Campaign Gives Some Clues to How Obama Will Govern
Thursday, November 6, 2008
President-elect Barack Obama proved one of the most formidable political candidates of the modern era, but his résumé is one of the shortest of any recent incoming president, and so knowing for sure the kind of chief executive he will make is something that will have to wait until he takes office in January.
Obama has not had to demonstrate his skills as a negotiator with balky members of Congress. He has met with foreign leaders, but little is known about how he would handle himself in such gatherings. He has faced no crisis akin to what a president can expect. He has steadfastly resisted outlining how the dramatically altered economic and fiscal environment will affect his governing agenda. He has skirted some of the tough questions he'll face in the early weeks of his presidency, particularly on spending.
Still, there are enough clues to an Obama presidency in the 21-month campaign he waged to win the White House to provide a preliminary assessment.
The analogy between campaigning and governing is imperfect, but with the techniques of the permanent campaign increasingly shaping the modern presidency, the gap is far less than it was a generation ago. Some presidential scholars, political strategists and Obama advisers say his disciplined, cohesive, technology-based and well-oiled campaign may prove a model for the kind of presidency he hopes to have.
For a candidate who began as a novice on the national stage, Obama proved remarkably steady, anchored and unruffled. Those personal attributes, if they are indicative of presidential character, could provide the ballast that any administration needs when turbulence hits -- as it did at various times during the campaign. His temperament as a candidate suggests a president not given to highs and lows, and his campaign foreshadows a White House more orderly than those of the two most recent Democratic presidents, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.
When others doubted his candidacy in the summer and fall of 2007, Obama stayed true to the course he and his advisers had set at the start of the campaign. When he suffered setbacks at the hands of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in this year's primaries, he made readjustments without rancor and kept moving forward. When the financial markets cratered in September, and Sen. John McCain scurried in different directions in response, the measured reaction by Obama and his campaign helped persuade doubters about his fitness to be president.
"They reacted very well under those circumstances, almost a model presidential candidate reaction, compared to McCain, who reacted as a maverick senator," said political scientist and presidential scholar Charles O. Jones.
If nothing else, Obama demonstrated enormous talent as a communicator, another key to the modern presidency. Ronald Reagan, a master in front of the camera, is seen as the model against which other presidents are measured. Bill Clinton, though different from Reagan, also was extraordinarily gifted in his ability to connect with people. Obama's greatest rhetorical gifts have been on display before huge audiences -- 125,000 Tuesday night in Chicago's Grant Park, 200,000 in Berlin, 80,000 at Invesco Field in Denver when he accepted his party's nomination. Unknown is whether he can be equally compelling in smaller and more intimate settings, or as persuasive addressing the nation from the Oval Office in a time of crisis.
During the campaign, Obama spoke about the need for an ambitious agenda to dramatically expand health care and wean America off its dependence on foreign oil. He has outlined a big package of middle-class tax cuts, favors a sizable stimulus package to spur economic growth and has embraced the government's $700 billion intervention to shore up financial institutions. The debate that is coming will be over how large his early agenda will be and how quickly he will move to try to enact it.
One adviser noted that there is a difference between being bold and being rash, suggesting that, as president, Obama will set big goals for the country but with a realistic timetable. Obama more than hinted at that in his victory speech in Chicago on Tuesday night, warning of setbacks and false starts. "We may not get there in one year or even one term," he said, "but America, I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there."
Whether Obama has deep ideological convictions or a philosophical framework with a pragmatist's demeanor is something that will become clearer as he begins to turn campaign promises into programs and priorities. Obama's critics described him as a liberal, a socialist and, as McCain put it, a "redistributor." His voting record and the platform upon which he ran certainly suggest that his beliefs put him left of center. But Obama allies point to his pledge to govern inclusively as a counter to those who say his real purpose is to drive through the liberals' agenda.
"He is genuinely a progressive, but he's not an ideologue," argued Tom Mann of the Brookings Institution. "He's a broadly pragmatic person who, when confronted with new situations, is prepared to take a new approach or new strategy."