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Obama’s Leadership Style

In the comments on my Obama’s New Health Strategy: Leadership post, Michael Reynolds makes a salient point about President Obama’s leadership style: “He operates like a community organizer: let people have their say, let them wear themselves out, then step in and define the consensus.

I think that’s fundamentally correct.  I’ve long marveled at Obama’s ability to frame issues in such a way that people not predisposed to dislike him can come away thinking that he agrees with them.  I always attributed that to remarkable political skill and self-discipline but it may well be more than that: a core approach to getting things done. Whether that can work at the presidential level remains to be seen but it’s a fascinating approach.

With regard to the health care debate:

The key is to move health care from “privilege” to “right.” That done, we will figure out how to pay for it. We’ll have to find the cost-cutting, and we’ll no doubt raise taxes. Just as we’ve done to finance Medicare thus far.

I think for better or worse Obama is a gradualist. This is a surprise to those on Left and Right who projected their own hopes and fears onto him. But he is a fundamentally moderate man, cautious and incrementalist.

It’s possible that Obama doesn’t much care what the final outcome of the debate is, so long as 1) it incrementally moves us closer toward establishing medical treatment as a “right” and 2) he gets credit for it.

Michael’s also right that Obama fully understands that all the talk about cost reduction is a distraction. Despite repeated promises to the contrary, the tax burden of the middle class will go up to pay for any expansion of the program.  The problem, though, is that it’s just not sustainable given the projected growth in medical costs.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    I guess it depends upon whether you care about the policy or just care about whether the President gets credit for it.

    The history of healthcare policy in this country is against the notion of buy now, pay later in healthcare. The case in which that’s worked out is when the plan had overwhelming political support.

    Whatever else you may think, that’s not the case with this particular set of reforms. Rolling back reforms when they were seen to be intolerable has happened before here.

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  2. Triumph says:

    I always attributed that to remarkable political skill and self-discipline but it may well be more than that: a core approach to getting things done.

    This was precisely Hitler’s strategy, as well.

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  3. Wayne says:

    Nice sounding theory but I don’t agree with most of it. I agree he operates like a community organizer in the sense he organize groups to speak out and try to frame the debate. All he does is campaign. He let others do the actual work. Look at about any bill already pass. They were written by congress, he promoted them, congress pass them and he sign them. He didn’t set back and let others have their say. He was out front trying to define it.

    Same with the healthcare, he tried to make it an emergency once again and rush a bill through before August recess. He spent a great deal of political capitol promoting his healthcare agenda and he fell flat. To pretend it was some masterful plan is ridiculous.

    Can anyone point out where since he has been President that he has “let people have their say, let them wear themselves out, then step in and define the consensus”. You can’t even say that about this health care deal. He has been out demeaning the opposition and pushing it from day one. Has he been involve with the details? No but he never has. He is the campaigner in chief afterall.

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  4. rodney dill says:

    I’ve long marveled at Obama’s ability to frame issues in such a way that people not predisposed to dislike him can come away thinking that he agrees with them.

    It’s still called lying.

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  5. James Joyner says:

    It’s still called lying.

    Heh. Mostly, he’s just a master of platitudes that don’t sound like platitudes at first blush.

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  6. Iraq. The key objections there were on the Left. But there were a few dead-enders on the right still crying that we were cutting and running. Obama let them all blog and rant, then continued the SOFA and the timed withdrawals. Upshot: wide consensus and almost no controversy.

    The bank crisis: Let Krugman and his pals rant about the need to nationalize and punish, let the libertarians rant about the importance of bankruptcy and failure. Upshot: consensus on a moderate middle path.

    Torture: Sully and his team, Cheney and his team, they both scream and yell. Upshot: cautious near-inaction and a token prosecutorial effort.

    Gays in the military: No action yet, still awaiting consensus which is now very close and I think will come with the end of Mullen’s tour.

    Predator strikes: Still hitting Al Qaeda inside Pakistan, no serious objection from either right or left. Consensus.

