Lion or lamb? To resolve the budget mess, Obama may have to be both
This is a column about management styles. What sort of leader can get things done in an age of austerity?
Our first case study is what you might call the Straight Up the Middle Approach. When Chris Christie ran for governor of New Jersey, he campaigned bluntly on the need to reduce the state's debt. After he was elected, he held 30 contentious town meetings with charts to explain how the debt would crush homeowners in each municipality.
Christie makes himself the center of the action and is always in the room. He sat down with Democratic leaders at meeting after meeting and hammered out compromises, detail after detail. The bipartisan pension reform bill Christie signed this month is controversial, but it is a huge step toward avoiding fiscal catastrophe. Christie, needless to say, quotes Springsteen to describe his approach: "No retreat. No surrender."
Our second case study exemplifies the Insurgent Approach. While campaigning to be mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel also spoke bluntly about the tough steps he would take to reduce the city's $650 million deficit.
But, in office, he hasn't led a single frontal assault. Instead, Emanuel has introduced a flurry of initiatives in all directions. He took away credit cards from many city officials. He's moved to lengthen the school day. He redeployed 650 cops from offices to the streets. He cut $75 million from the 2011 budget. He induced United Airlines to bring 1,300 jobs.
At any given moment there seem to be six Mayor Emanuels announcing six different initiatives. The measures to reduce spending are submerged in a frenetic reinvigoration agenda.
The key for Emanuel is to know which fights to pick (making it more difficult for teachers to strike, for example), and sequencing those fights within broader narratives about city growth.
It's almost physical. Christie relies on power and mass. Emanuel relies on dexterity and speed. Both have begun their administrations in spectacular fashion.
The third case study is the most unexpected: President Barack Obama's Convening Approach. First, some context: In 1961, John F. Kennedy gave an inaugural address that did enormous damage to the country. It defined the modern president as an elevated, heroic leader who issues clarion calls in the manner of Henry V at Agincourt. Ever since that speech, presidents have felt compelled to live up to that grandiose image, and they have done enormous damage to themselves and the nation. That speech gave a generation an unrealistic, immature vision of the power of the presidency.
Obama has renounced that approach. Far from being a heroic quasi-Napoleon who runs the country from the Oval Office, Obama has been a delegator and a convener. He sets the agenda, sketches broad policy outlines and then summons some congressional chairmen to dominate the substance. This has been the approach with the stimulus package, the health care law, the Waxman-Markey energy bill, the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill and, so far, the Biden commission on the budget.
As president, Obama has proved himself to be a very good Senate majority leader — convening committees to do the work and intervening at the end.
All his life, Obama has worked in nonhierarchical institutions — community groups, universities, legislatures — so maybe it is natural that he has a nonhierarchical style. He tends to see issues from several vantage points at once, so maybe it is natural that he favors a process that involves negotiating and fudging between different points of view.
Still, I would never have predicted he would be this sort of leader. I thought he would get into trouble via excessive self-confidence. Obama's actual governing style emphasizes delegation and occasional passivity. Being led by Barack Obama is like being trumpeted into battle by Miles Davis. He makes you want to sit down and discern.
But this is who Obama is, and he's not going to change, no matter how many liberals plead for him to start acting like Howard Dean.
The Obama style has advantages, but it has served his party poorly in the current budget fight. He has not educated the country about the debt challenge. He has not laid out a plan, aside from one vague, hyperpoliticized speech. He has ceded the initiative to the Republicans who have dominated the debate by establishing facts on the ground.
Now Obama is compelled to engage. If ever there was an issue that called for his complex, balancing approach, this is it. But, to reach an agreement, he will have to resolve the contradiction in his management style. He values negotiation but radiates disdain for large swathes of official Washington. If he can overcome his aloofness and work intimately with Republicans, he may be able to avert a catastrophe and establish a model for a more realistic, collegial presidency.
The former messiah will have to become a manager.