You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Why Is Obama Ditching Obamaism?

One of the early hallmarks of the administration's governing style is to make Congress a partner (sometimes even the senior partner) in policy development rather than submitting fully-formed legislation and trying to whip up votes for it. Part of this derives from Obama's personal style, which prizes consensus. And part of it is just shrewd politics and a willingness to learn from past presidential failures, as Matt Bai pointed out in this recent Times magazine piece. But, either way, the legislative approach has been pretty similar from issue to issue, whether it's the stimulus or health care or climate change.

Which is why it's so interesting that the administration is taking a different tack on financial market reform. According to today's Wall Street Journal:

In drafting its proposed revamp of financial-sector regulation, the Obama administration sought to leave few of the initial details to Congress, a risky strategy that could pin much of the plan's success or failure on the president himself. ...

Roughly once a week, sometimes more, the team met with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner or National Economic Council Director Lawrence Summers to run through ideas. Mr. Summers became known for his ability to shred and discredit any idea presented, forcing aides to scramble to defend their proposals. ...

The core work was handled by a group of aides, led by Mr. Wolin and Ms. Farrell, that met most weekdays at 1 p.m. Because there were so many topics, officials broke discussions into groups. Sometimes meetings began with 15 priorities and officials only worked their way through four.

The question is why the stylistic change on this particular issue? 

If I had to guess, I'd say the following: On an issue like health care or the stimulus or even climate change, it's not sufficient to sell the overall idea. Because the public will notice the details and form opinions about them, you have to sell the details, too. Failure to do that will give political opponents an opportunity to rally public opinion against you ("The public option will lead to government-run health care and limit your choices!," etc.). Conversely, you can rally the public to your side when opponents of reform--vested interests and their lobbyists--make the case against you. And, of course, one of the keys to winning these public arguments is getting congressional allies on board from the get-go.

But when it comes to financial regulation, the details (and their consequences) are basically lost on 90-plus percent of voters. Beyond the very broad question of whether we should tighten regulation of Wall Street (on which the public agrees with the administration), most people don't have many opinions--and probably never will. That means there's not much value in airing the details in public, and not much lost by withholding them, and so no need to enlist congressional allies in this effort. The battle is almost entirely an inside game between policymakers who favor reform and the interests (and their congressional allies) who oppose it.

Given that backdrop, it seems like you're far better off developing your plan privately and then taking it to the Hill. That way you limit--though hardly eliminate--opportunities for opponents to influence the final product, whereas both developing the policy in Congress and then trying to pass it would create an all-out lobbyist feeding frenzy. And, of course, you lose little in the public debate because there won't be much of one to speak of.

Update: An example might be helpful to clarify the point here: If you're Obama and you're working on health care, what you don't want is a lot of Democratic congressmen feeling like it's your plan and that they don't have any stake in it. That's because, at a certain point, the GOP is going to seize on some component--like the public option or tighter regulation of insurance companies or comparative effectiveness or whatever--and start bashing you for it. If your congressional allies feel invested, they'll rally to your side. If not, they may stay mum and see if the attacks draw blood. Some may even raise questions of their own. So you want them as invested as possible.

But on something like financial market reform, it's really hard for the GOP to seize on a specific component and whip the public into a frenzy over it, for the simple reason that the public doesn't especially care about/understand these debates beyond the very broadest level. As a result, there isn't a huge upside to making your congressional allies feel invested from the get-go--you don't need a vigorous public defense. But there is a downside, which is that the earlier you involve Congress, the earlier you lose control of the process and the more opportunities lobbyists have to divide and conquer, etc.

--Noam Scheiber