Obama: Agent of Change or Compromiser in Chief

06/20/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Warren G. Harding, John F. Kennedy, Barack Obama. What do they have in common? They represent the sum-total of all Presidents of the United States who have gone to the White House from the Congress since 1900.

You can add three more names to that list -- Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Gerry Ford -- three Presidents who succeeded to the presidency but whose governmental careers were dominated by service in Congress.

Are there lessons to be learned from the experiences of Obama's five predecessors whose pre-presidential careers were largely legislative, not executive? On the one hand, it is hard to say. Harding's brief administration was rife with scandal; Kennedy's, cut short before his potential was reached; Ford's dominated by the shadow of Richard Nixon. Truman and Johnson might prove better models; they each were elected in their own right and governed with a keen awareness of working with the Congress. But, Obama's career in the Senate was much shorter than theirs and was dominated by his running for President. Not much there to go on.

On the other hand, Obama's style in his first four months in office points to the significance of his understanding of the Congress.

Not only is he the first President in nearly half a century to come to the White House directly from the Senate, but he has deliberately placed former legislators in prominent roles in his administration. Vice President Biden had a 36-year career in the Senate before moving to the Executive Branch. Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel gave up the third-ranking position among House Democrats to follow Obama to the White House. Two Cabinet officers -- Secretary of State Clinton and Secretary of the Interior Salazar -- came from the Senate; two others -- Secretary of Labor Solis and Secretary of Transportation LaHood -- left the House to join the administration team. Numerous staff members led by OMB director Peter Orszag, who headed the Congressional Budget Office in the 110th Congress, and Senior Advisor Pete Rouse, who had worked not only for then-Senator Obama but also former Democratic leader Tom Daschle, have had long-time, high-level Hill experience.

Much of what has gone on in the first months of this administration can be attributed to the governing style of these leaders. They come out of a highly partisan, contentious experience in the Congress. But they also come out of an institution in which leaders know that they must compromise in order to get ahead.

Liberals have questioned whether Obama can be the agent of change he promised during the campaign. Or will he be just another politician willing to accept half a loaf?

The answer is in a combination of his style and the experience he and his team bring to governing. When candidate Obama first talked about "change," he was talking about changing the way things are done in Washington. He was talking about changing the tone of politics. And President Obama, Obama the Cool, has maintained a steadfast focus on that kind of change. He has reached out to the Republicans; he has remained calm when Minority Leader Boehner has demanded a united front against his policies.

And he remains committed that more can be done by lowering partisan rhetoric than by flaming ideological passions. Look at his two commencement addresses last week. At Arizona State he used self-deprecating humor to alleviate the concerns over whether he had been slighted by the university's not bestowing an honorary degree. In South Bend, where Notre Dame's awarding the honorary degree aroused passionate opposition, he sought to bring the dialogue to a "common ground." To change the tone of the debate.

He assumes that the opposition will come around if the nation accepts his tone.
But he and his staff also know the legislative process. The issues on the table in the months ahead -- health care and energy policy, closing of Guantanamo, changing the face of our military, education policy, the list is all but endless -- will require working across the partisan aisles in Congress. Obama has shown he is ready to do that -- and if he is successful, he might not get the whole loaf, but he will get much more than others anticipate.

The United States government -- political scientists have been teaching their students for generations -- involves separated institutions sharing powers. The President is clearly the agenda setter, but he is not, as President Bush tried to be, "the decider." In Richard Neustadt's classic phrase, which President Kennedy never forgot, "presidential power is the power to persuade." The verdict on Obama is clearly still out, but the early returns are positive.

L. Sandy Maisel is director of the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement at Colby College.