Would Obama's 'Competent' Campaign Lead to Competent Governing?

Matt Lewis
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Posted: Oct 27, 2008 10:42 AM

When contemplating Dwight Eisenhower's presidential victory, Harry Truman said, "He'll sit here, and hell say, Do this! Do that! And nothing will happen. Poor Ike -- it wont be a bit like the Army. Hell find it very frustrating."

Campaigns are a bit similar to the military, in that they are essentially dictatorships.  You tell people what to do, and they do it -- or else.  The people who work for you are not elected themselves, and, as such, have little choice but to follow -- or get out of the way.  Governing is different. 

I used to believe that a well-run campaign was a good predictor of a competent, well-run administration.  I no longer believe that to be necessarily the case.  Almost every bad president was a good campaigner at one point  -- otherwise they would not have been elected.  Governing is, for lack of a better word, messy...

McCain, a former military man who has spent years in Congress, no doubt had to learn this lesson, himself.  Likewise, should he win the election, Barack Obama will quickly find out that -- unlike the scripted, well-oiled PR campaign he (and David Axelrod) were able to unilaterally run -- getting elected officials (with their own agendas and interests) to cooperate with him -- will be a different challenge. 

Normally, this would be very good for us;  The checks-and-balances of divided government would keep Obama from enacting much of his liberal agenda.  However, because Obama is likely to have strong Democrat majorities in the Congress, Obama will face different challenges.  In short, he will (eventually) be forced to enact politically unpopular liberal schemes, in order to please various constituencies and leaders, including (but not limited to) labor unions, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and Daily Kos. 

Thus, unlike his well-run presidential campaign -- where he controls the PR message -- and where pragmatic supporters hungry for victory were willing to overlook things (such as his decision to give up on public financing) -- Obama will be responsible for actually making things happen.  Meanwhile, his formerly-pragmatic supporters will now be expecting to finally see the spoils of victory. 

The other day I wrote that in displaying his competence as a campaigner, Obama is attempting to prove he is the exact opposite of George W. Bush -- both substantively and stylistically.  While, in terms of perception, this is true -- the fact is that Bush -- like Obama -- was a competent campaigner. 

As such, even if you buy the argument that competence is more important than philosophy, it is hard to predict whether or not Obama's well-run campaign will translate into a well-run, albeit, liberal government.  

In fact, you could make a better argument that John McCain is a poor campaigner, but a more competent leader.

In today's NYT, Bill Kristol makes a good point regarding how McCain might demonstrate that his competence, judgment and leadership on the surge could be indicative of how he might also lead us through this financial mess:

"As for McCain, he needs to speak about America’s greatness and its future; about how the ingenuity and toughness of the American people will turn around this financial crisis just as the ingenuity of General Petraeus and the toughness of his fighting men and women turned around Iraq; about how America’s spirit was not undone by a terrorist attack, and will not be undone by a financial mess; about how the naysayers will once again be proved wrong; about how America will emerge from its troubles stronger than ever and will win its battles at home and abroad."

Perception is reality, and thus, it is assumed Obama is cool and in complete control of his destiny.  But the world has a funny way of throwing you curve balls, just when you think you've figured out the game.  While John McCain has experienced ups and downs in his life, Barack Obama's professional background appears to be a series of fortunate events.  Obama has run he best campaign, but -- even putting philosophy aside -- my bet is McCain would be a better leader.