Is Obama failing to lead, or leading in a new, crafty way?

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 17, 2011 

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's proposed budget this week raised a key question about how he governs: Can he lead without getting out in front?

Obama says the government has to fix Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security to avoid fiscal disaster. He just doesn't think he should be the first one to say how.

That, Republicans say, is an abdication of leadership. Obama says it's smart leadership, that if he made a specific proposal now on how to fix those politically charged programs, it would just become a target for critics, feed talk-show shouting and make real negotiations impossible.

He may be right. Where leaders such as FDR and LBJ once could send specific legislation to Congress and see it enacted, things changed in recent decades. Bill Clinton proposed a detailed health care plan in 1993 — and cartoonists had a field day lampooning it, lobbyists ganged up against it and Congress gave up on it. George W. Bush tried to propose major changes in Social Security in 2005, and Democrats ripped his plan to pieces.

Now comes the Obama model. He never sent specific health care legislation to Congress, yet managed to enact sweeping changes in a law that his party had sought since Harry Truman. He proposed only broad principles for financial regulation, and got what's arguably the most ambitious regulation of Wall Street since the 1930s.

Changing entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security will be harder: He faces a Republican-led House of Representatives on this one. And he'll eventually have to offer more specifics to drive the debate, analysts say. But he's clearly trying to forge a new model of presidential leadership adapted to a new age.

"It's a potentially effective strategy for Obama," said Bruce Buchanan, a scholar of the presidency at the University of Texas. "Leadership has always been changeable across presidential history."

"Obama has done pretty well combining the specific and the general," said James MacGregor Burns, a presidential historian. "They have to do both."

In his new budget, Obama avoided specific proposals on Social Security. Instead, he offered some principles of what an agreement with Congress to shore up the system should look like:

He said it shouldn't privatize the system, shouldn't "slash" benefits for future generations or reduce benefits at all for current beneficiaries, and should "strengthen" the system for the poor and most vulnerable.

He didn't mention such commonly discussed options as raising the retirement age or raising the wage tax. He and his aides say they're ready to talk about specific solutions when lawmakers of both parties are, too, and that history shows that's the only way changing such politically charged programs gets done.

"This is not a matter of you go first or I go first," he said in a news conference this week. "This is a matter of everybody having a serious conversation about where we want to go, and then ultimately getting in that boat at the same time so it doesn't tip over."

Some House Republicans aren't ready to get in the boat yet.

"In our nation's most pressing fiscal challenges, the president has abdicated his leadership role," responded House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis.

Yet Ryan's Republican colleague, House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, took a similar tack to Obama.

After first publicly endorsing the idea of raising the retirement age as a key fix for Social Security, Boehner pulled back. "I made a mistake when I did that because I think having the conversation about how big the problem is is the first step," Boehner told CNN last month.

"If we lead with our chin, nothing happens. That's what's happened in Washington for the last 25 years. I think that we need to have both parties working together to help explain to the American people the size of the problem and an array of possible solutions, and out of that conversation we'll begin to resolve what is possible," Boehner said.

White House aides said the model for leadership on a thorny issue such as Social Security was Ronald Reagan. They said Reagan learned in the early 1980s that specific proposals from him would draw fire, and that his eventual turn to a bipartisan commission helped produce an agreement with Democrats that saved the system from insolvency for a generation.

Moreover, Obama's White House learned from Clinton and Bush that specific proposals can become lightning rods for attacks and independently financed ads that poison the atmosphere for compromise.

When Clinton unveiled a detailed — and complicated — proposal to overhaul health care in 1993, it was mocked as an unworkable bureaucracy. Worse, it was the target of a massive ad campaign that Clinton later said buried the idea for good.

Though his Democratic Party controlled Congress, it never brought up the idea for a vote.

When Bush proposed overhauling Social Security in 2005, he got the first hint of the difficulty he faced when he met behind closed doors with congressional Republicans.

"If you lead, we'll be behind you," one told him. "But we'll be way behind you."

He decided against making a specific proposal, thinking it better to lay out the principles of any changes. His guideposts: no increase in taxes, no change in benefits for people at or near retirement and an option for younger workers to divert some of their Social Security taxes into privately managed accounts.

Then he proposed a specific plan to change the way benefits are allocated, saying they'd grow faster for poorer Americans and more slowly for wealthier people.

Democrats ripped the idea of private accounts, and Republicans weren't very eager to take up the issue at all. It died without ever coming to a vote.

What Clinton and Bush experienced demonstrated that the politics had changed, that presidents could face instant and unified opposition even before negotiations. In fact, the reaction to their proposals made negotiations impossible.

"The climate has changed. ... People started to say, 'Why not put general things out here and use presidential leverage to pressure individual legislators when the time is right, rather than in the opening round, rather than giving the opposition a big target,' '' Buchanan said.

"It's a potentially effective strategy for Obama. So far, it looks like it does work."

MORE FROM MCCLATCHY

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Budget outlook: Fireworks in House, compromise in Senate?

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