President Obama, CVS and the “going private” theory

In 1997, political scientist Samuel Kernell advanced a theory of presidential leadership called "going public."


A man enters a CVS drugstore February 5, 2014 in Washington, DC. The second largest US drugstore chain, CVS, announced Wednesday it will stop selling cigarettes by the end of the year, a decision President Barack Obama hailed as a "powerful example."CVS said its 7,600 stores across the country will cease tobacco sales by October 1, despite the projected $2 billion loss the move will entail. AFP PHOTO / Karen BLEIERKAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images

The old mode of presidential leadership -- bargaining with Congress in order to make policy -- was no longer working, he argued. Legislators were voting less as a unit and more according to the whims of their ideology and constituency, and they no longer needed the president for press -- 24/7 television news meant there was extra air time for the taking. Presidents could adapt to this changed reality by making their case to the public instead of to Capitol Hill, hoping that the public would then get Congress to do the White House's bidding in the end. That strategy, of course, wasn't foolproof either, as the public was paying attention to the president even less than Congress was, thanks to the alternate programming to presidential pontificating afforded by the cable television boom. In 1969, 59 percent of the public watched Richard Nixon's State of the Union address. Less than 21 percent of American households with televisions watched Obama's speech last week.

What's a president to do when all their previous modes of presidential power start to evaporate? There are executive actions, but they lead to nothing but bad press from the right and, in general, the scope of what they can accomplish is limited. Obama has used them more sparingly than any of his predecessors, perhaps for this reason, and perhaps because of his political philosophy. He can embrace new ways of reaching out to the public online, but no forum exists quite yet that harnesses  the same power as primetime television, as much as that power has shrunk.

In 2014, the Obama administration seems to be experimenting with a new way of achieving its policy goals -- going private. That is, extolling the virtues of business practices it likes, hoping that the public follows suit and gets Congress on board. Like praising CVS for its decision Wednesday to stop selling cigarettes in its stores by October, or First Lady Michelle Obama's partnership with Subway. Or saying that Costco is a model for how to treat employees in today's job market and an example for how to reduce income inequality.  Or inviting Walmart, Apple, General Motors, and Ford to the White House last Friday to announce a new initiative to change hiring practices at 300 companies in a way to help the longterm unemployed. It's yet another step removed from the legislative process than even "going public" was, but if it works, "going private" could be a useful tool for a president who has had an especially difficult time getting the legislative branch to consider his policies.

Using the private sector as a way to advance public policy has the added benefit of appealing to a subsection of the country Congress is most likely to listen to -- the companies lobbying it and funding its campaigns. Besides leading the charge for healthy living, CVS employees and PACs also spend quite a bit on politics, spreading their wealth among both parties at the national and state level. Democratic and Republican campaign committees, pro-Greg Abbott super PACs, Oceans PAC -- the company has quite a diverse portfolio. Its CEO, Larry Merlo -- who has been on a media blitz today with the company's policy change -- gave $1,000 to Barack Obama in 2012. Sixteen legislators -- including Sheldon Whitehouse, Ron Wyden, Kay Hagan, and James Sensenbrenner -- own CVS stock. Costco also dabbles in politics, although along a reliably blue party line (five Republican legislators own stock in the company, as well as three Democrats). Subway employees, on the other hand, donate nearly exclusively to Republican causes. President Obama is notably bipartisan in his private-sector praise -- perhaps in an effort to make a Congress that has excelled in ignoring him finally pay attention.

Some private-sector companies have explicitly invested in the president's agenda. Yesterday Obama announced that Apple, Microsoft, Sprint and Verizon -- as well as a few other companies -- were donating over $750 million worth of services and goods to help the ConnectED initiative, which seeks to get 99 percent of the nation's schools hooked up to the Internet in the next five years. It's not the first time that the companies have given Obama a hand -- Microsoft, Apple, and Verizon employees donated handsomely to Obama's re-election effort (although Verizon has also given the White House much grief in the past few months). For someone facing constant berating for his cold shoulder to business, Obama and the private sector seem to get along pretty well.

Jaime Fuller reports on national politics for "The Fix" and Post Politics. She worked previously as an associate editor at the American Prospect, a political magazine based in Washington, D.C.
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