* My Sun-Times column is not intended to be a “be-all, end-all” analysis of what’s gone wrong so far, but rather a look at one particular angle. Try to keep that in mind when reading…
It’s generally considered a rule of thumb that politicians with mainly legislative backgrounds do not make particularly effective chief executives. The two worlds, and their required mind-sets, are vastly different.
And, for the most part, our state’s better governors and our country’s most effective presidents for the past 100 years or so have had executive experience before moving to the top of the ladder. I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about legislatures, and I’ve been thinking lately that many of President Barack Obama’s bungles can be traced right to this issue.
Obama never really ran anything before being elected. But, more importantly, he also learned over the years to think like a legislator. Judging from afar, I don’t believe he has truly changed his mind-set.
Obama scored his biggest win in the Illinois Senate by working with Republicans to pass an ethics reform bill. It wasn’t easy. Republican Senate President Pate Philip was no reformer and was also exceedingly hostile to the minority party and minorities in general. But Obama helped fashion a compromise that could pass muster with the Republicans. It wasn’t a great bill, but it was something, and something was judged as far better than nothing. Since then, two governors have been convicted of corruption, but Obama got his bill passed, so, whatever.
When he arrived in the U.S. Senate, Obama found himself again in the minority party. One of the first things he did was attach himself to Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar, an Indiana Republican. He reveled in working with the other side.
Obama firmly believed his success at working with Republicans would help him be a better president. Heck, I thought the same thing during his campaign. So far, we’ve both been wrong.
After he was elected president, Obama was no longer a member of a large, mostly collegial group. Many of the same people who once gladly worked with him immediately vowed to block his every move.
Instead of realizing that the game had completely changed, Obama continued to approach Congress as if he were still a member of their club.
We all know what has happened since then. One grand plan after another was either watered down into ineffectiveness or, in the case of health-care reform, absolute confusion, or just defeated outright.
The idea always seemed to be to pass a big, sweeping, bipartisan bill, not to truly solve the problem at hand. This is a peculiarly legislative approach to life and it’s why we need a strong, involved executive to make sure things actually get done right.
Legislators regularly score points with the folks back home by talking about all the bills they’ve voted for or against, regardless of whether their vote really mattered. Sprinkle a local project here and a local project there and they’re deemed successful.
Presidents are judged on an entirely different level. Not only do they have to pass big legislation, but that big legislation has to work in the real world.
So, Obama can talk about his stimulus bill until he’s blue in the face, but the hard truth is it didn’t perform as advertised.
He can pat himself on the back for health-care reform, but nobody understands it and it’s not running yet.
And he can blame the Republicans for bringing us to the brink of default, but the president will always wear the jacket. He cannot hide within that faceless group of congressmen. He belongs to a club of one.
Legislators pass bills in order to check them off their lists. Executives have to make sure those bills actually perform as promised. Obama has never really done that, and he’s paying the price now.
*** UPDATE *** Zorn’s response…
I’d add to this only that one of his appealing qualities to voters — a high-mindedness rooted in an academic’s belief that if people of good will with opposing viewpoints reason together they can move beyond partisanship to find common ground and effective compromise — seems to have been one of his biggest weaknesses.
Many voters respond to such a message and claim this is the kind of leadership they’d like to see in Washington — it was Obama’s trump card over Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary contest, where she was seen as a divisive relic of the past. But in the end what they really want — and, arguably, what they need given the unbridgeable ideological differences — is a fighter.
Obama has now more than taken the measure of his Republican foes and is at last striking a much more pugnacious tone. We know you can take the President out of the legislature. Now we’ll see if you can take the legislature out of the President.
[ *** End Of Update *** ]
* Meanwhile, the media went a bit nuts this week when it was disclosed that Rahm Emanuel would be speaking at a bit Iowa Democratic dinner on behalf of the president. It was openly discussed whether he was positioning himself for a presidential bid himself. Nope…
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel says he is not interested in running for president.
Emanuel’s decision to give a speech Nov. 19 at the biggest Democratic fundraiser before the Iowa Caucuses is fueling speculation he may be laying the groundwork for a run for the presidency in 2016.
Emanuel tried to put that speculation to rest yesterday with a little prompting, saying “no, never. Not interested.”
“I’ve done two trips already at the request of the . . . president’s re-election campaign. They’ve asked me to be a surrogate. I’ll do it. [But] I’m not interested [in running for president]. I love this job. I love the people of the city of Chicago. I love working on behalf of the taxpayers. Not interested.”
Not even in 2016?
“[Not] even if you did that dance step you just did,” the mayor told an overzealous TV reporter. “I’m NOT” interested.