Historical comparisons, particularly between presidents, can be notoriously misleading, primarily because no two presidents govern in exactly the same context. Instead, I have often argued that each presidency is best viewed as sui generis. Still, this is not to deny that previous presidencies may provide some insights into issues related to the current officeholder. In that vein, it is increasingly clear to me that the closest modern analogue to President Obama – focusing only on leadership style – is Jimmy Carter.
Let me reiterate: my concern here is with Obama’s approach to governing, and not on his likely political fate or place in the presidential pantheon. That is, I am not saying that Obama will go down in history as a one-term president of dubious historical ranking. Instead, my comparison here is between Carter’s and Obama’s governing ethos. The evidence is still impressionistic, of course, but three years into Obama’s first term, the cumulative details that have emerged so far suggest he is a president who leads not on the basis of a core set of political convictions or principles, but instead by laying out policy solutions developed on their merits and then trusting that others will follow his lead primarily due to the logic of his argument. The latest evidence that this is Obama’s preferred style comes in this in-depth Washington Post story by Scott Wilson. Published two days ago, Wilson’s article describes Obama as “a political loner who prefers policy over the people who make politics in this country work.” That approach, according to Wilson, led Obama and his key advisers to focus primarily on the substance of policy problems, confident that they could make the case for their proposed solutions on the merits alone. Wilson writes, “In the first two years, the phrase I heard often in the White House was ‘Good policy makes for good politics.’” In so doing, however, they downplayed the need to engage in the type of outreach to experienced politicians whose advice might have helped temper Obama’s policy ambitions by injecting a dose of political realism. It was a leadership strategy, Wilson opines, that “seemed based on a naive reading of a hyperpartisan capital.”
Wilson’s description of Obama’s leadership style hews quite closely to previous accounts that also describe the president as “problem solver in chief.” See, for example, Ron Suskind’s Confidence Men, which focuses on how Obama made economic policy, and Bob Woodward’s Obama’s War, which describes the decision process leading to the “surge and withdraw” Afghan policy. Both paint portraits of a President who helped craft complex policies that, although reflecting a substantive logic, often seemed to lack any ideological cohesion or animating principle. The same argument can be made regarding Obama’s signature domestic accomplishment, health care reform, as well as the economic stimulus package. Facing very complex policy problems, Obama typically and quite understandably sought comprehensive solutions that often merged elements of different plans based on different political principles. While evincing a superficial political pragmatism, this approach also meant that few political actors felt fully vested in the entirety of any of Obama’s major policy initiatives.
This portrait of a President who has “supreme confidence in his intellectual abilities and faith in the power of good public policy” is not without historical precedent; as Obama implicitly acknowledged to Suskind, he shares Jimmy Carter’s and Bill Clinton’s policy wonkishness “disease”. The comparison to Carter is particularly apt, a point that became increasingly clear to me after spending several days this past January immersed in files at the Carter Library. Carter, another very intelligent man, also believed that leadership was best exercised by crafting policy solutions based on their substance, and then counting on others to recognize the intellectual merits of the President’s position. Not surprisingly, Carter’s supreme belief in his own persuasive powers was rooted in part in his surprise victory in the 1976 campaign, one that saw Carter defy conventional wisdom to defeat more seasoned opponents. Bolstered by that win, Carter and his senior campaign aides entered office convinced that they would win over Washington in the same manner as they won election: by eschewing traditional politicking based on bargaining and coalition building in favor of a new style of leadership that sought to rise above partisan politics and instead focused on solving problems.
If Wilson is to be believed, this was precisely the attitude adopted by Obama and his senior staff during their first days in office: “To veterans of the campaign, though, it was more a matter of Washington not understanding the leadership upgrade that had just taken place. ‘He’s playing chess in a town full of checkers players,’ a senior adviser and campaign veteran told me in the first months of the administration.” With hindsight, it is easy to dismiss this as the overconfident – arrogant? – musing of a campaign adviser fresh off a historic election victory. But, in fact, it was a belief shared by thousands of Obama’s most fervent supporters, who were certain that because he was a supremely intelligent person (and, not incidentally, one who possessed none of the crippling temperamental defects of his predecessor) he could somehow bring a new style of political leadership to Washington, one that transcended partisan politics.
I should be clear here: there is nothing intrinsically wrong, in theory, with the Obama/Carter problem-solving approach to governing. I am not dismissing the utility of bringing smart people to Washington, and relying on them to devise solutions to complex policy problems. The difficulty, however, is that it is almost always true that the president’s policy solutions fall short of the mark, because the problems they are designed to solve are so complex , and the powers the president wields are so limited. When that happens, presidents must hope they have a reservoir of political support on which they can depend during the political hard times. A presidency crafted primarily on a problem-solving ethos, however, rather than on a carefully honed and clearly articulated political philosophy, often lacks that political foundation, and will find itself struggling to define itself in the face of political adversity and failed policies. If you are elected as a problem solver, and problems endure, you have little left on which to base your case for reelection.
This, I think, is where in part the presidencies of Clinton and Carter – both of whom were elected in part because of their policy wonkishness – diverged. When the Republicans took over Congress in 1994, Clinton found his political voice in part by positioning himself as the bulwark against Republican extremism. He stood for a political ethos that opposed Republican policy proposals whose goal seemed not to mend the social safety net, but to end it. Carter, who “enjoyed” Democratic congressional majorities throughout his first term, had no such opportunity to define what he stood for.
Of course, there was a more fundamental reason for Clinton’s victory in 1996, and Carter’s defeat in 1980: in the former case, the public perceived that the economy was picking up steam. It remains to be seen whether Obama will experience similar good fortune. The fear is that, in the absence of tangible evidence of an economic upswing, and having governed as a political pragmatist, Obama will have little in the way of a built-in political coalition on which to rely come November, 2012.