In early December, the White House announced four finalists for the president’s Securing Americans Value and Efficiency (SAVE) Award--a competition that plumbed the depths of the federal bureaucracy for ideas on how the government could save money. One finalist proposed streamlining the way the Forest Service forwards campground fees to the government. Another suggested that the Social Security Administration allow people to book appointments online rather than only by phone. The eventual winner--subsequently flown to Washington, Super Bowl–champ style, for a meeting with the president--was a V.A. hospital worker who wanted to let discharged patients take medicine home with them rather than throw it away.
On one level, the competition was shrewd. It nicely illustrated the White House mantra, critical in a time of unprecedented bailouts, that every single dollar of spending deserves scrutiny. It also highlighted the administration’s openness to grassroots input, something the White House is at pains to show amid Washington’s recent accumulation of power. (Certainly, it was lost on no one that the four finalists hailed from places like Birmingham, Alabama, and Grand Junction, Colorado.)
On another level, though, the SAVE competition could be read as an admission of futility by a president who campaigned on doing big things while repudiating the “broken politics” of the past. This year’s deficit will be well over $1 trillion, alongside which a few million dollars in potential savings doesn’t even amount to a rounding error. It’s hard to believe the White House would worry about such trivialities if it could make an actual dent in the budget shortfall. Which raises a question: After a year of barely restrained governing ambition, has the political system suddenly forced the president into a posture of symbolically resonant tinkering? Has Obamaism descended into--gasp!--Clintonism?
Such small-bore-ism dates back decades in politics, of course. (What is the culture war if not a series of substantively marginal but emotionally charged skirmishes?) But, at least on the Democratic side of the ledger, its strongest association is with the Clinton administration following the party’s 1994 landslide defeat. Unable to set the congressional agenda, and determined to show voters he wasn’t the wild-eyed liberal they’d taken him for after gays in the military and health care, Clinton dedicated himself to a series of modest initiatives, like V-chips and school uniforms, in the run-up to his 1996 reelection. The theory, touted by advisers like Dick Morris and Mark Penn, was that the micro-initiatives would send powerful messages about Clinton’s values and priorities, however limited their practical impact. “It’s the McDonald’s theory,” says pollster Stan Greenberg, an early Clinton adviser. “If the hedges are neatly trimmed,” people are inclined to trust what’s inside.
For all the eye-rolling it inspired, the reliance on the small-bore outlived Clinton’s presidency. In 2007, for example, congressional Democrats scored a powerful p.r. victory when a vote to expand children’s health care elicited a Grinch-like veto from George W. Bush. The one constant through all these episodes has been White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel--a former Clinton White House adviser turned House Democratic leader. “Rahm thinks that stuff works,” says Maryland Representative Chris Van Hollen, who succeeded Emanuel as head of the House Democrats’ campaign committee. But, Van Hollen hastens to add, “it’s not to the exclusion of larger things--that’s pretty clear from the agenda they embarked on.”
Indeed, if you connect the publicly available data points, the apparent White House strategy was to pass a series of major initiatives in its first year to 14 months--health care, Wall Street (or “regulatory”) reform, cap-and-trade--then scale back and sell these accomplishments. (Recall that the president’s initial deadline for health care votes in the House and Senate was the August recess.) The question, now that Congress has blown through the hoped-for timetables, is whether to press ahead full speed or to start scaling back anyway.
On Capitol Hill, it’s not much of a question at all. One senior Democratic Senate aide says the chamber plans to wrap up its major business within a few months, partly to focus on refining its message for voters. “The reality is that we’ll be trending somewhere toward that into the spring and summer,” says the aide. The logic isn’t hard to comprehend: Legislating is an inherently messy exercise. None of the compromises and side-deals necessary to grease a measure along seems particularly ennobling in real-time. “It’s hard for people to look at the legislative process and say there are good guys and bad guys,” says Greenberg. So long as the details are being hammered out, “it mostly looks like gridlock, special interests, and politics as usual.” Greenberg allows that this even holds for a bill like regulatory reform, which could ultimately prove helpful politically.
