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The Obama Agenda, 2010: Small Change?

- February 5, 2010

In recent days, from Tampa to Nashua, Barack Obama has been pressing Congress for action on a number of fronts as he defends his legislative agenda. Big, new, things need to happen; lots of change is required. As he put it in the “State of the Union address”:http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/remarks-president-state-union-address: “From the day I took office, I’ve been told that addressing our larger challenges is too ambitious…. I’ve been told that our political system is too gridlocked, and that we should just put things on hold for a while. For those who make these claims, I have one simple question: How long should we wait? How long should America put its future on hold?”

Well, if one reads the scholarly literature on the topic the answer is pretty clear: for a little while longer. At least on most fronts.

True, the literature on presidential agenda-setting generally finds that presidents should “hit the ground running”: that they should bring their policy priorities to Congress as quickly as possible. There are dissenters, perhaps most notably Richard Neustadt, who worried that a combination of ignorance and arrogance mars most large-scale proposals brought quickly forward, especially after a shift between parties. Most scholars, though – while not disagreeing with either the arrogance or the ignorance part – see little alternative to moving fast, given the “declining cycle of effectiveness” that “Paul C. Light”:http://www.amazon.com/Presidents-Agenda-Domestic-Kennedy-Clinton/dp/0801860660/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1265372598&sr=8-1 has traced across the course of most administrations.

Even so there’s an awfully big “but” – move fast, BUT with a small, focused agenda.

The presidential agenda should fire a “rifle, not a shotgun,” as George Mason’s James P. Pfiffner memorably put it in his book “The Strategic Presidency”:http://www.amazon.com/Strategic-Presidency-Hitting-Running-Government/dp/0700607692/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1265254617&sr=8-1. Pfiffner’s favored comparison is between Jimmy Carter in 1977 and Ronald Reagan in 1981. Carter wrote in his diary in late January 1977 that “everybody has warned me not to take on too many projects so early in the administration, but it’s almost impossible for me to delay something that I see needs to be done.” When asked in April how he would prioritize the bills before Congress, Carter replied “I have no preferences. My preference is to move ahead with everything at once” (Pfiffner, p. 119).

Reagan, on the other hand, pushed his tax cut and budget package hard and consistently, even though this meant ignoring many other things on the GOP agenda. He won notable success (partly by utilizing the then-newish budget reconciliation process that today’s Republicans have denounced as illegitimate). We might add to this the example of George W. Bush, who both as governor of Texas and as a new president heeded Reagan’s experience, focusing on the large tax cuts now due to expire in 2010 and on what became the No Child Left Behind Act. (Other issues from the 2000 campaign were downgraded, some to study commissions, some to nothingness.)

The advantages of a “rifle” agenda (or as Bill Clinton’s later high-tech upgrade had it, a “laser beam”) is linked to the broader question of bounded rationality: the limits of time and attention that hamper even the most rational of legislative decisionmakers (rimshot here.) But the other issue is that of institutional space: most large-scale proposals must flow through the same small number of procedural votes, whether leadership-driven committees or cloture. Carter’s bills, for instance, overloaded House Ways and Means to the point of paralysis. These days, given the aggressive use of majority rule in the House, the Senate is the main clog. (Carter did have a filibuster proof majority in the Senate – though also a “Republican senator from Massachusetts”:http://baic.house.gov/member-profiles/profile.html?intID=125 to deal with, albeit a rather different one.)

It all comes down to one of my all-time favorite presidential quotes, from Lyndon Johnson (naturally): “Congress is a whiskey drinker.” That is, LBJ (a Cutty Sark man himself) said, “you can put an awful lot of whiskey into a man if you just let him sip it. But if you try to force the whole bottle down his throat at one time, why, he’ll just throw it up.” (For more on this, see Chapter 6 “here”:http://www.amazon.com/Managing-Presidents-Program-Presidential-International/dp/0691095019/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1265375417&sr=1-1#noop).

The Obama administration made a conscious decision to reject this approach in 2009. Never waste a crisis, said chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. There are too many things that need to be done. And so (with varying degrees of White House leadership) legislative action began on a wide array of issues.

The State of the Union channeling of Dr King suggests this has continued into the new year. But a closer look at the rest of the speech suggests that most of the 2010 agenda is rather small change, at least from 2009. After all, what did Obama propose?

A jobs bill. But this is already before Congress, and has been passed by the House. Ditto the financial reform package. Ditto the climate change bill. Ditto the shifts in aid to community colleges and in the student loan regime, and PAYGO. Ditto, of course, though with some nod to the likelihood of amendment, the health care reform package. All these were effectively endorsements of extant legislation, not new proposals. New things were promised for the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, for immigration reform, but they weren’t here. The export package appears to be largely driven by executive branch maneuvering. Foreign policy got a mention, but again, in the context of administrative action.

Which leaves the bank “fee,” some tax cuts, the disclosure of lobbyist contributions, and a very vague (though apparently offensive) plea to fix the Supreme Court decision regarding corporate participation in elections. And, of course, repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

This isn’t nothing, but it adds far less to the bottle of whiskey than the rhetoric might suggest. It is a consolidation more than it is comprehensive. Perhaps Obama, who has said “nice things about Reagan”:http://www.openleft.com/showDiary.do?diaryId=3263 in the past, has taken a page from his playbook: Paul Light found that Reagan’s State of the Union addresses from 1985 through 1988 inclusive – that is, the entire second term – made a total of _zero_ new proposals. Indeed, Obama might find, as have other presidents, that bypassing Congress altogether is the more pleasant route. As he “said in New Hampshire”:http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/remarks-president-town-hall-meeting-nashua-new-hampshire this week, who would choose to “go through the pain of really working through this hard process in Congress, getting yelled at and called a socialist”? As he moves through his administration, we’ll come to see if that is really “how I roll.”