Dodge facts, Skip Details, Govern Chicago-style

Michael Barone

6/22/2009 12:01:00 AM - Michael Barone

We pundits like to analyze our presidents and so, as Barack Obama deals with difficult problems ranging from health care legislation to upheaval in Iran, let me offer my Three Rules of Obama.

First, Obama likes to execute long-range strategies but suffers from cognitive dissonance when new facts render them inappropriate. His 2008 campaign was a largely flawless execution of a smart strategy, but he was flummoxed momentarily when the Russians invaded Georgia and when John McCain picked Sarah Palin as his running mate. On domestic policy, he has been executing his long-range strategy of vastly expanding government, but may be encountering problems as voters show unease at huge increases in spending.

His long-range strategy of propitiating America's enemies has been undercut by North Korea's missile launches and demonstrations in Iran against the mullah regime's apparent election fraud. His assumption that friendly words could melt the hearts of Kim Jong Il and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have been refuted by events. He limits himself to expressing "deep concern" about the election in the almost surely vain hope of persuading the mullahs to abandon their drive for nuclear weapons, while he misses his chance to encourage the one result -- regime change -- that could protect us and our allies from Iranian attack.

Second, he does not seem to care much about the details of policy. He subcontracted the stimulus package to congressional appropriators, the cap-and-trade legislation to Reps. Henry Waxman and Edward Markey, and his health care program to Sen. Max Baucus. The result is incoherent public policy: indefensible pork barrel projects, a carbon emissions bill that doesn't limit carbon emissions from politically connected industries and a health care program priced by the Congressional Budget Office at a fiscally unfeasible $1,600,000,000,000.

He quickly announced the closing of the prison at Guantanamo Bay and now finds his administration begging the likes of Palau and Bermuda to take a few detainees off its hands. His acceptance of Arabist insistence that all problems in the Middle East can be solved by getting an Israeli-Palestinian settlement has put us in the absurd position of pressuring Israel not to expand settlements by a single square meter but pledging not to "meddle" in Iran.

Third, he does business Chicago-style. His first political ambition was to be mayor of Chicago, the boss of all he surveyed; he has had to settle for the broader but less complete hegemony of the presidency.

From Chicago, he brings the assumption that there will always be a bounteous private sector that can be plundered endlessly on behalf of political favorites. Hence the government takeover of General Motors and Chrysler to bail out the United Auto Workers, the proposal for channeling money from the private nonprofits to the government by limiting the charitable deduction for high earners and the plan for expanding government (and public employee union rolls) by instituting universal pre-kindergarten.

Chicago-style, he has kept the Republicans out of serious policy negotiations but has allowed left-wing Democrats to veto a measure upholding his own decision not to release interrogation photos. While promising a politics of mutual respect, he peppers both his speeches and impromptu responses with jabs at his predecessor. Basking in the adulation of nearly the entire press corps, he whines about his coverage on Fox News. Those who stand in the way, like the Chrysler secured creditors, are told that their reputations will be destroyed. Those who expose wrongdoing by political allies, like the AmeriCorps inspector general, are fired.

Obama entered the presidency with what seemed like supreme self-confidence. He had, after all, advanced from the Illinois state Senate to the presidency of the United States in just four years -- a steeper and more rapid ascent than any president since Woodrow Wilson. The success of his long-range campaign strategy seems to have made him confident that his long-range policy strategies would work, as well.

But transferring large segments of the American economy from the private to the public sector has proved to be tougher than winning Democratic primaries and caucuses. And Ahmadinejad and Kim Jong Il have proved to be harder to charm than American mainstream media.

It's generally good for American presidents to have long-term strategies. But in setting public policy, it's important to get the details right. And in guiding the nation in a dangerous world, it's vital to adjust to face hard realities and adjust to unexpected events.