Less Room for Breakthrough Ideas

By Paul C. Light
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, November 11, 2008

President-elect Barack Obama is currently mulling one of the largest legislative agendas in modern history. He promised it, and the public expects it. But if the past is prologue, his agenda is likely to be one of the smallest since the 1960s.

Obama's problem in going big is not just a lack of money, though interest payments on the nation's $10.5 trillion debt will soon come to rival the Social Security program in annual costs. Nor is it pent-up demand on Capitol Hill, though House and Senate leaders are well ahead of Obama in setting next year's agenda.

Rather, there is simply less room in government for the kind of breakthrough ideas that Obama has promised. He is not just in charge of all things new; he is also the caretaker of all things old. As the grand legislative achievements of the past continue to rust, presidents have become more repairmen than reformers.

The president's agenda began shrinking as soon as Lyndon Johnson left office in 1969. Every Democratic president since Johnson has sent fewer major proposals to Congress, just as every Republican president since Richard Nixon has done the same.

The trend is easy to spot in the legislative messages and State of the Union addresses in the first terms of the last seven presidents. Whereas Johnson sent 91 major domestic/economic proposals to Congress during his only full term, Jimmy Carter sent 41 and Bill Clinton sent just 33. Whereas Nixon sent 40 major proposals to Congress during his first term, Ronald Reagan sent 29, George H.W. Bush sent 23 and President Bush sent just 18.

How ironic, perhaps, that Nixon had more room for his legislative agenda under divided party control of government in 1969 than Clinton had under unified government in 1993. Although Obama is likely to have more proposals than Clinton, there will not be a New Deal or Great Society this coming year.

The same pattern holds for the number of super-size proposals on matters such as Medicare, welfare reform and tax cuts -- those fell from 50 during Johnson's full term to one-tenth as many during President Bush's first term.

The pattern also holds for first-year proposals -- those dropped from 34 in 1965 to seven in 2001. Johnson, Nixon and Carter out-proposed their successors, often by margins of 2 or 3 to 1. Not only is there less room for the entire agenda, there is less room in the first 100 days. Given the trends, John F. Kennedy, not Johnson, is Obama's best role model. A new New Frontier is well within his reach.

Notwithstanding the constraints imposed by the national debt and congressional entrepreneurship, the shrinking agenda reflects three significant changes in how presidents set the agenda.

First, presidents can no longer rely on the Senate to incubate new ideas well in advance of Inauguration Day. The Senate long ago lost its reputation as the anvil on which great compromises are forged. With every senator an entrepreneur, legislative proposals are rarely ready for the president's adoption. Whereas Johnson adopted dozens of polished proposals from the Senate he once led, Obama will have trouble finding more than a handful.

Second, presidents can no longer rely on the federal government to faithfully execute the laws. The thin, agile government that drew so many young Americans to public service in the 1960s has become a sluggish shell in which risk-taking is punished, time on the job is rewarded, and political appointees are free to meddle as they wish. Without aggressive reform, which would itself be a breakthrough idea, the federal government simply cannot honor the promises Obama makes.

Third, presidents are still part of a system that protects the status quo. No matter how hard he tries, Obama will end up appointing an administration composed of insiders. They may not be registered lobbyists in the narrow definition of the term, but they will know lobbying. Roughly two-thirds will live inside the Beltway, many will come from congressional staffs and K Street law firms, and a substantial number will take significant pay cuts to join the administration. Obama must make sure that his team shares his commitment to change.

Obama would be wise to recognize these limits on his first-year agenda. Instead of throwing a super-size agenda at Congress, he should start with a few tightly focused progressive initiatives that will whet the political appetite for more. His best opportunity for a grand agenda may not be 2009 but 2013. By proving that he can develop a focused agenda, implement it successfully and challenge the status quo in doing so, he can set the stage for his own Great Society. Staying small in Year One may lay the foundation for going large in Year Five. Think new New Frontier for now.

Paul C. Light is a professor at New York University's Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service and an expert on presidential transitions. He is writing an occasional column for this page.

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