Pearlstein: The current political disarray is a golden opportunity for Obama

Steven Pearlstein
Washington Post Columnist
Wednesday, February 17, 2010; 11:00 AM

Washington Post business columnist Steven Pearlstein will be online Wednesday, February 17 at 11:00 a.m. ET to discuss why the current disarray in Washington is a golden opportunity for Obama to show some leadership and strengthen the bond of trust between himself and the American people by having the courage to tell the hard truths and make hard decisions.

Pearlstein won a Pulitzer Prize in 2008 and is co-moderator of the On Leadership discussion site.

Submit a question or comment now or during the discussion.


Annapolis, Md.: The funny thing is that if Obama started to show strong leadership instead of compromising, he would also get more respect from the Republicans. The one thing my conservative friends respond the best to is someone who has strong principles and sticks to them. Obama comes across as a push over (I am starting to think he just is) and that's something most people don't want to see in a president.

Steven Pearlstein: I agree with that, with one caveat: The firm ground that he needs to stake out and hold is not the left-liberal ground, but more of a radical centrist ground. And the reason for that is political: it is what the American public at this moment in time can accept. That's the president's role -- to speak for the whole country. Not one party. Not one region. Not one ideology. And he can do so with some legitimacy.


Chillicothe, Ohio: Leadership requires the articulation of clear goals, consistently held and the means to achieve them. The president fails in the latter two requirements. Several of his campaign pledges have been abandoned (Cadillac tax, individual mandate) and his rhetoric of bipartisanship while pursuing a partisan solution leaves the public and the politicians with doubt as to where he will be tomorrow. Couple that with the clear demonstration that he cannot help you in a difficult political race, and it is not surprising he is losing supporters even in his own party. Merely forcing unpopular legislation through will not change that perception - it will make it worse because it seems arbitrary and ideological.

Steven Pearlstein: I disagree with your premises.

First, politics is the art of the possible. What you may prefer as a person or support as a candiate, and what you can achieve as a president are different things. We worship too much at the alter of consistency. Policy making is about tradeoffs, and while you may prefer no tax on benefits, if you need that money to pay for health reform, you may decide to accept it, particularly if you also mitigate some of the harmful effects. So the model you have in your mind about policy making is just very unrealistic.

Second, the president can help, particularly if he succeeds in some of these endeavors. Your second mistake, which is a common one in this city, is to take today's poll numbers and project them ahead way into the future. Stuff happens. Just as Martha Coakley.


Anonymous: How can Obama control or inmpact the craziness of the Republicans who are making a political game of governing? It appears that many are ready to flip flop on any point of view the President agrees with. The press seems to be pointing this out now. Is there any hope for a Congress held hostage to this kind of game playing?

Steven Pearlstein: The press has consistently pointed out Republican hypocrisy, which as you say has reached monumental proportions. If they continue, it will eventually be turned against them.


But how?: Steven, as always, I appreciate your writing, including this latest column. I agree that Obama would be best served by pushing Congress to pass significant pieces of legislation, to "put together working majorities for each proposal -- with the help of legislative leaders if possible, but without them if necessary," as you wrote in your column.

But how? Point to one Republican who will cross party lines in the Senate to support Obama-sponsored legislation, even compromise legislation? Look at what happened with the debt-reduction commission: seven Republican senators who had co-sponsored a bill to create the thing then voted against it.

Monday morning quarterbacks like you (and you're one of the few I respect) always seem to envision the magic potion, the secret ploy that the people in office haven't used yet that will make them successful. So tell us, what can Obama do to get the Republicans to work with him, when it's been to their political advantage to oppose him? Thanks.

Steven Pearlstein: I don't think he's really tried to put together his own working coalitions. He still effectively works through the Democratic leadership, which is much more constrained than he is for all sorts of institutional reasons, to say nothing of personal preferences. To govern from the center, for example, means you might have to lose some Democratic votes on the far left on some issues. That's okay for a president, but its less acceptable to congressional leaders.