According to the Senate aide, the first four weeks of the chamber’s legislative year--which begins on January 19--will be devoted to three initiatives: finishing up health care, hashing out a jobcreation bill, and raising the government’s debt limit, the last of which is like the colonoscopy of Senate votes (necessary and not that time-consuming in the grand scheme of things, but seemingly interminable while it’s happening). Which means the earliest the Senate could start working on regulatory reform, the next major item in the queue, would be late winter. Unfortunately, the process of finalizing that bill could take months. That leaves cap-and-trade on its deathbed--“I can’t rule it out, but it’s fair to say it’s losing steam,” says the Senate aide--to say nothing of other initiatives like K–12 education.
Instead, Democrats will likely spend the second half of the year reaching for issues that send important messages to voters. Van Hollen has had conversations with the White House about a bill called the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act, which would bolster protections for federal workers who expose fraud, waste, and abuse. “It’s part of a narrative focused on accountability and transparency,” he says. Likewise, many in the party are increasingly worried about a lack of enthusiasm from the base--particularly labor, which lost out on the public option and may see its health benefits taxed for the first time. To combat this, the party could pick a series of fights with business over issues like mine safety, or over its appointees and judicial nominees. In recent days, the White House has even floated a roughly $100 billion fee on banks to recoup bailout money, something likely to be popular across the political spectrum. “If you only focus on the big ideas, they don’t happen very often. You need the smaller stuff to put points on the board in between big victories,” says Erik Smith, a Democratic media consultant.
Ironically, the one hitch in all this is the White House itself, which, despite Rahm’s instincts, might not be ready to shift completely into small-bore mode. As eager as Obama’s aides are to craft their campaign narrative, they’re also painfully aware that, thanks to near-unified Republican opposition, passing any faintly controversial measure requires 60 votes in the Senate. And, the way things are looking politically, Democrats will almost certainly lose their 60-vote majority this year. “Mitch McConnell is going to pick up two to five, maybe six senators. You cannot work with him. You will essentially pass nothing,” says one veteran Democratic consultant. “I don’t think you have any choice but to go full steam ahead.”
The result is that the White House and congressional Democrats are operating with somewhat different end-dates in mind: 2010 for Congress; 2012 for the White House. Take, for instance, immigration reform, which the White House hasn’t yet abandoned. Congressional Democrats, fearful of inflaming Tea Party sentiment this November, want nothing to do with the idea. But the White House political operation believes it would be an important gesture for Hispanic voters, a key constituency for Obama’s re-election campaign.
And then there’s cap-and-trade. For all the angst it evokes in the Senate, the White House still shows little sign of backing off. One operative who follows the issue closely notes that, if the White House had been planning to fold on climate change, it would have been strange to send the president to Copenhagen last month for negotiations on an international treaty. “He has skin in the game now,” says this person. On top of which, the House has already passed a version of the bill, and nothing riles vulnerable members more reliably than sticking their necks out in vain. “I don’t know on any given day of week whether it’s a fight Rahm wants,” says the operative. “But you can bet Nancy Pelosi reminds him of the tough votes [her caucus has] taken.”
The likely solution, according to congressional hands, is to split off the most popular pieces of the outstanding legislation and pass them individually--which is to say, embrace a form of incrementalism. For example, there is considerable support on the Hill for New Mexico Senator Jeff Bingaman’s so-called “green bank” proposal, which would use government money to help fund cleanenergy investments, and for requirements that utility companies generate a certain amount of renewable energy within a decade or so. If the legislative schedule stays on its current trajectory, expect to see Democrats pass these scaled-down measures as a kind of “down payment” on energy--a phrase administration officials have used themselves.
The downside of this strategy is that it could make finishing the job more difficult. “The case against just rushing through the popular part is that it’s that much harder to pass the whole thing later because you’ve removed one of the sweeteners,” says pollster Guy Molyneux. “You may never get back to the rest of the reform.” At least not until the next Democratic phenom bounds into the White House with supermajorities in Congress.
Noam Scheiber is a senior editor of The New Republic.