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Obama Has Aura but Doesn't Know How To Legislate

A Commentary By Michael Barone

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Aura dazzles, but argument gets things done. Consider the debate on the Democrats' health care bill and the increasingly negative response to Barack Obama's performance. Democrats have the numbers to pass a health care bill -- 256 votes in the House, 38 more than the 218 majority; 60 votes in the Senate, enough to defeat a filibuster. But they haven't come up with the arguments, at least yet, to put those numbers on the board. It's something not many predicted that bright January inauguration morning.

We knew that day that Obama was good at aura, at generating enthusiasm for the prospect of hope and change. His inspiring speeches -- the Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner in Des Moines, the race speech in Philadelphia, the countless rallies in primary and caucus and target states -- helped him capture the Democratic nomination and then win the presidency by the biggest percentage margin in 20 years.

But it turns out that Obama is not so good at argument.

Inspiration is one thing, persuasion another. He created the impression on the campaign trail that he was familiar with major issues and readily ticked off his positions on them. But he has not proved so good at legislating.

One reason perhaps is that he has had little practice. He served as a legislator for a dozen years before becoming president, but was only rarely an active one. He spent one of his eight years as an Illinois state senator running unsuccessfully for Congress and two of them running successfully for U.S. senator. He spent two of his years in the U.S. Senate running for president. During all of his seven non-campaign years as a legislator, he was in the minority party.

In other words, he's never done much work putting legislation together -- especially legislation that channels vast flows of money and affects the workings of parts of the economy that deeply affect people's lives. This lack of experience is starting to show. On the major legislation considered this year -- the stimulus, cap-and-trade, health care -- the Obama White House has done little or nothing to set down markers, to provide guidance, to establish boundaries and no-go areas.

The administration could have insisted that the stimulus package concentrate spending in the next year. It didn't. It could have insisted that the cap-and-trade bill generate the revenue that was supposed to underwrite health care. It didn't. It could have decided either to seek a bipartisan health care bill or insist that a Democratic bill be budget-neutral. It didn't -- and it still hasn't made this basic policy choice.

Most of Obama's top White House staffers are politics operatives, not policy wonks. The one leading policy wonk on health care, Budget Director Peter Orszag, has either missed signals of danger or has failed to communicate their seriousness to his colleagues. On Feb. 25, Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Elmendorf, a Democratic appointee, signaled in testimony to the Senate Finance Committee that the CBO would not credit health care bills with the budget savings the administration was promising.

Orszag, as a former CBO director himself, should have realized what this meant, which is that Democrats would have to shape their bills accordingly. They didn't, and were stunned when CBO came out in June and this month with estimates of little or no savings.

And someone in the White House should have taken note when 40 Blue Dog Democrats signed a letter dated July 9 warning that they wouldn't vote for anything like the health care bills being considered in committee.

Without those 40 votes, Democrats don't have a majority in the House. It's unusual for dissenting members of the majority to set down such a public marker. Predictably, they haven't backed down so far, despite foot-stomping by Speaker Nancy Pelosi and a chat session with Obama.

Obama's July 22 press conference was intended to rally support for the Democrats' health care bills. It didn't. The president eschewed serious arguments and rattled off campaign-type talking points. Those used to be enough to elicit cheers from enthusiastic audiences in Iowa and Virginia.

But aura can only take you so far, particularly when you diminish it by disrespecting the Cambridge police department. Being president means being more than commenter-in-chief. You need to know how to legislate. You need not just aura but argument.

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