    Car bailout: Plenty of time for public comment, much yelling. Upshot: unpopular bailout is paired with popular cash for clunkers and the issue evaporates. Consensus.

    Cap and Trade: back-burnered until consensus can be reached.

    In fact, contrary to the hysterical loons on the far right, Obama has done nothing radical. He has continued a number of Bush policies. He has sidestepped or delayed various hot-button issues.

    Face it: he’s a moderate and a pragmatist. On just about every issue the Right has screamed socialism or appeasement, the Left has screamed sell-out, and in the end Obama walked a cautious path down the middle.

    Prediction: we’ll get half a loaf on health insurance reform. Obama will bounce back up to 60%.

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  7. Oh, and I forgot Iran. The far Right and some on the Left were yammering about some unspecified tough action. Obama let them yell, made some very carefully modulated speeches. Upshot: you notice how everyone except John Bolton has moved on?

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  8. whatever says:

    Are any of these problems solved?

    Iran – They stopped developing atomic weapons, huh. Peace in our time?

    Cash for Clunkers – All sorts of ills here from taking cars for even poorer citizens off the market, getting people more in debt with new cars at a time they should be saving, shifting sales of cars from one quarter to the other, adding to the government debt, showing the inefficiency of government, tons of car dealerships holding the bag while waiting to get repaid. It was a disaster, and the public is starting to realize it.

    Bank Crises – Oh, all better here, huh?

    Cap and Trade – DOA. Never pass.

    Torture – This won’t be hanging over the administration with the new prosecutions or if there is a new terrorist attack.

    Michael’s analysis is ridiculous, an analysis of hopeful short-term politics instead of solving problems facing the Nation.

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  9. Whatever:

    Did I say those problems were solved?

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  10. The victory of style over substance?

    In a somewhat related note, I read in some places that President Obama’s problems stem from trying to govern from the left after running as a centrist. But, what is the evidence that candidate Obama ran from the center? When he said anything concrete it sure sounded like a talking point or agenda item from the left to me. Mostly he said nothing of substance and let people project their desires for hope and change onto him. The disilllusionment that now results should be expected as more and more people come to realize he wasn’t who they thought he was. Please note that I am not saying Presidnt Obama deceived anyone because I don’t think he did. He just pulled a Chauncey Gardner and got away with it.

    And in another related note, this community organizing style apparently doesn’t work as well when the flak catchers cease to passively cooperate or outright surrender in the interests of getting along or trying to avoid conflict. Not everyone accepts the guilt trip The Man is trying to lay on us, dig?

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  11. Wayne says:

    “Did I say those problems were solved?”
    You said there was “Consensus” several times which simply is not true. You can only scream so long. Just because two side stop screaming at each other, doesn’t mean they reach a consensus on the issue. Many of the issues state are still burning strong in people’s bellies. You mention torture (enhanced interrogation techniques) which has been a hot button issue this week. Taking interrogations away from the CIA is not inaction. Also lacks of results are not the same as consensus middle of the road agreements.

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  12. Wayne:

    Hold a meeting with 10 people. One’s crazy in one way, another’s crazy in a different way.

    The 8 not-crazy people thrash it out and eventually come to a conclusion that makes no one really happy, but doesn’t make any of them terribly unhappy, either.

    Meanwhile the crazies are still crazy.

    That’s consensus in the political world: 8 sane people disgruntled to varying degrees, 2 crazy people marginalized.

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  13. DL says:

    “Obama’s ability to frame issues in such a way that people not predisposed to dislike him can come away thinking that he agrees with them.”

    A few years back most of us would have called that deceit.

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  14. Austin:

    What’s your evidence that Obama is governing from the Left?

    He bailed out the big banks. He spent a moderate amount on stimulus. (Half what the Left wanted him to spend.) He sent more troops to Afghanistan and kept the Bush agreement on Iraq. He bailed out two US auto companies. He asked Congress to come up with health reform.

