Ron Brownstein’s post, “Obama And The Supertanker” at The National Journal takes a look at the President’s overall philosophy and strategy of change and offers some illuminating observations about his leadership style. Brownstein begins by noting Obama’s consistent advocacy of “comprehensive, big bang” health care reform in response to his chief of staff’s more cautious incremental recommendations:
…Emanuel said he has intermittently provided Obama his assessment of “the equities” in more- and less-ambitious approaches, especially “given everything [else] we’re trying to do.” He continued, “This is what I’m supposed to do as chief of staff. But he has… always said, ‘This is what needs to be done,’ and he has said he is willing to pay the political price to get it done.”
…Win or lose, Obama has pursued health care reform as tenaciously as any president has pursued any domestic initiative in decades. Health care has now been his presidency’s central domestic focus for a full year. That’s about as long as it took to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, originally introduced by John F. Kennedy and driven home by Lyndon Johnson. Rarely since World War II has a president devoted so much time, at so much political cost, to shouldering a single priority through Congress. It’s reasonable to debate whether Obama should have invested so heavily in health care. But it’s difficult to quibble with Emanuel’s assessment that once the president placed that bet, “He has shown fortitude, stamina, and strength.”
Brownstein sees Obama as a big-picture thinker, whose
…aim is to establish a long-term political direction — one centered on a more activist government that shapes and polices the market to strengthen the foundation for sustainable, broadly shared growth. Everything else — the legislative tactics, even most individual policies — is negotiable. He wants to chart the course for the supertanker, not to steer it around each wave or decide which crates are loaded into its hull.
Obama’s core health care goals have been to establish the principle that Americans are entitled to insurance and to build a framework for controlling costs by incentivizing providers to work more efficiently. He has been unwavering about that destination but flexible and eclectic in his route. He has cut deals with traditional adversaries, such as the drug industry, and confronted allies to demand an independent Medicare reform commission. But Obama has also waged unconditional war on the insurance industry. He has negotiated and jousted with Senate Republicans. He has deferred (excessively at times) to congressional Democratic leaders but has also muscled them at key moments. He has pursued the liberal priority of expanded coverage through a centrist plan that largely tracks the Republican alternative to Clinton’s 1993 proposal.
Browstein quotes Yale University political scientist Stephen Skowronek, who argues that Team Obama embraces both a “consensual and confrontational” leadership style, “bringing everybody to the table [for] rational, pragmatic decision-making,” followed by “wrenching confrontation” — such as that embraced by “the most consequential presidents,’ including Lincoln and FDR.
Brownstein believes that Obama “…will continue to seek broad coalitions on some issues (education, energy, immigration) while accepting, even welcoming, greater partisan conflict on others (financial reform)…” But overall, says Brownstein, “The constant is Obama’s determination to turn the supertanker — and his Reagan-like willingness to bet his party’s future on his ability to sell the country on the ambitious course he has set.”
It appears we have a President who is also a strategic thinker, and today the results look very good indeed.