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Strength and Strategy

In a Financial Times column that congeals a number of complaints heard in various quarters of late, Clive Crook blasted Barack Obama for "choosing to be weak" on climate change and health care legislation.

Some progressives who are upset by the watered-down contents of the House climate change bill, or worried about where the Senate's going on health care, might scan Crook's column and nod their heads in agreement. Actually, though, Crook seems less concerned about the precise nature of climate change and health care provisions than about Obama's refusal to flat out defy not only Congress but public opinion:

Congress offers change without change – a green economy built on cheap coal and petrol; a healthcare transformation that asks nobody to pay more taxes or behave any differently – because that is what voters want. Is it too much to ask that Mr Obama should tell voters the truth? I think he could do it. He has everything it takes to be a strong president. He is choosing to be a weak one.

While political leadership does generally require the shaping of public opinion, few successful leaders "tell the truth" to constituents in the form of telling them they are ignorant louts who are either too stupid to understand the choices involved in big challenges, or too selfish to make sacrifices in the national interest. That seems to be what Crook would have Obama do to look "strong."

In terms of dealing with Congress, moreover, Obama has simply learned from the lessons of past presidents (particularly Bill Clinton) that success almost never involves my-way-or-the-highway presidential edicts, and that choosing the right moment for presidential interventions is as important as how much pressure is exerted. In other words, "strength" is no substitute for "strategy."

Like most supporters of climate change legislation, I'm not happy with the compromises that were made to get the Waxman-Markey bill out of the House. But instead of despairing like Crook, I'd listen to another unhappy camper, Bradford Plumer, who has a good column that details all the reasons that passage of a bill like this is worthwhile and perhaps crucial (one of them being the disastrous effect that a failure to enact anything might have on the international climate change negotiations this December). And I might listen to Al Gore, hardly a man adverse to telling "inconvenient truths," who worked the phones to keep progressive Democrats on board in the House when many were tempted to bolt over their disappointment in the final product.

As for health care, it's entirely too early to make any real judgment on Obama's congressional and public-opinion strategy. Yes, the president will need to strongly deploy the bully pulpit, probably more than once. But Crook's assertion that Obama is abandoning the idea of health care cost-control or major changes in the incentive system for health services because he's not out there right now demanding big public sacrifices in the middle of a recession either an overstatement of the facts or an impolitic demand that health reform be made as unsavory as possible.

Even by Crook's standards, Obama would obviously be "stronger" if the financial system and then the economy hadn't melted down just before he took office. But that's the hand he was dealt, and he should be allowed to play it.

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Ed is profoundly correct when he says that “strength is no substitute for strategy”. Obama understands better than many of his critics that a successful legislative strategy involves not only influencing the politically involved legislators and “policy wonks” but also the large majority of the country who are barely aware of specific legislation except for one or two major bills.

From their point of view, the sudden appearance of the climate change bill, the rapid debate and its quick passage in the house has had three hugely important consequences.

1. It has converted climate change legislation from what many people thought was just a vague goal of Obama’s long-term agenda into an immediate and current proposal. The typical American’s reaction is “Oh, OK, so that climate change thing is actually “for real” this year and not just idle talk.”

2. The apparent speed with which it moved from what appeared to be a back-burner idea to active legislative proposal creates a strong impression that Obama has real momentum on his agenda in general. One of his signature policy goals suddenly got “on the move” within a very short time.

3. The passage of the legislation in the house changes the entire character of the way the issue is discussed in the media. Instead of “Come on, do we really need any legislation about this issue?” the debate will quickly and increasingly become redefined as “What kind of bill should Congress pass?” In effect a major ideological roadblock has been rapidly brushed aside.

All of these broad effects on public attitudes are ignored when the discussion is limited to the policy debates between the politically involved players who have been following the issue in detail. Yet, in the long run, it is only by influencing national public opinion as well as congressional votes that a successful campaign for a law can be carried out.

Obama understands this. Dems should too.

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