    Point out the crazy Lefty to me.

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  15. Drew says:

    Oh, my.

    “He operates like a community organizer: let people have their say, let them wear themselves out, then step in and define the consensus.”

    Fine. Great for the amorphous and weird activity of community organizing. But applied to serious activities, like running a sizable business, or governing the country, this reminds me of the 30 year old first time manager who is totally out of his league and resorts to calling a meeting of the accounts payable clerks and warehouse managers to decide on company policy. Scary.

    “I’ve long marveled at Obama’s ability to frame issues in such a way that people not predisposed to dislike him can come away thinking that he agrees with them.”

    That’s fine, so he’s a good flim-flam man. Now what? That only goes so far. Serious people never buy it, or soon understand they’ve been handled. That’s not governing on a national scale. Its just one step from a used car salesman.

    “I always attributed that to remarkable political skill and self-discipline but it may well be more than that: a core approach to getting things done.”

    Really? Getting things done? He capitalized on a media and politically induced state of national hysteria (economic Armageddon) to pass a now well understood flop of a stimulus package. He stuffed through cap and trade on the coat tails…..at least at the House level. And now health care is flopping like a fish in the boat. “Remarkable,” indeed.

    “Michael’s also right that Obama fully understands that all the talk about cost reduction is a distraction. Despite repeated promises to the contrary, the tax burden of the middle class will go up to pay for any expansion of the program. The problem, though, is that it’s just not sustainable given the projected growth in medical costs.”

    Or said another way, he’s a very dangerous man without a leadership bone in his body.

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  16. Brian Knapp says:

    Interesting. I made a similar observation based on his book:

    There are some consistencies here, in the 2006 text, with the Barack Obama all this long presidential campaign later. It’s not necessarily in the issues. Some have been altered or amended. But it’s in the approach to politics that that will be his legacy. The cool and reasoned approach. The way in which all of the information is gathered and considered and played with and put into both a greater and smaller context all that the same time. It’s how his approach to politics is ultimately practical and unforgivingly compromising and inclusive that’s appealing.

    Not framed in the same way, but to the same effect.

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  17. floyd says:

    “”I’ve long marveled at Obama’s ability to frame issues in such a way that people not predisposed to dislike him can come away thinking that he agrees with them. I always attributed that to remarkable political skill and self-discipline but it may well be more than that: “”
    “”””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””
    Of course it is more than that, It’s a nation half comprised of obsequious fools,mesmerized by a power of celebrity unparalleled since the 1930’s in Germany.

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  18. Steve Plunk says:

    Obama has been a “leader” for a smidge over seven months. I suggest it’s too early to decide what his style is. He is not leading by any real measure and instead is being lead by events and the old guard in Congress. As the failures mount I expect to see his attempt at leadership become quite timid.

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  19. Wayne says:

    Michael
    I understand what consensus is but Obama has not done it. The example you gave are not examples of consensus with the exception of the Predator strikes. Can you name any controversial bill that the President has sign that had more than one or two Republicans on board? There are a great deal more citizens upset about what is going on than the typical one or two crazy. Look at the polls. 11% more people consider Obama doing a bad job than a god one. His overall approval is now below 45% and has been in a constant decline.

    Granted Obama keeping promises to Iraq and Afghanistan are not leftist. From the little I heard about his ROE, they are. It doesn’t do much good to put more troops on the ground then tie their hands. That is leftist action.

    Propping up companies and trying to pass socialist health care are leftist ideas regardless of which party does it. Tort reform isn’t. The government shared part of the blame in the banking mortgage crisis since they force them to give bad loans. I am not sure if you know what are leftist and conservative ideas are. If you don’t agree with the bailouts, Obama’s Healthcare reform, and want to cancel the stimulus package then welcome to the right side for those issues. If not then you are a leftist on those issues.

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  20. Wayne:

    You conflate Leftism and statism. Sorry, no. And you somehow conclude that rescuing billionaire bankers is a liberal idea.

