Mucking up an interaction with Congress is a rite of passage for every new president—usually on health care, and especially for those with limited experience in Washington.
The twin pitfalls for a new president are the same ones the great Tommy Lasorda described in his approach to baseball: “I believe managing is like holding a dove in your hand. If you hold it too tightly you kill it, but if you hold it too loosely, you lose it.” A president can try to push his vision aggressively on Congress, risking backlash from members—let’s call that the Bill Clinton approach. Alternatively, he can try to hang back and let Congress act, risking the chance that without presidential leadership, members will come up with something he doesn’t like, or even worse that they can’t pass. We’ll call that the Barack Obama approach.
Donald Trump now runs the risk of making both errors, one of each on his two major legislative priorities: Obamacare repeal and tax reform.
Start with the Clinton problem. In 1993, the then-president, fresh to Washington, mounted a push to overhaul the nation’s health system, placing First Lady Hillary Clinton in charge of it. Her approach initially won plaudits—she was smart and mastered a great deal of material quickly—but the effort famously failed. There are several reasons for that, but one was that the White House attempted to impose a plan on Congress, delivering a more-or-less complete health-care bill. That both rubbed members the wrong way and created openings for critics. As the veteran journalist Jerry Seib put it, “President Bill Clinton offered an (overly) detailed health plan in 1993, and his critics picked it apart, chart by chart and page by page.”