How Obama Played an Inside Game in Washington


Though he campaigned as an outsider, Obama decided it was more important to try to change America than to try to change Washington.

Obama stimulusHistoric February 17, 2009 caption: "Obama signed a $787 billion economic stimulus bill into law on Tuesday as global markets plunged on fears that the recession would deepen despite government action in many countries." (Reuters)

It was a bit odd to hear President Obama declare last week that change only comes to Washington from the outside, because that's what he used to say -- before he spent the last four years trying to bring change to Washington from the inside. It's a compelling campaign trope, and it brought back memories of his primary victory over Hillary Clinton, because that was essentially an outsider-versus-insider fight. As I explain in my new book, The New New Deal, that fight helps explain the story of change during the Obama era, although not in the way Obama expected.

The 2008 Democratic primary was not about policy differences, with the partial exception of the war in Iraq, and it was not about new ideas. Obama and Clinton both ran on a conventional center-left agenda of reversing the Bush era, reviving the middle class, and investing in the future. Instead, Obama made the primary about political differences. He pounded his relentless message of Change, with that aspirational We Can Believe In addendum, the sense that maybe he would follow through on old ideas that never seemed to go anywhere. He turned Hillary's Washington experience and better resume into a liability, suggesting America couldn't afford another decade of Clinton wars and decrying the political pettiness and nastiness that exploded during the Clinton era as the fundamental obstacle to fundamental change.

Hillary's one-word explanation for the persistence of the status quo was "Republicans," the intransigent ideologues who had impeached her husband and blown his surpluses on tax cuts for the rich. Obama's one-word explanation was "Washington," the endless spin cycles, insult industries, and poll-tested platitudes that made tough choices and commonsense compromise impossible. As a symbol and a participant, Hillary was inextricably linked to that Washington gridlock machine, the bickering and parsing, the eternal boomer-driven relitigation of the sixties. The case for Hillary was that she knew how to fight Republicans, that she was comfortable in the muck. The case for Obama was that he could move politics beyond the muck, that he could bring the parties together to do big things, not just Clintonian school-uniform smallball.

It turned out that it was possible to make progress on long-term problems even while Washington remained distracted by the petty and the trivial.

That said, Obama's ideas about changing politics were always a means to the end of changing policies. The press never paid much attention to his agenda -- partly because it was a familiar agenda, partly because his race, his crazy pastor, and the attack ads comparing him to Paris Hilton made for sexier copy. But he made it clear on the day he announced his candidacy in Springfield in February 2007 that he was running to solve four perennial crises that the Beltway had failed to fix: our addiction to fossil fuels, our dysfunctional health-care system, our inadequate public schools, and an economy that wasn't working for ordinary families. He simply argued that real solutions to these intractable problems would be impossible until Washington could move beyond the noise and the rage. This is how he put it in Springfield:

What's stopped us from meeting these challenges is not the absence of sound policies and sensible plans. What's stopped us is the failure of leadership, the smallness of our politics -- the ease with which we're distracted by the petty and trivial, our chronic avoidance of tough decisions, our preference for scoring cheap political points instead of rolling up our sleeves and building a working consensus to tackle big problems.

That was the essence of Barack Obama's case against Hillary Clinton.

And it was wrong.

It turned out that it was possible to make progress on long-term problems even while Washington remained distracted by the petty and the trivial. Obama proved it during his first month in office, when he passed his $800 billion stimulus bill through the same broken political process he had decried on the campaign trail.

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