, the first question is what kind of coalition he will be able to consolidate -- how broad, how sturdy, and with what at its center. Only after these questions are answered can we say what's possible in the agenda for the coming era in American politics.

No president has ever spoken as clearly and openly about coalition-building as Obama, presumably because no other president has begun his career as a community organizer. Obama's victory speeches in the primaries always had at their heart a vision of adding to and broadening the coalition. He started with a base of younger or better-educated liberal Democrats (the "wine track" voters drawn to "beautiful losers" like Gary Hart, the dead-end category where conventional thinkers like Ronald Brownstein of the National Journal were certain Obama's campaign would begin and end); then pulled in African Americans; then reached rural voters in the caucus states. Then, nomination in hand, Obama built his campaign out to encompass the white, working-class Democrats and women who had supported Hillary Clinton in the primary; then Latinos; then independents. Finally, after McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate and his foolish response to the financial crisis alienated the last sensible Republicans, the Obama coalition came to include Colin Powell and actual conservatives like Christopher Buckley, along with voters in traditionally conservative states like Indiana. And Obama did all this without losing an ounce of the enthusiasm of the younger liberals who formed the core of his coalition.

Those who were skeptical of Obama's chances, from late 2007 through the Galston call to arms in mid-September, were not without reason. They didn't question Obama's skills but doubted his, or anyone's, ability to sustain such an ever-widening coalition. Choices would have to be made, much as Bill Clinton had to scuttle his center-left coalition and form a center-right coalition to win re-election. A coalition of liberals and African Americans would alienate working-class white Democrats, Obama's detractors claimed. The coalition that outlasted Hillary Clinton in the primaries could never make peace with her furious, exhausted backers. An emphatically Democratic coalition, rooted in the vision of a strong party that began with Howard Dean's 50-state strategy, could hardly hope to attract independents. And, the skeptics maintained, Obama's language about reaching Republicans was surely nothing more than empty rhetoric, nice to say but unrealistic given the intransigent partisanship of the Republican right. Yet somehow, each new piece of the coalition fell into place without the existing base losing any numbers or enthusiasm.

Two prevailing theories about how Obama should govern seem to have emerged, and both rest on doubts about the stability of the broad coalition. One faction argues that if Obama tries to govern from the center-left, from his own agenda and the core of his constituency, he will face an immediate backlash from centrist voters and conservative Blue Dog Democrats in Congress. Clinton adviser Mark Penn, as well as many conventional thinkers in the media, argue from the experience of the Clinton presidency, urging Obama to reconstruct the centrist coalition that Clinton put together after the 1994 backlash. That, of course, is a formula for small ambitions and limited change, squandering the opportunity to build a new political era.

Liberals argue that no matter what Obama does, moderate Republicans and Blue Dogs will defect from the coalition, and wealthy lobbyists will obstruct progress. They say Obama's best hope is to act quickly and with overwhelming force -- a "liberal shock doctrine," as Rick Perlstein put it in these pages over the summer. It's a version of John Edwards' argument during the primaries: Power never gives up without a fight, so take on the fight at the peak of your own power. Get major legislation -- on health care, climate change, ending the war, and possibly fixing the tax code -- enacted quickly if sloppily, using parliamentary tricks like the budget reconciliation process as ruthlessly as Bush did. When programs like health care are facts on the ground, the thinking goes, they will acquire an enthusiastic constituency in much the way Medicare and Social Security have.

This approach has downsides as well. Like many of the McCain campaign's actions, it is a high-stakes, impatient gamble. If the shock doctrine strategy blows up in some way, the loss can be total, much like Bush's disastrous attempt to privatize Social Security without building broad support. And if the shock doctrine does succeed, legislation produced in this way can be deeply flawed, often undermining rather than building its own support. Big changes like the New Deal or Reagan's economics take time and patience; old assumptions need to be challenged and new forms of consensus built.

Given that Obama's expanding coalition was sustainable through the long journey from Iowa to Election Day, what if we assume it could be sustained and even consolidated in the White House? Rooted in the center-left, but reaching Blue Dog Democrats, independent voters, and a few Republican legislators, it would not always be the same coalition, but like Reagan's, an evolving, overlapping, flexible majority. Reagan brought in very conservative Southern Democrats to pass the first budget cuts but found common ground with liberal and moderate Democrats on the tax reform of 1986 and with each step strengthened the conservative consensus. Obama could do the same for a new liberal consensus.

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The massive resistance Republicans posed to Clinton in 1993 is impossible to imagine today. The Republican coalition is utterly shattered, and the angry white Palin wing of the party, for all its visibility, is a minority even within a minority. What's in it for a moderate Republican senator like Richard Lugar of Indiana (who tacitly endorsed Obama), Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, or Olympia Snowe of Maine to resist Obama on health care or climate change? At their age, they will never be in the majority again, and they surely don't want their legacies to be nothing but obstruction. While their support may not be needed to pass legislation, it will strengthen the sense of public consensus and consultation, just as Ted Kennedy's support of Bush's No Child Left Behind Act helped build broad acceptance of a radical change in education policy.

On the Democratic side of the coalition, the more conservative Blue Dogs of the majority are still far more liberal than the real conservative Democrats of the Clinton era, who, when they later changed parties, turned out to be among the most right-wing of Republicans. The Blue Dogs are fundamentally economic populists, albeit with a real concern about the federal budget deficit, which serves partly as a symbol of Bush-era mismanagement. But the economic crisis has brought a new consensus that, at least in the short term, the deficit should be allowed to rise, which may make coalitions involving Blue Dogs easier to build on some issues. On other issues, such as labor-law reform, a few Northern Republicans like Specter might make up for the loss of a few Blue Dogs.

To consolidate the broad coalition, Obama, like other reconstructive leaders, will have to challenge some of the assumptions and institutions that come from the old era, just as FDR couldn't make lasting change until he had broken the Supreme Court's prevailing beliefs about the limits to government involvement in the economy. Many of those assumptions are falling already. The financial bailout and failure of deregulation have broken the "Washington Consensus" about markets. The recession has broken the obsession with short-term deficit reduction, although the idea remains that a long-term crisis limits our choices. The debate about taxation in the campaign, while constrained by Obama's promise of a tax cut for everyone earning less than $150,000, by the end nonetheless revealed a broad acceptance that the better-off have more responsibility to pay for public goods, breaking the Reagan-era assumption that taxes are poison to liberal aspirations. The grueling six years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan have opened up a new willingness to see America's role not just as a matter of toughness but as a question of a shared destiny.

As the old assumptions crumble, the challenge for Obama is not just to pass legislation but to build the foundations of a new vision that is large enough to meet the new era, and bring not just political success, but, like FDR's and Reagan's long eras, the kind of consensus that lives through 30 years of Democratic and Republican administrations alike. (Or perhaps some new party yet unknown.) That's not the work of 100 days. It's not something that can be done with use of raw executive power and a congressional super-majority. It's a matter of organizing, education, and redefining the questions.

If Obama can achieve this, he will not only be another "towering success" who follows a manifest failure, he will rewrite the rules of presidential leadership, just as he rewrote the rules about building a coalition to win the White House.

In one of the first articles about Obama's political career, from when he was first running for the Illinois Senate in 1995, he is quoted as telling the crowd that "it's time for politicians and other leaders to ... see voters, residents, or citizens as producers of change. ... What if a politician were to see his job as that of an organizer, as part teacher and part advocate, one who does not sell voters short but who educates them about the real choices before them?"

That "what if?" will now be answered on the largest stage in the world.

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