Look, this isn't easy. But through a variety of carrots and sticks, I think it is possible. In truth, I think it is the only way forward that is left. He's got to create a sense of urgency and crisis, roll up his sleeves and work it 24/7. He has to create a dynamic where the public will swing behind him, and then members of Congress who always have their finger to the wind will shift back. Again, you're taking as a given, and as permanent, a set of political attitudes among legislators that is relatively recent. A clever leader can change that dynamic just by standing up to people, including sometimes his friends and allies.


Ellicott City, Md.: Dear Mr. Pearlstein - I disagree that Obama believed that the Democratic majorities in Congress could simply deliver on his agenda. He took great pains over the past year to get Republicans to sign on to health-care legislation. His mistake was (as Jon Stewart said) treating Congress as an equal branch of government. He has long seemed to me to be the only adult in the room. Congress is not worthy of its responsibilities. Bush showed very poor judgment, but he understood that his Republican majority in Congress needed to be led. Obama trusted the Democratic majority to do the right thing, and his trust was misplaced.

Can you name anyone in Congress (especially Republican) who cares more for "getting things done than winning the next election"?

Steven Pearlstein: More of them want to do the right thing than you think. He needs to provide them with the political cover to do so, not only external political cover but inside the Congress and the party and the political system, where the social pressures can be enormous.


Philadelphia, Pa.: I won't claim that Obama is all-perfect, but I think he better fits your call for leadership than you give him credit for. Case in point is an example you give, but coming from the other direction: Yes, he was elected to bring change to D.C., but a critical area of change was to put Congress back in charge of writing laws, of playing its essential role and devolving some of the control that built up over recent decades. Perhaps that was a political mistake, but it was undoubtedly the most responsible, adult course of action. Look, too, at the recent capturing of the Taliban commander, which wasn't ushered out on Sunday to use as a political tool against Dick Cheney. At the same time, however, some part of his ability to get things done is found in his popularity. If he utterly falls off the charts, he may lose his clout altogether. Fortunately we'll never know how Lincoln and Washington would have governed in the era of constant polling, instant overanalysis, death by a thousand Twits, etc.

Steven Pearlstein: You're right that Lincoln and Washington lived in a different time with different dynamics and political technologies. Some of those made things easier but some harder. I'm pretty convinced the basic lessons are the same, however. I don't mean to say that Obama has been a bad leader, for surely he's been better than most, and he is often the only adult in the room. But that's just the point -- most Americans understand that, which is why they would be willing to follow. And the best example of that has been how he's handled Afghanistan, which was very controversial within his party but, from a political standpoint, has been a success so far.


Roswell, Ga.: It's interesting that you did not mention FDR. He was also a great leader but he also said that the "Only thing we have to fear is fear itself". The previous President showed leadership by using fear whether by passing through trillion dollar tax cuts or invading Iraq. The country is being held hostage by a 60-vote system and a Republican party that wants the President to fail. What type of message would you like the President to send? Personally, I would like him to tell Congress and especially the Republicans who want to filibuster everything to put the country first. What do you think?

Steven Pearlstein: As I said, he should create urgency and focus the country's attention on a few of these things. And making Republicans filibuster is a good way to do that. Look what happened when he and the press shined the spotlight on the holds on nominees put on by Sen. Shelby. The guy folded in a Alabama minute.


Silver Spring, Md.: Your blame on Obama is misplaced and ignores the realities and difficulties of separation of powers. Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi are the ones who lacked leadership, Pelosi to a lesser degree recently on Health Care, but overall they have been ineffective for years.

But the problem is greater then a lack of leadership in Congress. We are as bitterly divided over race and politics today as we were during the Civil War.

I have no desire to see the parties work together. Elections are supposed to have consequences. The Republicans who got us into this fiscal crisis with tax cuts for millionaires and wars of choice should be treated as being out of power. Moreover they should be renditioned and parachuted into the countries they destroyed so those people can have justice and we can have progress.

