There’s a telling moment at the beginning of Robert A. Caro’s new book when Lyndon Johnson’s advisers are gathered, four days after he has become president, to draft his first speech to Congress. Capitol Hill is divided, the country is grieving from the assassination of his predecessor and some of LBJ’s advisers are urging him to take it slow. “Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?” Johnson replies.
Barack Obama will be getting advice by the boatload over the next few weeks, but the best guidance may be what emerges from Caro’s biography “The Passage of Power”: Think big. Find strategies and pressure points that can break the gridlock in Congress, which was as rigid in 1963 as it is today. Surprise your adversaries with bold moves and concessions that create new space on which to govern.
As I watched Tuesday’s triumph, it seemed obvious that Obama needs the policy equivalent of David Plouffe, his senior campaign adviser. Plouffe’s genius was to decide early on that the race depended on nine battleground states; if he could deliver those states by a relentless and sometimes ruthless assault, he would win the larger victory. He was like a general who concentrates his forces at the points of greatest vulnerability and then prevails through sheer force of will.
Obama’s performance as president has often lacked this decisive, strategic quality. The notes are there but not the policy “music.” In both foreign and domestic policy, the impression of Obama, after his blunderbuss, first-year battles on health care and the Israeli-Palestinian issue, has been of a careful president who reacts to events, waits for others to make the first moves and plays to avoid losing rather than to win.
Well, Mr. President, what the hell’s the presidency for?
A strategic second term would begin by identifying a list of necessary and achievable goals, and then pursuing them with the unyielding manipulative skill of a Lyndon Johnson. On the top of everybody’s list would be a budget deal. Everybody knows, more or less, what it will require: changes in Social Security and Medicare that slow the growth of entitlement spending; reform of the tax code that produces a fairer and simpler system that raises revenue without limiting growth.
A road map is there in the Simpson-Bowles deficit-reduction plan, and Obama administration officials have been thinking privately for months about how to tweak the plan so it’s better and fairer. Mitt Romney’s generous concession speech Tuesday night opened a possible door, and the president should follow up his statement that he will “look forward to sitting down with Governor Romney to talk about where we can work together to move this country forward.” The president and his new Treasury secretary (Jack Lew?) should take the next step and ask Romney to help close the budget deal the country needs.
In foreign policy, Obama will need to be equally strategic. What does he want to accomplish? My list: a deal with Iran that verifiably limits its nuclear program and avoids war; a deal in Afghanistan that averts civil war when U.S. forces leave in 2014; a deal for a political transition in Syria (a shorthand Syria summary would be to organize the opposition so that it’s strong enough to bargain, then help win a Nobel Peace Prize for Vladimir Putin). And, finally, a deal to create a Palestinian state so that Israel has secure borders and the Arab world can get on with the process of becoming modern and democratic.
All these primary foreign policy goals are “deals,” and it follows that the president needs a dealmaker as secretary of state. Who could do that, after Hillary Clinton leaves, probably at the end of January? John Kerry is an experienced man who thinks outside the box and is willing to take risks. Even if the president is said to have found him somewhat windy as the stand-in for Romney during debate preparation, Kerry has shown over the past four years a willingness to negotiate with adversaries, in secret, to achieve results.
A longtime Democratic adviser argues that Obama needs the “Bolten Plan,” as in Josh Bolten, the White House chief of staff who mobilized the machinery of government to get it moving in the same direction in George W. Bush’s second term. This will never be a happy model for Democrats, but it captures an important point: A successful second term is less about ideology than about results.
Think big. Take risks. Get it done. Maybe someone should slip a note in Obama’s desk drawer that asks: What would Lyndon Johnson have done to make it happen?