Opposite Day

Every Democratic presidency since Lyndon Johnson's (that is, both of them) has followed a pattern: A fresh face enters the White House bringing new hope and big ideas, delivers his agenda to Congress, and quickly gets the back of the hand from the contemptuous grandees of his own party. With little accomplished, congressional Democrats suffer major losses in the midterm elections. Over the next two years, even less progress is made.

Barack Obama knew this. He knew it so well that the organizing principle of his administration seemed to be the Costanza Doctrine, after Seinfeld character George Costanza's insight that if everything you do turns out wrong, "then the opposite would have to be right." Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter packed their White Houses with Washington newcomers like themselves, so Obama surrounded himself with insiders like Rahm Emanuel and Tom Daschle. Clinton and Carter gave Congress detailed legislative plans, so Obama set a rough destination and let the World's Greatest Deliberative Body do its thing. Clinton and Carter counted on Democrats to deliver their agenda, so Obama started with the premise of bipartisanship.

And yet the old pattern seems to be recurring. Democratic legislators are grinding most of Obama's initiatives into dust while both moderates and liberals lose confidence in the promise of change. Political prognosticators foresee Democrats losing up to 50 House seats next year.

I will admit that I thought Obama's opposite strategy was brilliant. What did I miss?

First, I naively believed that Democrats would understand that they had a stake in Obama's success. Sure, in 1977 or 1993 smug congressional barons could afford the attitude that they had seen presidents come and presidents go and that theirs was the real power. But after several years of experiencing the most total powerlessness possible in our system of government, one would think that Democrats would appreciate that if Obama failed, they might land right back in the hole they just escaped in 2006. Instead, Democratic leaders have fallen into familiar patterns of risk-averse behavior. Corruption and lobbying certainly play a role, but so does a kind of purposeless lethargy that seems to infect leading Democrats like senators Max Baucus and Kent Conrad. It's as if they have no reason for being in office other than to win re-election. Legislators of purpose like the late Sen. Ted Kennedy or Rep. Henry Waxman are shockingly rare.

I also underestimated how long Republicans could maintain a position of total intransigence. I expected that when their strategy of pure opposition failed to produce political benefits, enough of the remaining Northern and Midwestern Republicans would cooperate with the Democrats. But at the end of the summer, the opposite had come to pass. Despite offering no alternative on health care or other issues, Republican opposition seemed to begin to pay political dividends. That's the worst news of the year.

Still, there's a lot to be said for Obama's strategy. Its greatest merit is flexibility -- it creates a number of options. All choices are reversible: If a bipartisan approach to health reform or financial regulation doesn't work, there's always the procedural fallback of passing the legislation with 51 Democratic votes in the Senate. If letting Congress write the health bill or climate-change legislation fails, the White House can always take charge.

But options only have value if at some point you're willing to exercise them by closing off other options. At a certain point, keeping options open leads to a kind of over-cautious drift, like that of Baucus and Conrad, and risks defeat.

Obama is correct that successful presidents don't dictate policies to Congress. But they do make an active choice about the terms on which they will govern. Some, like Franklin Roosevelt, ask the public to put pressure on Congress. Others, like Ronald Reagan later in his presidency and George H.W. Bush, govern through closed-door sit-downs with leaders of both parties. Others, like the early Reagan, build coalitions with just enough members of the opposition party that they can ignore its leadership. Once a president decides how to govern, priorities follow from that decision.

Obama needs to not only change his strategy on health care but to make an aggressive choice about how he intends to govern and who he intends to deal with. He needs to create some new ways to get things done in Congress and give power to members who can shake their colleagues out of their lethargy. He may also need to find new ways to bring citizens' voices into the process.

He can take consolation in the fact that most successful presidents take a while to figure out how they're going to govern and change their strategy over time. But opposite day is over.

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