The problem is one of an ungovernable nation, a people divided and a lack of leadership and accountability in all three branches of government.

Steven Pearlstein: So one of the things the president could do is, you say to a number of reasonable Republicans: Look, we're going to win one way or another. We can win the ugly way and change the parliamentary rules, in which case you get the Democratic versions of these things. Or you can sit with us, tell us the few big things that you really need or that you really want, and I'll see what I can do to accomodate you if you are willing to help us pass them without having to resort to extrodinary parliamentary maneuvers. And that's your choice: bills that you would find unacceptable, or legislation that you would find much less unacceptable. Right now, the Republicans think they have the upper hand, that they don't have to deal. The first step is to show them that that is wrong.


Baltimore, Md.: Steven: Very much enjoyed your column--it summed up my frustrations with the way this president, who came into office with enormous political capital, has squandered it by sitting back and watching Congress continue to sit on its hands, then trying to salvage things such as health care with sweeteners for errant Senators(Nelson, Landrieu, etc.)

I really do apportion a lot of the blame for the current climate, however, to "the media," whatever that is any more. Case in point is the Sunday network talk shows, which continue to give a platform to Richard Cheney, all in hopes of generating controversy and headlines, when the man is retired, has no future in electoral politics, and has been proven definitively wrong about the defining episodes of his 8 years as the nation's Vice President.

Imagine, if you can, Richard Nixon going on Meet the Press in November, 1962 and attacking President Kennedy for blockading Cuba instead of invading it. I'm no Nixon fan, but he would not have thought of doing it and Meet the Press, as then constituted, would not have thought of inviting him to do so. Add in the continual cable news blather, which only serves to whip up controversy and contention, and you have an endless cauldron of sound and fury, signifying ratings points and nothing more.

Finally, forgive me if I point out one error. You said that Washington and Lincoln were willing to break with their party when needed. Washington had no party--in fact, he warned against them because they would create factions. He got elected twice because he was George Washington, a claim no one else could make, for sure.

Steven Pearlstein: Yes, there were factions rather than parties back in those days, and Washington did try his best to remain above them. But my recollection from my Washington biography reading is that he was more a Federalist whose great accomplishment was to keep his team in check and keep the Republicans very much party of the governing coalition and Jefferson very much a contender for the presidency. Obviously that was a unique time and Washington in a unique position.


Arlington, Va.: Mr. Pearlstein: In your article this morning, with which I would like to agree, you call upon the President to begin working with "Republicans and Democrats and interested parties who are more interested in getting things done than in winning the next election." If you had to pick just one from each category (forgetting the political affiliation of the 'interested party'), who would they be?

Steven Pearlstein: It depends on the issue. In terms of Republican senators, there are a number who offer possibilities because of things they have said or voted or sponsored in the past, and their general intelligence and good will. Lately, of course, they've boxed themselves in to a hardened position, so it would require them to alter their stance. But I'm talking Voinovich, Collins, Snowe, Gregg, Bennett, Alexander, Corker, Grassley. One thing is clear -- you can't just pick off one or two. To get two, you really need to get five or six, so they don't feel so isolated.


Kansas City, Mo.: I am tired of hearing about Republican lack of "bipartisanship." Seems to me that the Democrats need the bipartisanship among themselves. After all, with super majorities in both houses and a Democratic President, they don't need the Republicans to pass any bill they wish. The Republicans have not been included in any of the behind closed doors negotiations held by the Democrats among themselves. If the Democrats were realists they would offer a health-care plan which includes tort reform, portability, and no preexisting exclusions. That bill would recruit plenty of Republicans and the Democrats could claim the credit. In fact, it would have passed during the early part of last year and the rest of the time could have been used to correct our impending economic disaster.

Please explain to me why you possibly could object to what I have outlined above.

