Unpaid taxes, uncowed GOP: Obama searches for his style

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 8, 2009 

WASHINGTON — A few weeks into his presidency, a man with no previous executive experience is finding his leadership style being tested while he's trying to forge it.

President Barack Obama has moved with blazing speed to put his imprint on his young administration, filling out his staff and Cabinet faster than anyone in at least three decades, blasting out executive orders and pressing Congress to pass the most expensive plan in history to stimulate the sinking economy.

In his rush, he's also bypassed his own orders against hiring lobbyists, named at least three senior appointees with tax problems, been forced to admit that he "screwed up" and shifted political strategy as his hopes for quick approval of the $800 billion-plus economic stimulus proposal bogged down in Congress.

"He's beginning to learn that governing requires an entirely different set of tools than campaigning," said Larry Gerston, a political scientist at San Jose State University in California. "It goes for anyone, but in Obama's case they were flying so high that coming down to Earth has been a tough landing,"

As he heads to the Oval Office each day, what is Obama showing the country about his executive style?

Is he the change-oriented outsider unsullied by Washington's ways or the rookie leader who really needs old insiders such as Tom Daschle, the D.C. veteran who was Obama's ill-fated choice to lead the drive for health-care restructuring before tax problems doomed his nomination as health and human services secretary?

Is he a hands-on executive who'll hammer out a deal — think Bill Clinton negotiating with Newt Gingrich — or a big-picture board chairman such as Ronald Reagan, who'll set goals, then let Congress work out the details?

Is he a new age leader of a post-partisan era who has Republicans over for drinks and signs bipartisan agreements into law or a traditional politician relying on his base to push measures through Congress while bashing the other party as obstructionist?

The answer so far is: He's a blend of all of that.

In his approach to the stimulus proposal, for example, Obama started out as the noble leader above partisan politics, confident of broad support for a plan that he said was crucial to avert catastrophe.

When Republicans signaled their first opposition to some proposals, such as money for family planning, he picked up the phone, called Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and asked him to drop it.

Yet lunching with Republicans the next day, Obama didn't mention the concession. He also apparently said nothing as Democrats in the House of Representatives watered down his original goal of $2 in tax cuts for every $3 in federal spending until the ratio ended up as $1 in tax cuts for every $2 in new spending.

This week, as Republican opposition continued, he shifted tacks. Talk of reaching out was toned down, and sharp new criticism of the Republicans took its place.

Talking to House Democrats on Thursday night in Williamsburg, Va., Obama said that he still welcomed talking with the other party but that Republicans shouldn't "come to the table with the same tired arguments and worn ideas that helped to create this crisis."

If he can shift political tactics, he's also signaled that he'll be pragmatic, even about some of his own campaign promises.

He remains publicly committed to withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq within 16 months, but he also quietly asked the military to assess the pluses and minuses of longer withdrawal periods.

He signed an executive order to close the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for example, but gave the Pentagon a year to figure out what to do with the detainees.

As he works through politics and policy, Obama's also showing a personal style that's different from George W. Bush or other predecessors.

On Friday, he met with the families of 9/11 victims and sailors who were killed in the October 2000 terrorist attack on the USS Cole, many of them irate over his suspension of the military trials off men accused in the attacks. Bush seldom, if ever, met with people who strongly disagreed with him.

Obama also took responsibility for the brouhaha over his nominations of Daschle and others with tax problems. "I screwed up," he said with unusual candor for a politician.

"That message alone, even if contrived and insincere, which I don't think it was, showed a modesty and humility that suggests he might be able to turn mistakes into opportunities," said Michael A. Genovese, a political scientist at Loyola Marymount University in California.

He and others likened it to the candor that John F. Kennedy displayed when he took responsibility after the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba early in his presidency. Kennedy's willingness to admit a mistake was immensely popular. More important, it drove him to adapt as a leader, eventually leading to his administration's sure-footed response to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, which is now held up as a model of successful leadership.

As then, Obama's own style of leadership might not congeal for some time. Said Gerston: "The Obama presidency is a work in progress."

HOW MUCH DETAIL?

Each president has a unique way of governing, even the four of five recent presidents who'd been governors:

_ Jimmy Carter was so hands-on that he insisted on personally setting the schedule for the White House tennis court.

_ Ronald Reagan liked to set the big picture and leave the details to a handpicked staff.

_ Bill Clinton got into the minutiae of policy, sometimes calling aides into the wee hours of the night.

_ George W. Bush, the only president who'd earned an advanced business degree, started out indifferent, sometimes doodling on legal pads while talking to members of Congress, then grew more involved over time.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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