Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

10 March 2010

Working Quietly and Well


For all those Obama supporters who are losing hope and losing faith, I have just one word: “don’t.” Don’t lose hope. Don’t lose faith. Don’t give up.

Over a year ago, I described our President as the iron fist in the velvet glove. Many people fail to see the iron fist because Obama brings it round ever so slowly and deliberately, albeit with crushing force. Many more people fail even to glimpse the velvet glove because they are focused obsessively on our dysfunctional Senate and media.

But if you pay careful attention to detail and nuance, you will see both at work. The iron fist―in the form of a filibuster-evading budget reconciliation bill―will bring us health-insurance reform, despite all the gridlock and noise in the Senate. And I suspect it will do so late this summer, just before the 2010 election campaign begins in earnest, when it will do the President and his party the most political good. Anyone who thinks the President is not a master of patience and timing hasn’t been paying very close attention.

Unbeknownst to many, the velvet glove has been equally hard at work. My favorite example is still the industry-wide agreement that Obama and his energy-environmental coordinator Carol Browner forged to increase automobile fuel-efficiency standards. If you’ve been around since before the seventies, as I have, you know how contentious, difficult and incremental changes in these crucial industry parameters have been. Every administration that made a regulatory advance had to sweat blood, enduring endless demagoguery from the right. Then, after succeeding in writing advances into regulatory or statutory law, it had to endure years or even decades of litigation before car makers finally settled down to doing what had to be done (and what, despite their protestations, had been technologically feasible all along).

Not Obama. By getting car makers to agree, he avoided all the sturm und drang and yet achieved the same result. Not only that. He did it at a time when domestic car makers were losing badly to their foreign competitors, when car sales were universally tanking and when Japanese hybrids were the only models showing steady increases in consumer interest. In other words, Obama inked the deal at precisely the time when industry and economic conditions gave him the maximum amount of leverage and even made some car CEOs see the light. Tell me our President doesn’t understand timing!

An even more important example appeared in the news today. The Washington Post reported on an extraordinary initiative to establish, for the first time ever, uniform national standards for what it means to be an educated American. All but a handful of states appears poised to adopt the standards, which will be published in full tomorrow.

Again, those like me who recall the past can be excused for being astonished. In the past, every national attempt to establish uniform standards for education has met determined (and usually successful) opposition flying the banner of “states rights” and the Confederate flag. The most determined opponents usually came from the states that most needed to improve their education.

Not this time. The new standards have nothing to do with Washington. Ad-hoc groups of state governors and local officials developed them. Obama and his administration appear to have made every effort to keep their fingerprints off. But the Post reports an opponent of the standards lamenting, “I think it’s a done deal because Obama attached all this money.”

The President’s know-nothing detractors have ridiculed his experience as a community organizer. But that experience taught Obama two invaluable lessons. First, real change comes up from the bottom, not down from the top. Second, a buy-in at the grass-roots level is far more powerful than a filibuster, or even a Senate majority. It can work miracles.

So Obama got the automakers to buy into wasting less fuel and the Southern states-rights fanatics to buy into educating their kids to international standards, just as all our trading partners do. That’s the velvet glove.

You won’t see the velvet glove in action unless you pay careful attention. It works behind the scenes. But for that single sentence in the Post article, no one would know that Administration incentives helped and perhaps initiated the extraordinary effort to develop real educational standards. Often there will be only hints of presidential involvement: an incentive here, a nudge there, a mediated agreement there.

But make no mistake about it: our President is clever and flexible enough to use every lever of influence and power known to man (and Machiavelli) to reach his goals. And he’s smart enough, and sufficiently in control of his own ego, to cover his own footsteps when doing so will advance his goal.

So get over the idea that every step forward in politics requires a frontal assault. Stop thinking of national politics as a Manichaean struggle between good and evil. Dubya thought that. He tried to govern by pushing his 50.1% as hard as he could whenever he could. And the result was an unmitigated disaster, both for the country and for his party.

We Democrats have a much, much smarter leader. Precious few of us appreciate his patience and his timing. But we will.

I, for one, am confident that when the dreaded midterm elections finally come round, they will be a surprise, but not in the way conventional wisdom now expects. In six months jobs will be coming back, Iraq and Afghanistan will be stabilizing, we will have health-insurance reform, and folks who pay attention will have much greater confidence in our leader’s extraordinary patience, timing and skill. If I were running for Congress as a Democrat, even a Blue Dog, I would make sure to get him on my appearance calendar now.


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