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James Rowe’s Advice To Barack Obama

The best part of James Fallows’s excellent new evaluation of Barack Obama’s presidency (“Obama, Explained” in the March Atlantic) comes at the end. That’s when Fallows quotes at length a memo that the New Deal lawyer James H. Rowe, Jr. wrote for Truman after the House and Senate went Republican in 1946. The memo’s basic message is, “It’s impossible to cooperate when the other party controls Congress. Don’t even try. Instead, marshal public opinion to your side.”

Fallows is too polite to say “Doug Schoen is an idiot,” but that’s the thrust of the Rowe memo and to some extent the thrust of Fallows’s own piece. Because of Obama’s inexperience, Fallows writes,  he was initially “reliant on the instincts and institutional memory of others—and since so many of his appointees came from the Clinton administration, he was also vulnerable to ’90s-vintage groupthink among them.” What the 1990s taught the Clinton veterans was that you could “triangulate” with a GOP-controlled Congress. But this, Fallows argues, was the result of a special circumstance:

The 54 new Republican representatives who arrived with Newt Gingrich mainly owed their positions to him. Or they thought they did: Gingrich’s “Contract With America” had been the unified nationwide platform for the GOP surge that year. When Bill Clinton sat down to negotiate with him, a deal made with Gingrich was a deal that would stick.

But that isn’t the way it usually works, Fallows argues. Usually, congressional leaders can impose “negative discipline,” i.e., they can get members to vote against a president of the opposite party, but they have trouble imposing “positive discipline,” i.e., getting members of their own party to vote with a president of the opposite party. Even with Gingrich the “positive discipline” period didn’t last very long. Eventually, you’ll recall, the House voted to impeach Clinton, and Gingrich himself resigned under an ethical cloud.

(Some might draw from Fallows’s Obama criticism the conclusion that Democrats would have done better to choose the “more experienced” Hillary Clinton in 2008. But—setting aside the question of whether being First Lady really counted as solid governmental experience—the current Secretary of State would surely have depended on Clinton administration holdovers even more than Obama did. She might even have given Doug Schoen a job!)

The Rowe memo (click here to read it) is fascinating to peruse today. It includes a list of Don’ts. Among these are “The creation of joint or bipartisan policy committees” (can you say “supercommittee”?) and “The increase in Congressional supervision of the President’s managerial agencies, or the transfer of their functions to a Congressional agency” (translation: Don’t even think about letting Congress get its mitts all over the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau).

Rowe also included a handy list of presidents who had to contend with one or more houses of Congress falling under control of the opposite party. One thing I noticed almost immediately was that of the three presidents most often named as America’s greatest (Washington, Lincoln, FDR), only one—Washington—ever had to deal with this problem, and I’m not sure he should even be included because, though he leaned Federalist, our first president never actually belonged to any political party. (But before some conservative says it, I will note that subsequently Ronald Reagan—not on my list of the greatest presidents, but on some other people’s—also had to deal with it, as did two other presidents typically held in high esteem, Andrew Jackson and Woodrow Wilson. In general, though, it would seem that becoming a truly great president usually requires not getting yourself into this fix to begin with.)

Rowe was a remarkable man whom history never fully gave his due. I’m stunned, for example, to find that he doesn’t have a Wikipedia entry. Less than a year after Rowe wrote this strangely timeless memo about dealing with Congress he wrote another brilliant memo about how to win the 1948 presidential election. History often remembers it as the “Clifford memo” because for years White House aide Clark Clifford took credit for it, which irritated Rowe no end. In fact, Clifford merely edited it lightly, added a few paragraphs of his own, and then slapped his name on it. The memo established Clifford’s reputation as a Washington wise man, which glistened for four decades after that historic election. Rowe, who died in 1984, didn’t live to see Clifford finally acknowledge his contribution in his 1991 memoir, Counsel To The President.

By that time Clifford was embroiled in a cheesy international banking scandal that sullied his own good name. But I digress. If you want the details, read my late wife Marjorie Williams’s two-part 1991 Clifford profile in the Washington Post (or, better yet, buy yourself a copy of Reputation: Portraits in Power, the second of two posthumous anthologies of Marjorie’s journalism, which leads off with the Clifford profile—and includes handy annotations to bring you up to speed on things like BCCI, an acronym you probably haven’t thought about for 20 years, if ever).