What does he do all day? Are you impressed with the image of Obama-at-work left by Ryan Lizza’s “Obama Memos” piece in the New Yorker? The President’s decision-making method–at least as described in the piece–seems to consist mainly of checking boxes on memos his aides have written for him. … They offer him four stimulus packages, none bigger than $890 billion. He does not ask for more but does push for an “inspiring ‘moon shot’” initiative. At first it’s a “national ‘smart grid’”–hard not to get inspired just hearing those words! When aides explain that this isn’t stimulating enough, he settles for “high-speed trains.” … He’s presented with a list of $60 billion in cuts to his core stimulus policies, and writes “OK.” … He “authorize[s] his staff” to plan a likely-to-be-useless “bipartisan ‘fiscal summit,’” asks “what are the takeaways”” is told he could “ask .. for continued dialogue,” and doesn’t write “this is all BS” and cancel the summit, which in fact proves useless. … He asks, “Have we looked at any of the other GOP recommendations (e.g. Paul Ryan’s) to see if any make sense” instead of, I dunno, looking at them himself. … He’s given a memo on cutting government waste and writes “This is good stuff–we need to constantly publicize our successful efforts here.” Does he later notice that either the efforts or the attempt to publicize them were wildly ineffective? … He’s asked to check a box saying whether he wants to fund his “child nutrition agenda” out of the money for community colleges. … He’s asked about including medical malpractice reform in his health care bill, and writes (“in his characteristicaly cautious and reasonable style”) that “we should explore it.” … He’s presented a plan for a watered-down tax on multinationals or a very watered down tax. He writes “worth discussing.” … He’s advised to appear less hostile to “the anti-government right” and its concerns by discussing “what small businesses mean for the freedom to be your own boss” and doesn’t write ‘look, we passed a huge health bill and we’re spending billions on ‘green jobs.’ I’m not going to assuage the Tea Partiers with some throwaway rhetoric about small business and it insults them if it looks like I think I can.’ … He’s offered a box to extend a one year non-defense spending freeze into a three year freeze. He doesn’t ask for a bigger, smaller, longer or broader freeze. He draws “a check mark.” … Finally, he’s presented with a classic three-box-con memo–two extreme boxes (big new jobs package, big new deficit package) and a safer middle box (“smaller, more symbolic” deficit efforts), a matrix clearly designed to get him to choose the middle option. He chooses the middle option.
I’m sure Obama is smarter than this. He can’t be an executive who spends his days checking boxes, accepting the choices presented by his aides, never reaching outside them through unconventional channels or reaching unconventional thinkers, never throwing over the framework with which he is presented.
I’m sure of it, but I can’t find much evidence for it in Lizza’s piece. The aides who leaked him the memos didn’t do Obama any favors.
P.S.: Lizza’s apparent thesis–that Obama tried to end Washington’s “divisive trench warfare” but was thwarted by hyperpartisanship–is a classic “Neutral Story Line” (‘Can’t they get along’) given a mild anti-GOP twist. It’s also a bit of a crock. After the 1994 failure of President Clinton’s health care plan, if not before, it was obvious to anyone paying attention that passing a universal health care plan would be a heavy lift, opposed by most Republicans.
For decades in the last century , goo-goos (especially fans of Euro-style parliamentary systems such as The New Yorker’s own Hendrik Hertzberg) had lamented that our two parties were too alike, too overlapping. They didn’t stand for anything or present a clear ideological choice. Well, now they do! One of them stands for a government-run national health care plan, the other doesn’t. If Obama actually believed he could pass his plan while transcending partisanship he was more of a fool than I think he was.
Toward the end of his piece, Lizza writes “[p]redictions that Obama would usher in a new era of post-partisan consensus politics now seem not just naive but delusional.” What you mean “now”? They seemed naive and delusional then, given the looming health care battle. Lizza’s whole argument depends on the reader deluding himself about that.