Party Trumps Style

Matthew Dickinson had an interesting post over the weekend in which he compared Barack Obama’s style to….uh oh, Jimmy Carter. Dickinson makes the case that like Carter, Obama “is a president who leads not on the basis of a core set of political convictions or principles, but instead by laying out policy solutions developed on their merits and then trusting that others will follow his lead primarily due to the logic of his argument.”

I’m not sure that’s true about Obama — as Dickinson notes, it’s still a bit too soon to know what to make of the evidence we’ve seen to date. Standard reminder: contemporary accounts of Dwight Eisenhower got a lot of things importantly wrong. But it’s worth thinking about the possibility that Dickinson is correct.

What I’d point out, however, is that Obama’s presidency sits in a very different party context than Carter’s did, and that explains the much better relationship Obama has with Congress. While Carter did have some senior staff who had a strong party background, his White House was a very personal operation: folks such as Hamilton Jordan, legislative liaison Frank Moore, and OMB director Bert Lance were very much Carter people and, in these and other cases, had little connection to the Democratic Party. That wasn’t true about Obama-era equivalents such as Rahm Emanuel, Phil Schilero, and Peter Orszag. As a result, even if it’s true that Obama’s instincts were to ignore politics, the people around him have been likely to temper those instincts, not reinforce them. And as a result Obama’s relationship with Hill Democrats — though of course rocky at times — has been far better than was Carter’s. In general, while Dickinson is concerned that a “problem solver” style may have the inherent danger of leaving a president with little “political foundation”, my sense is that the current party context almost guarantees that any president will have a far stronger and far more partisan foundation than Carter (or Nixon, Johnson and Kennedy) could count on.

Where was Obama’s staff weak? Carter’s staff, above all, specialized in Jimmy Carter. Bill Clinton’s staff learned part of that lesson, adding Hill experience and therefore party connections. Obama’s staff improved on Clinton’s by adding White House experience. But none of them had much in the way of experience with the departments and agencies of the executive branch, and that’s been in my view a possible explanation for why Obama hasn’t been quick to use that part of the presidency to his benefit (and the nation’s benefit).

At any rate, I do recommend Dickinson’s post, although again I urge everyone (as he does) not to jump too quickly to conclusions about what happens behind closed doors based on selective (and usually self-serving for someone) early leaks.

[Update: I think it’s a little sloppy of me to say that “none” of  the Obama personnel had exec branch experience; Melody Barnes, for example, worked briefly at EEOC — and of course Larry Summers knew a bit about the Treasury Department! So I should have said few had such experience, not none]

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.