Obama's presidential style is a work in progress

McClatchy NewspapersApril 26, 2009 

WASHINGTON — As he entered office, President Barack Obama made a symbolic bow to frugality, putting off the costly redecorating of the Oval Office that his predecessors had done.

But if the furnishings have remained largely the same — right down to the stain on the big oval rug — the way Obama looks and acts there is decidedly different from his predecessor, not to mention all those who went before.

At the 100-day mark, he's putting his own style on the presidency. Opportunistic. Pragmatic. Confident. Deliberate. Polite to friend and foe alike. Partisan. Polarizing. A better talker than George W. Bush. A more disciplined manager than Bill Clinton.

Some traits he'll maintain throughout his presidency. Some could change over his term. John F. Kennedy grew skeptical after a disastrous invasion of Cuba early in his presidency, learning to challenge aides and adopting an executive style that saw him and the country through a nuclear showdown with the Soviet Union.

"He's flexible," George Edwards, a scholar of the presidency and currently a visiting fellow at Oxford University, said of Obama. "He's still learning."

Nothing defines his early days as much as the way he's seized the political opportunity provided by economic crisis to push forward an ambitious liberal agenda that otherwise would have little chance of getting through Congress. It includes an explosion of federal spending, the groundwork for universal health care and broad regulation of the environment, and soaring deficits and debt.

Even before he took office, Obama knew he faced a rare moment of crisis — one when a president could push through an agenda dramatically changing the government, and perhaps the country itself.

Franklin D. Roosevelt did it in 1933 at the height of the Great Depression. Lyndon Johnson did it in 1964-65 in the aftermath of Kennedy's assassination. Ronald Reagan did it in the early 1980s at a peak of the Cold War and economic stagflation. George W. Bush did it after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Shifting priorities to push through his massive package of spending surges and tax cuts — many already on his or the Democratic agenda — was pivotal, because it's unclear how much Obama could get through Congress absent the crisis. Those who counseled him to wait on the big programmatic priorities and focus first only on fighting the economic downturn misunderstood that, but Obama got it.

As he seeks to get his way, at home and abroad, Obama's demonstrated a penchant for working people one on one, apparently confident that he can win over anyone.

While he may be laying the groundwork for more civil relations with Republicans and legislative successes later, he won only three Republican Senate votes for his stimulus package and none in the House of Representatives, none from either chamber for his budget, and he also failed to convince European leaders to send combat troops to help in Afghanistan.

"He has a difficult time persuading people," Edwards said. "He's been very good at maintaining his coalition. What he can't do is bring other people in."

A careful and deliberate communicator, Obama relies on the teleprompter more than any other president. When he speaks off the cuff, such as at town hall meetings, he often pauses as though he's searching for precisely the right words.

Communication skills are important — Bush was so bad he joked that his mouth was where words went to die. But they alone cannot change the landscape. "What they can do is recognize and exploit opportunities," Edwards said. "It's not the same as creating opportunities."

What Obama says is easily more important than how he says it.

For example, he's shown a readiness to be pragmatic on some things as he's transitioned from campaigning to governing.

Examples:

  • After talking to commanders, he slowed his proposed drawdown of troops from Iraq.
  • Heading to Turkey in search of help with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he dropped a campaign pledge to say the killing of Armenians nearly a century ago was genocide.
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  • To the dismay of liberals, he echoed Bush and argued that national security was threatened by two lawsuits alleging the torture of a suspected terrorist and the warrantless surveillance of two American attorneys and an Islamic charity.
  • Obama, like most who come to the office, is sure of himself. One example is his willingness to admit a mistake, such as when Tom Daschle, his nominee to be secretary of Health and Human Services, was forced to withdraw after being caught in a tax mess. "I screwed up," Obama said.

    Another is his recent speech at Georgetown University explaining why he was trying to do so many things at once, using a Biblical metaphor to say he wanted to make sure the nation's house was built on a solid foundation, on rock instead of sand.

    "The Obama team sensed that the message of him trying to do too much was starting to catch on," said Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas. "He's very quick at damage control."

    Yet doubts about the size of Obama's agenda persist, and he's governing as a partisan, depending on party-line votes in Congress and particularly support from liberal allies such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

    At ease with congressional Democrats, Obama defers to them to work out the details. He also set up staff to fire off e-mails to generate grassroots support from 13 million backers and to attack foes such as Rush Limbaugh. Then he hits the road himself about once a week to sell the broader message.

    "It still has the look and feel of the campaign," said Michael Franc, a vice president of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research organization.

    While Obama talks plenty of policy at his town hall meetings, he also uses a public relations strategy to sell the softer side, chatting amiably with Jay Leno, appearing on ESPN to reveal his college basketball picks, and walking the new dog, Bo, on the White House lawn.

    The effect? His base loves him. Republicans, however, still aren't buying his agenda. In fact, a recent survey by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found him with high approval from Democrats and independents, but dismally low approval from Republicans.

    "For all of his hopes about bipartisanship," Pew said, "Barack Obama has the most polarized early job approval ratings of any president in the past four decades."

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    McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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