Steven Pearlstein: I couldn't agree more that the Democratic leadership went at this the wrong way from the start, engaging in exactly the kind of exclusionary tactics on most issues that the Republicans had used when they were in the majority. It's a Hatfield and McCoy feud up there, and getting revenge is a big part of the motivation. I've written that before myself. And that's why it is going to take the president to really broker these deals now.


Arlington, Va.: Hi Steven, I agree completely with your article. I tend to be an economic conservative, but even I think taxes have been slashed too far. I think the only way out of our deficit is to combine some kind of tax increase with spending cuts. Doing one without the other will not help. Is there any chance that Congress will grow a pair to get something significant done towards the deficit?

Steven Pearlstein: For the longterm fix, not this year. But some initial steps could be taken and the groundwork laid for next year.


opportunity for Obama: Your lips to God's ear!

Steven Pearlstein: Let's not get carried away here. I think HE's probably busy with other things.


Martinsburg, W.V.: I loved your column today and agree totally, but as an Obama supporter, I have come to believe that Obama is no more than a front for special interests and that he really has no intention of doing the right thing for the country. His stimulus package did nothing to help the infrastructure of the country. He has sided with bankers and Wall Street at the detriment of the American people. Home foreclosures are still happening at an alarming pace. He and his wife have an organic garden on the grounds of the White House, but he has put 3 former Monsanto executives and lawyers in positions of power at the FDA and he supports the Food Safety Act now in front of the Senate which would give the FDA the power to outlaw organic farming, community and home gardens and force everyone to eat toxic GMO foods. Now he is supporting nuclear power which most Americans do not want. How can we make him change his stripes?

Steven Pearlstein: Okay, so I think you have some factual errors there. It is not true he's done nothing to help infrastructure -- there are tens of billions of dollars of infrastructure in the stimulus bill that are just beginning to be spent. And to say that he's in the pocket of Wall Street or Monsanto is just nuts -- there is no basis in reality for that. It may be the case that he's concluded it's necessary to do some things that have the unintended consequences of helping some people, like bankers, who personally don't deserve it, or that he's made concessions to political reality. And on occasion he has allowed himself to get pushed around by interest groups, although those tend to be liberal ones that you might like. But there are a lot of us who think nuclear power needs to be a viable option now who have never been contacted or spoken to or bribed by the nuclear power industry. Your problem is that you assume you are right and that anyone who disagrees with you has a bad motive. You can't govern or lead if you start from that point of view.


Falls Church, Va.: You and most other economists have been telling us for a long time that there is no quick fix to revive consumer spending and restore full employment. Why didn't this administration set the expectation early and often?

Steven Pearlstein: First, I'm not an economist. Second, you are right that the president should have warned us that it is very difficult to deleverage the household sector and the financial sector and the government sector without ushering in an unavoidable period of very slow growth. He said this morning that the stimulus package removed the possibility of a bad depression, and if he had sold the package that way originally, it would have given people the right set of expectations.


Franconia: "...having the courage to tell the hard truths and make hard decisions."

Like dumping 'defined benefit' pensions for 'defined contribution' pensions to alleviate open-ended risk.

BTW, are you still a free lunch "something-for-nothing" Keynesian who loves the Fed and centralized command/control economic planning?

Steven Pearlstein: I'm not a something for nothing free lunch Keynesian -- you must be thinking of Prof. Krugman. I understand the tradeoffs involved with deficit spending during recessions and I think they are tradeoffs we might want to make, up to a point. I don't love the Fed -- I've been one of the Fed's biggest critics for probably a lot longer than you have (just ask 'em). And I don't believe in centralized command and control economic planning. But it is consistent with a lot of movement conservatives that they call anyone who doesn't agree totally with them as a socialist or Marxist. Let's see, who else did that? Oh, I remember. Joe McCarthy.


Rochester, N.Y.: On "Meet the Press" on Sunday your colleague David Broder was talking about a possible Unity 12 ticket that might pair Evan Bayh with, say, Scott Brown as principled, centrist third party team. Do you think that's likely? Could something like this thaw the bipartisan ice?

