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Obama's governing discipline

President Obama steps off Air Force One in Beckley, W.Va., on Sunday.
President Obama steps off Air Force One in Beckley, W.Va., on Sunday. (Alex Brandon/associated Press)

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By Fred Hiatt
Monday, April 26, 2010

When President Obama did not stir himself to rescue D.C. voting rights last week, advocates of democracy for the District joined a long line of disappointed thought-we-were-friends with the president.

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Gays, immigrants, union leaders, budget hawks, campaign finance reformers, environmentalists, free-traders, human rights activists and civil libertarians all have had cause to wonder whether they were right to trust Obama. The list is familiar, but the explanation remains disputed.

My theory: The culprit is less ideology than Obama's fidelity to a strategy he can't, for tactical reasons, publicly acknowledge. Given the hand he was dealt, the evidence suggests he resolved that he had to choose only one domestic and one foreign objective for his first two years in office.

An ambitious set of goals motivated Obama's candidacy, and early in his presidency the rap was that he was taking on too many. But the legacy of wars abroad and the Great Recession at home threatened his ability to accomplish any of them. Simply managing that bleak inheritance, he realized, might consume his entire term.

To avoid that trap, Obama had to govern with discipline. First, he would have to turn potential negatives into successes. At home, that meant not only engineering a stimulus program to end the recession but also designing financial reform to prevent a recurrence. In Iraq and Afghanistan, it meant charting a path to not just to withdrawal but stable outcomes.

Since both fronts would take enormous energy and political capital, Obama could not afford to squander whatever remained across an array of worthy electives. So over time he subordinated everything to just two: health-insurance reform and blocking Iran's development of nuclear weapons. Anything else, no matter how popular or deserving, had to give way if it interfered with those.

Obama has put enormous energy into repairing relations with Russia, for example, and relatively less into ties with allies such as India, Mexico or Britain because stopping Iran would require Russia's support of sanctions. Without a new START arms-control treaty, Russia would not play ball on Iran, so Obama worked assiduously to negotiate a new START. The nuclear summit he hosted in Washington this month; playing down trade tensions with China; the relative reticence on North Korea's nukes; prodding Israel toward peace talks -- all of these were crafted with an eye toward Iran.

At home, the mono-focus is more obvious. Obama would like to close the Guantanamo prison, curb traffic of assault weapons crossing the Mexican border, reform immigration laws and reduce carbon emissions. But each would have carried a political cost, to Obama or Democratic allies he needed on health care, so they all had to wait.

I don't mean to suggest that Obama would go to any lengths to achieve the main objective. He bargained hard on START, for example, insisting that the treaty meet U.S. military needs as well as serve the larger goal.

And it's not that he has abandoned everything else: Where he could advance other objectives at minimal cost, he has done so, usually by executive action. He wouldn't fight for labor law reform, but he promulgated regulations that favor unions. He hasn't replaced No Child Left Behind, but he allowed his education secretary to spur reform by judicious granting and withholding of stimulus funds. There's no climate change legislation, but the Environmental Protection Agency hiked mileage standards for cars and trucks. And so on.

Obama can't acknowledge all this. You don't tell allies, whether gay rights groups or India, that they've slipped down your priority list. (That's especially true now, before an election, as immigration, education and energy advocates jockey to go next.) And the best negotiating strategy to get things you want isn't always to show how much you want them.

So we may have to wait until Obama writes his memoirs to discover why he elevated these two goals. Was he set on health reform from the start, for instance, or did congressional politics nudge that ahead of, say, coping with climate change?

Abroad, the strategy, with its hope of turning autocracies such as China and Russia into long-term partners, remains at best unproven. At home, it seems to be paying off, with major health reform approved and financial reform in sight. For those at the back of the line -- such as the District last week -- the opportunity costs are sharply felt. But even at such times, it's hard not to admire Obama's focus.

fredhiatt@washpost.com


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