Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Reagan-Obama contrast

Stephen Hayward is out with his study of the Reagan presidency, The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution 1980-1989. It sounds like a well-needed history of the era. IN light of the second 100 days of the Obama administration and the constant hoopla by fans such as Doris Kearns Goodwin about what a consequential president Obama will be, Hayward writes in Forbes to contrast the beginnings of the two presidents' approach to legislation. The difference is key.
Obama made one other mistake that Reagan avoided. Though it is true that Reagan concentrated on only one large item in his first-year agenda (the tax and budget cuts), while Obama is trying to "do too much," the deeper problem is that Obama lost control of the details of his agenda. He didn't just lose control--he inexplicably gave it away. Starting with the stimulus in January and continuing with the cap and trade bill--and now the health care reform plan--Obama surrendered the details to Congress to work out. Reagan never did that. He may have bargained with individual members of Congress, but he always made sure Congress faced an up-or-down vote on his plan, and he attacked alternative bills that came out of the congressional sausage factory and favor machine.

Perhaps Obama may have thought that it was necessary to allow Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, Barney Frank and other Democrats--restless after eight years of President George W. Bush--room to run wild. But this illuminates another key difference between Reagan and Obama--an important element in the former president's statecraft that nearly everyone has overlooked.

Throughout his presidency, Reagan had to resist strong pressure from his own party to change course. One of the startling aspects of Reagan's personal diary is how critical he was of congressional Republicans. He complained about his own party as often as he did Democrats and the media, and we know from various sources that he often had vigorous arguments in the Oval Office with other members of the GOP. Reagan understood that short-term concerns--chiefly reelection and servicing interest groups--dominate the minds of members of Congress. So far there is no evidence that Obama has stood up to his own party on the Hill over anything; to the contrary, Obama is so concerned about not repeating Jimmy Carter's bad relations with Hill Democrats that he is letting them lead him around by the nose. This is a formula for a mediocre presidency.

Placed next to Reagan, Obama presents a picture of a politician with formidable gifts and vision, but weak and indecisive leadership.
We've yet to see real leadership from President Obama; instead we see over and over again a strange sort of passivity. He outsources major legislation to the Congress. And when his administration takes a consequential step such as it did this week on ordering a special prosecutor to investigate CIA interrogations, as Jennifer Rubin points out, the President is abandoning all responsibility for the decision as if Eric Holder is operating off totally by himself without any oversight from the White House on such a major decision that was seemingly contrary to Obama's previous statements about looking forward not backwards.
Commenting on the criticisms by Vice President Dick Cheney, the Washington Post reports:
A senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, called Cheney’s comments “off base” and took umbrage at the idea that Obama had personally allowed Durham to expand his inquiry. “This was not something the White House allowed, this was something the AG decided,” the official said, referring to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.
This is bizarre and simply false. Obama is the president and can make the call to—well, look forward instead of backward. If in fact Holder is acting contrary to the president’s wishes in relitigating cases, further imperiling our intelligence agencies, and setting a dangerous precedent that prosecutorial decisions are never final, then he should be fired. But one would have to be foolish indeed to believe that on an issue of such consequence Holder is defying the White House.