Steven Pearlstein: The truth is that Evan Bayh doesn't have the courage or the stomach to be president. And from what I can tell, Scott Brown is no where near ready for prime time yet.


Alexandria, Va.: Mr. Pearlstein,

I don't know if you read the New York Times Article on the Tea Party movements, but it seems to me that they are completely unwilling to compromise on anything- that they are taking the approach of "You're either with us or against us." Since many of the Tea Party-ers are the Republican Base, is there a fear that any sort of compromise on the part of Republicans would equal instant death in the ballot box?

Steven Pearlstein: I'm going to say something here that is not nice and violates one of my earlier strictures. But here goes. I think it's great when anyone wants to get involved in politics, including people I disagree with. So three cheers for that part of the Tea Party. But based on that same New York Times article, some of the grassroots leaders of this movement strike me as wing-nuts. I mean stocking up on guns and food because the Obama Socialists are going to come and take away your freedom and your money and your children and hand it over to ACORN and an all powerful state -- give me a break!


Chicago, Illinois: The problem with staking out "radical centrist ground" is that there is no radical center to hold. Obama's problem, in my view, is that he is deferring too much to role players. He needs to be Michael Jordan and take over the game.

Steven Pearlstein: Precisely.


Re: "name one": In any earlier question, a reader asked you to name one Republican who wants to do the right thing. You responded "More of them want to do the right thing than you think."

Does that mean that you can't actually name one?

Steven Pearlstein: I think I named a few in a subsequent post.


Cape Cod, Mass.: I usually like your pieces but this was awful, the usual claptrap about "tough choices" and so on. Did you really write it? Honestly, I've never heard you sound this insipid before.

Steven Pearlstein: Gee, sorry. But yes, its mine.


The press has consistently pointed out Republican hypocrisy, which as you say has reached monumental proportions. If they continue, it will eventually be turned against them.: Steven, I swear, I love ya, but...

How? When will this happen? In case you missed it, they've won the governor's seat in Virginia and New Jersey from the Democrats and took Ted Kennedy's seat in the Senate by following this strategy and if the experts are right, they're well on the way to picking up lots of seats in the House and Senate.

Why would they change strategies now?

Steven Pearlstein: This is not the reason the Republicans won those elections. You have assumed causality where there is only correlation. Classic error. If necessary, Obama can make their obstructionism very real and vivid and then make it a winning issue.


Arlington, VA: There are some unpopular choices and there are definitely some mixed messages coming from the public. However these are not necessarily all from the same groups. With all due respect (and to do my best not to sound like a partisan hack) people are really fed up of being told by the Leaders of congress what we want. We feel like we are being told here is what congress wants, and we should shut up and take it. There is definitely a problem with those in elitist positions talking down to the public instead of talking with the public. Until those people leading realize this, they are destined for failure.

Steven Pearlstein: The public obviously doesn't speak with a single voice or have a consensus on most issues -- if it did, we wouldn't be having this conversation. But if there is one man who probably understands what the public wants and is willing to accept better than any other, it is the man who just got elected president of the United States after a grueling two year campaign. So why don't we start there, shall we?


Honestly, I've never heard you sound this insipid before. : Steven,

I'm just a working lady (58 years young) who doesn't know alot of the political stuff but reads and watches alot.

I think your article was brilliant and extremely educational.

Steven Pearlstein: Hey, I'm 58 too. Great vintage, don't you think?


Boonsboro, Md.: I think your characterization of the American people as so dumb we want contradictory things is offbase. The answer is much simpler. We have a finely developed BS detector, especially when it involves politicians telling us they can do more and it will cost less. Obama's speeches and policies have failed that test with the majority of Americans. You are right when you suggest he start being President instead of a candidate, though.