    Really? Liberals are big fans of billionaire bankers?

    You also conflate an indifference to civilian casualties with conservatism. Again, no. Generals Petraeus and McChrystal — probably not wild-eyed lefties, I’m guessing — wanted a change in rules of engagement in keeping with their own notions of anti-insurgent warfare.

    Your polls are cherry-picked. And the biggest part of the decline is among independents, not conservatives. Conservatives never gave any support to begin with. The second largest drop is among liberals. Liberals and Obama-voting indies are likely frustrated by very different things than you are.

    As for GOP support, the GOP is no longer “conservative” it is nihilist. There is no compromise with people who are devoted to your destruction and the destruction of Obama is now the sole GOP goal.

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  21. G.A.Phillips says:

    Liberal definition of consensus:ABSOLUTE TRUTH!!!!!!!!!!

    To bad for us you guys have been wrong about everything since the beginning of time.

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  22. GA:

    Liberals wrong about:

    Civil Rights
    Women’s rights
    Social Security
    Medicare
    Gay rights
    Minimum wage
    Environment
    and Iraq

    Yeah. Do me a favor: make sure your party runs on that platform, okay?

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  23. G.A.Phillips says:

    GA:

    Liberals wrong about:

    Civil Rights
    Women’s rights
    Social Security
    Medicare
    Gay rights
    Minimum wage
    Environment
    and Iraq

    Yeah. Do me a favor: make sure your party runs on that platform, okay?

    Do you seriously want me to seriously answer any of this? Seriously?

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  24. G.A.Phillips says:

    “He operates like a community organizer: let people have their say, let them wear themselves out, then step in and define the consensus.”

    isa called a sissy troll…

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  25. Wayne says:

    Michael
    Were you for the bailouts are not? You the one saying we have consensus. If you agree with me the bailouts were wrong at least you can point to it as a point of consensus.

    ROE are for the most part controlled by the White House. That is true with any administration. The Generals follow orders of the White House but the buck (except our money) doesn’t ever stop at this White House.

    The polls are from the two most respected polling firms in the country not some lame university or hack poll. Yes Obama is losing support from across the spectrum so how can you say he is building consensus.

    The DNC are the deniers of truth and will ignore any fact or make up “facts” in order to prop up Obama.

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  26. GA:

    Do you seriously want me to seriously answer any of this? Seriously?

    Yes. Seriously.

    But I don’t expect it. I expect you to stall and bluff and bluster. Like you just did.

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  27. Wayne:

    Like most Americans I gritted my teeth and supported the bailouts. Not because of statism. Because I didn’t want the economy to crash just in order to make libertarians happy.

    Do you have some reason to think the rules of engagement are anything other than Generals Petraeus and McChrystal want? Because they certainly seem in line with the Petraeus approach to counter-insurgency.

    Even if not, do you really think reckless disregard for civilian casualties is a conservative value?

    Wayne, I think you’re the one a bit confused about what “conservative” and “liberal” mean.

    Here’s the thing about the polls: I’m not happy with everything Obama is doing. So if a pollster called me and asked me whether I am less happy, I’d say sure. But I am very glad I voted for Obama, very glad he’s our president, very, very glad that Republicans are in the wilderness.

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  28. G.A.Phillips says:

    But I don’t expect it. I expect you to stall and bluff and bluster. Like you just did.

    lol…

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  29. GA:

    See? I’m a prophet.

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  30. G.A.Phillips says:

    See? I’m a prophet.

    I don’t know about that, but you do have me interested in reading your Fantasy/science fiction books.

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  31. G.A.Phillips says:

    Obama’s Leadership Style, in case you missed it it will soon be streamed into a school near you… your kids can tell on you,,,err,,,tell you all about it..

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=54tjbgJmLFg

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  32. [...] stalled in Congress, and the handling of the financial crisis. I don’t know whether, as Michael Reynolds suggested, it’s an ingenious approach based on his background as a community organizer, it’s [...]

