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On Not Wasting a Crisis: How Obama Must Govern

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Rahm Emanuel is famous for saying that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste, and then the administration wasted one. The reason for raising this is not to look back and play whack-a-mole with Rahm or the White House, but to underline a couple of points about the future.

The administration interpreted "not wasting a crisis" as attempting to do everything at the same time; and to move multiple very large initiatives simultaneously. I know how White House cultures work. Once the President and the Chief of Staff decide on this as the direction, no one is really allowed to question it, and by extension no one is allowed to question accelerating all movement in all directions. As a different kind of example, it was quite clear a while ago that Copenhagen was not going to amount to much. So why keep insisting that it would be a huge success until the moment the cliff was clearly in sight? Because the White House decided to move everything at once.

The result of this orientation to doing everything meant that the White House, lacking the substantive capacity to lead everywhere, had to outsource to the Congress. It also mean that communications were murky and unfocused. And it inevitably led to a failure to emphasize the topic that was central and critical, but which seemed easy and done -- the economy, the financial system, and jobs.

There was another approach available, which would have involved the following components. First, focus on something and stay with it -- the economy was obvious. Second, take advantage of the style and tone of President Obama, which is a huge strength, and build it more into how the president is presented to the American people.

Third, make a real effort to grab the center politically and pose much harder choices to the Republicans -- make it hard for them not to engage. Since the prevailing wisdom is that they have simply refused to play at all and no tactic of cooperation or bipartisanship would have ever worked, this point requires some explanation and defense. Starting with the stimulus package, the administration -- in my view, driven by Congressional leadership -- posed choice after choice to the Republicans that offered them nothing. So blind opposition was costless to them. Fourth, develop and present a clear strategy and road map for governing -- say what you are about.

All of this is harder or seems harder than just doing everything. But it is fairly obvious now that this approach to the crisis would have yielded better results than the road we chose. The transition from political campaigning to governing a year or so ago looked at every issue under the sun but the important one -- how did the Obama administration plan to govern? As so often happens in cases like this, the Obama administration backed into the riskiest course of all.

This post originally appeared on New Deal 2.0