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The Heat In the Kitchen, The Buck Stopping, and All That

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Perhaps the most important lesson I learned in my years in the Clinton White House was that when problems arise, it is up to the White House to solve them. When you are the top dog, you have more levers and tools of power than anyone else, and more glory and reward when things go well. But when there is a problem, no matter whose fault it is, no matter how bad luck it is, the White House either solves the problem or the failure to do so is theirs. The buck stops there, if you can't stand the heat, etc, etc.

It has always been this way, and always will be. James Buchanan didn't cause the problems that led the nation to disintegrate on his watch, but by not solving them he goes down as one of the nation's most failed Presidents. Herbert Hoover didn't cause the Great Depression, but failing to make progress on it similarly casts him as one of history's biggest failures. LBJ's failure to end the Vietnam War destroyed him, in spite of his own amazing record of legislative achievement earlier in his presidency. Conversely, the Presidents like Lincoln and FDR that dealt successfully with major crises are considered our greatest Presidents, even though they made their share of mistakes along the way.

The combination of problems inherited from George W Bush is the biggest protracted crisis this country has faced since those days of FDR. This economy is damaged beyond what many of the conventional economists or commentators are aware, with a sustained situation that looks bleak for at least several years in the future. The war that Bush started and then ignored in Afghanistan is a quagmire that shows no sign of getting better anytime soon. The other long term problems the Bush administration (and other politicians for decades before, for that matter) ignored - our rapidly deteriorating infrastructure, the health care system's dysfunction, college affordability, our long term trade and budget deficits - certainly don't help the country's sense of well being, or our ability to compete in the world economy of the 21st century.

Even problems less monumental are also tests of Presidential leadership. Jimmy Carter's inability to solve the hostage crisis contributed greatly to his failure as President, and Harry Truman's failure to win or end the Korean War made it impossible for him to run for re-election in spite of all his other accomplishments. LBJ, Ford, Carter, and George HW Bush all failed to get along with their party's respective base, and that alone would have doomed their Presidency. (No President with a strong primary challenge from their base has ever won re-election.)

Again, it doesn't matter whether these problems are some one else's fault, or just bad luck: it is up to the President to deal successfully with whatever they are faced with. Period, end of story.

That is why when I first heard the President, as well as Larry Summers and Tim Geithner, utter the words "jobs are a lagging indicator" early last year, I shuddered. That is trickle down, neo-classical economist speak for "sorry we won't be able to help you get a job anytime soon." That is why when I saw anonymous senior White House officials saying "the left of the left" is the problem in getting the health care bill passed, or when they complain about bloggers being too tough on them, I worry about the whiners' mentality that is setting in at the White House.

Even complaining about Republicans saying no to everything has major limits as a political strategy. When a party has the Presidency and big margins in both Houses of Congress, voters will have very little patience with talk about how things aren't working because of the Republicans. It's great to score political points against the Republicans when Obama and the Democrats are on the high political ground, as on the banking bill, but the bottom line is that you have to figure out a way to deliver on, and solve, the big problems of your Presidency.

The ironic thing in all this is that Obama has a track record of successfully passing legislation that actually is really impressive. The aforementioned Politico article, Peter Daou, Digby, many other good writers have referenced this point. Progressives have rightly complained that the jobs/stimulus bill last year was too small, that the health care bill had no public option and other flaws, and that the financial reform bill doesn't break up the big banks the way it should have. All true, but these are still huge pieces of legislation that accomplished many of the goals and investments progressives have been fighting on behalf of for generations.

The comparison that some people have used for Obama is Jimmy Carter: an inexperienced, intellectual President who didn't work very well with his Democratic base. I don't think that comparison is fair at all: I think a far more apt historical comparison is to LBJ. Carter did not get any major domestic pieces of legislation passed and signed while in office, whereas Obama's legislative track record - while not yet that of LBJ's - is remarkable. But in both cases, their wars in distant third world countries drag on with no end in sight. And in both cases, the relationship between the President and their base isn't working. Adding to Obama's problems is one huge negative factor that LBJ never had: the economy is damaged far beyond the usual business cycle recessionary bumps.

My recommendation to the President and his White House team is to draw two lessons from all this:

1. On the economy, they need to look to FDR's spirit of constant experimentation. FDR understood the deep, intractable damage to the economy done by the Great Depression, and he advocated continually trying to new things to see what worked and what didn't. The problem with "jobs are a lagging indicator" mentality is that while you are patting yourself on the back for stabilizing certain economic trend lines, you lose focus on the constant, urgent need to keep finding ways to produce more jobs. That doesn't necessarily mean more federal jobs and stimulus programs: it could be new ways to force banks to lend more money rather then giving it out in bonuses; it could mean new ideas about getting corporations to invest in jobs rather then hoard their cash as they are doing today; it could mean making it easier for state and local governments to issue infrastructure bonds; it could mean making sure more government contracts create American jobs with higher wages (because higher wages mean more spending and more jobs created); it could mean pushing harder on China to solve its trade imbalance. And, yes, it could mean government jobs, too. Because in the end, it is the President's job to produce more jobs - a lot more jobs, whether they are government or private sector jobs. And between creative policy making and creative politicking, the President has to deliver, not be satisfied that jobs will come eventually.

2. I know people who worked for Jimmy Carter that are still bitter about Ted Kennedy's primary challenge, and I know old LBJ hands who never forgave Gene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy. But these challenges from the left were a symptom of the problems those Presidents had with their base, not the cause of it, and the fact that there was a rift that never healed helped cause their Presidencies to fail. By contrast, those of us in the Clinton White House left no stone unturned to reach out to progressives after the NAFTA fight, the health care disaster, and the 1994 election. Our ability to head off a primary challenge and enthusiastically unite our party going into the 1996 election allowed us to take control of the election narrative and soundly defeat Bob Dole.

If bloggers, labor, and other progressives are damaging your standing with the Democratic base and taking on the establishment candidates, the answer for the White House is not to bitch about it to reporters or gloat about whatever primary victories you manage to win. To have a successful presidency, the Obama team has to unite the Democratic Party and rekindle the enthusiasm of the door knockers and online contributors and base voters who brought him victory in 2008. It is up to the White House to reach out and fix this problem. They need a strategy to do it involving message, policy, and political outreach; and they need a strong team of people to execute the strategy. When the White House reaches out halfway, the thoughtful leaders of the progressive community will respond. But it is going to take effort, and it is going to take genuine gestures about things that really matter.

The Obama team has shown it has the ability to do some amazing things. In 2008, they elected a black man with an African Muslim name, an insurgent candidate with little experience. They turned out record numbers of voters, had more people knocking on doors, and had more contributors then any campaign in American history. In 2009, they passed the biggest jobs and investment bill in history. In 2010, they passed a bill to provide near-universal health care coverage, and a bill to improve regulation of the financial sector. Those were hellishly tough things to do. Now, they have to show they can produce jobs and repair the bridge to their base. If they can figure out how to do all they did so far in 2008, '09, and '10, they ought to be able to figure out how to get these other things accomplished as well. If they do, they will save the Obama Presidency.