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  33. DavidL says:

    The problem for Obama is that no matter how hard you try to get the population to think of health treatment as if it were a right, health treatment is, and forever will continue to be, a commodity. No amount of community organizing, wall papering and astroturfing can alter that fact.

    Health treatment is not a commodity because we think of it as a commodity. Health treatment is a commodity because it is the the product of human endeavor.

    If Obama understood classic economics, he would know this. Alas outside of Allinsky, there is not much that Obama does understand.

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  34. Steve Verdon says:

    I’d also recommend Dave Schuler’s arguments as to why health can never really be a right. We can call it that, but it would be like calling a hippopotamus a ballerina. Stating it doesn’t make it true. The short of it is that it is a right that would infringe on other rights. You have a right under the Constitution to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, free speech, etc. However, if we grant health care as a right you could very well end up violating things like a right to liberty or property or even both.

    Like most Americans I gritted my teeth and supported the bailouts. Not because of statism. Because I didn’t want the economy to crash just in order to make libertarians happy.

    The problem is that with just the bailouts we are pretty much assuring it will happen again. A crash in the financial sector. The bailouts have strengthened the incestuous relationship between Washington and Wall Street.

    Its sort of like a drug addict. He keeps getting into money trouble due to his habit. So you keep bailing him out so he can continue his habit. You are operating under the false belief that one day he’ll realize what he is doing wrong and stop. But you keep forstalling that day by being his enabler.

    The problem with our financial system, at its root, was that it was exposed to too much risk. Further, this exposure was not made public, but hidden (either deliberately or not). When it came about that several bad events occurred in conjunction crisis.

    So, instead of saying, “We’ll bail you out, but go into a rehab program and we are going to make sure you can’t buy drugs without us knowing about it” for the financial institutions we just said, “How much do you need?” There is going to be no incentive to avoid risk. So long as the downside exposure is large enough to threaten the stability of the financial system we’ll bail them out.

    We can’t even say, “Okay, but this is the last time.” That doesn’t work either because when the next crisis comes it will always be better to bail them out than to let them sink. You pretty much assure them of a bailout again and again with this phrase, “…I didn’t want the economy to crash…” That will be just as true during the next crisis. Thus the rational thing, if you are going to go with bailouts, would be to say, “We need to take steps to make sure there isn’t another crisis, or it is less likely.” But you don’t advocate that either. You just grit your teeth and go back to writing fiction and hoping someone else will pay for your health care.

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  35. Steve Verdon says:

    Liberals wrong about:

    I’ll take a stab at it:

    Civil Rights–No
    Women’s rights–No
    Social Security–Yes, on implementation
    Medicare–Yes, on implementation
    Gay rights–No
    Minimum wage–Yes
    Environment–Sometimes on implementation
    and Iraq–No

    So, I go with liberals on the issue of rights and when to implement on many cases. However, when it comes to issues involving economics they more often than not fall flat on their faces.

    Medicare is in serious actuarial imbalance. The bulk of our health care problem is there. Which is really amusing since Obama could solve some of those problems with little or even possibly no legislation. He is the executive, and Medicare is under the executive branch.

    Now poltically those boondoggles were great. Giving away other people’s money is going to get you many, many friends. I’m sure if I could liquidate all of michael’s assets and started making donations to various people I’d have lots of new “friends”.

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  36. Austin:

    What’s your evidence that Obama is governing from the Left?

    He bailed out the big banks. He spent a moderate amount on stimulus. (Half what the Left wanted him to spend.) He sent more troops to Afghanistan and kept the Bush agreement on Iraq. He bailed out two US auto companies. He asked Congress to come up with health reform.

    Point out the crazy Lefty to me.

    You can’t be serious and you obviously aren’t. He’s not governing from the left because some people wanted him to spend even more? I’d be embarrassed to propose that as a serious retort, but YMMV. Incidentally, I never used the word crazy. Perhaps you should ponder why it flows so easily from your keyboard when discussing Obama.

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