Steven Pearlstein: Dumb? I didn't use that word. Misguided a bit. Misinformed. Angry without being exactly sure why. As to the BS detector, that's a good point and it's why Obama has lost standing since the inauguration, because he forgot that, in the end, issues are important primarily because they reveal character. People will follow somebody they trust and respect that they don't agree with. They will be more reluctant to follow someone they agree with but they don't trust and respect.


Minneapolis, Minn.: Obama would show some real leadership if he would abandon the notion of bipartisanship on health care and get it done already. He's already bent over backwards to the Republicans, waiting months on folks like Charles Grassley who was never going to get on board with any proposal. A bill has passed both chambers -- why accomodate the Republicans now?

Steven Pearlstein: If he does the deal himself, under the glare of public attention (but not in front of TV cameras), he can change the dynamic.


Manassas, Va.: I'm glad you mentioned that you included the US public for the blame for the mess we're in. The easy path is to blame other (i.e. politicians) for the ills that affect this country, but hardly ever the supposed "wisdom" of the US public is never questioned for electing these guys in the first place. Simply put, we got the government and policies we deserve.

Steven Pearlstein: Generally speaking, correct.


Minneapolis, Minn.: The notion that Obama needs to "go to the center" is absurd. He's already there! His health care bill is based on principles the Republicans supported back in 1994. He's adopted practically all of the Bush-Cheney anti-terrorism policies. Card-check? Nope. Cap and trade? Probably dead on arrival. Where's the evidence that Obama is some sort of left-liberal? He hasn't spent ANY political capital on holding a left-liberal line.

Steven Pearlstein: I agree he's mostly there. But now he has to defend it and build a working majority in Congress to help him do so. And that's where his political capital needs to be spent.


Chevy Chase, Md.: Mr. Pearlstein, your article reflected my feelings for a very long time now. I have been wondering if this is basically the President's style...that he prefers to work on a consensus, rather than to lead... remember his 100 "present" votes in the Illinois State Senate? My question is whether he can overcome his basic nature and become a leader rather than a consensus-builder when the times do not seem to allow for consensus?

Steven Pearlstein: This is a very important distinction that you made better than I did this morning. Leading is not necessarily the same as governing by consensus. In fact, it is not. It is changing the dynamic of the discussion so that people follow you to a place they might not have otherwise wanted to go. Finding the political sweet spot is part of that process. But it's not just about consensus and bipartisanship.


Alexandria, Va.: Mr. Pearlstein, With all due respect, you have an extremely perverted view of morality when you wrote that someone as corrupt and unethical as Billy Tauzin represents one of the "good people" that is needed in Washington. The only place Tauzin should be is in prison, yet you would have him lead our nation. Do you have the courage to explain why you think he represents "goodness"? No? Disgusted in Alexandria

Steven Pearlstein: Bill Tauzin was willing to be part of the solution on health care and health-care reform rather than part of the problem. He had a job to do. And he is a conversative fellow. But I know of no reason to question his integrity --nor, I suspect, do you.


Re: the Republicans' willingness to cooperate: As you said at the beginning of this chat, "First, politics is the art of the possible." Well, it's now "possible" that the Republicans will pick up a lot of seats in the House and maybe even win back the majority in the Senate. All because of what they've been doing. And the reason they would be willing to change plans and cooperate now is....?

Steven Pearlstein: There is nothing inevitably or even likely about that scenario. But if Democrats, including the president, start behaving as if it were, then they make it so.


Alexandria, Va.: I agree that President Obama needs to lead more by making tough decisions and speaking difficult truths... which incidentally he campaigned on. However, I also think that Congress abdicates its own responsibility too much. Ruth Marcus highlighted examples today about small glimmers of hope for bipartisan leadership, such as Sens. Warner and Corker's effort on banking. What do you think it would take for other members of Congress to lead and work like this more often? Does it have to come from members in safe seats?

Steven Pearlstein: It needs to be made socially and politically acceptable in their minds.


Steven Pearlstein: That's all the time for today, folks. Good discussion. "See" you next week.


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