The virtue of small ideas

Obama is embracing a more cautious approach — and that'€™s a good thing

January 30, 2014 7:00AM ET
President Barack Obama during his State of the Union speech on Tuesday.
Larry Downing/Reuters

Richard Nixon, who often employed football metaphors to describe politics, used to talk about one kind of presidential leadership as “three yards and a cloud of dust,” referring to the offense of teams that win with lots of hard-fought small advances. Like most presidents, Nixon disdained that slow and taxing process, preferring the alternative — the “long bomb,” such as his trip to China. But in practice, every president has to play both the big aspirational game and the more mundane business of incremental progress through executive orders, regulatory tweaks to existing laws, or symbolic gestures that perhaps set up the conditions for future accomplishment.

More than any other recent president, Barack Obama staked everything on the long bomb, the aspirational vision. Former Sen. Bill Bradley, who challenged Vice President Al Gore in the 2000 Democratic presidential primary (I worked for Bradley in the Senate and in the campaign), criticized the Clinton-Gore era for its modesty of aspiration. Bill and Hillary Clinton, along with Gore, embraced small ideas, the poll-tested gestures of the 1996 re-election campaign, such as school uniforms. Bradley’s ideas, and Obama’s, didn’t flow from a different ideology but from a different conception of political change. We would stand for big ideas, transformative changes — not just big policies but a “new politics” as well. At times during the Obama presidency, it has seemed as though he cared more about the scale of his achievements than the substance, as the long and futile quest for a budgetary “grand bargain” took the place of the large-scale liberal plans of the first year.

It has taken five long years for Obama to climb all the way down from that lofty height. The “long bomb” achievement of the first term, the Affordable Care Act, will eventually become a cornerstone of middle-class economic security, but for now it’s mired in the ugly details of implementation. The other big achievements of the Obama administration, including the economic stimulus, the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, and drawing down the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, were more a matter of cleaning up the disasters of his predecessor than charting a new course. Immigration reform and overhauling the tax code are now perpetual promises rather than real ambitions, and absent an unlikely realignment of Congress in the 2014 elections, small and incremental politics is all there will be.

And as Clinton learned, sometimes the American political system is more comfortable with incremental change. Obama’s State of the Union speech on Tuesday, heavier on description and narrative than calls to action, was well received in the chamber, among commenters afterward and in insta-polls. The Republican response was equally measured and descriptive: a warm autobiography of Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers rather than the “You lie!” of past State of the Unions. The chamber of the House of Representatives seemed smaller and more welcoming, because the president wasn’t staking ambitious positions.

Although governing by executive orders, such as the one that would set a minimum wage of $10.10 for federal contractors (but only for new contracts, so it would benefit just a fraction of the 200,000 people working at low wages on government projects), might seem a more confrontational way of exercising power — daring Congress to stop him rather than asking to negotiate with it — but it’s really a tool Obama should have been willing to use earlier. Perhaps spooked by early stumbles such as the botched nomination of former Sen. Tom Daschle to be Secretary of Health and Human Services, this administration has been far too cautious on nominations (95 vacant federal judgeships, with nominees for barely half, can’t be blamed on Republican obstruction) and, with some exceptions in environmental policy, on rulemaking. Instead of trying to remake politics, Obama should have recognized that American politics doesn’t change easily and that the president has to make the most of the powers he does possess.

Before the speech, there were hints in the media that Obama would embrace a more full-throated attack on economic inequality, not only calling for a move toward increasing the minimum wage, a small expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit and a more accessible way to save for retirement but also challenging the extraordinary gains of the very wealthy. For those who have been urging that Obama take up the “populist” flag, he will be seen as once again flinching from the fight. Modest improvements in well-being for struggling families are possible, he argued, without challenging the fundamentals of the successful businesses whose owners were sitting with Michelle Obama.

The president is probably wise to adopt that approach. Full-throated, angry populism not only isn’t his style, but it would also represent yet another big, ambitious charge against the resistance of the American political process as currently configured — a risk that might lead to nothing. If Obama can spend the next few years improving the opportunities for working people and their families, three yards at a time, that’s better than nothing. And that might be the only game this president is able to play. 

Mark Schmitt is the director of the program on political reform at the New America Foundation.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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