The politics of big policy change

The Obama administration believes major policy reform is most likely to happen if the president lays out the need for it and a broad set of guidelines but lets Congress come up with the concrete plan. The administration has tried this with health care coverage expansion and now with Medicare and Social Security reform.

Pundits will have their say. Here, for instance, is David Brooks in today’s New York Times:

Obama is following the model of the 1983 Social Security deal. Be patient, the president argued at his press conference this week. If I lead from the front my proposal will get stymied in the partisan circus. Better to lead from the back and have negotiations in private with Republican leaders. Then when the time is ripe, we’ll cut a deal outside the glare of the scream machine.

The president and his aides may really believe in this strategy, but it is wrong. This is not like fixing Social Security in the early 1980s. The current debt problem is of an entirely different scale. It requires a rewrite of the social contract, a new way to think about how the government pays for social insurance.

The president has enormous faith in getting smart people around the table and initiating technocratic reform. But you can’t renegotiate the social contract in private. You have to have public buy-in. You have to spend years out in public educating voters about the size of the problem and what will be required. You have to show voters what a solution looks like.

The New Deal wasn’t passed by a president who led quietly from the back. Neither was the Great Society or the Reagan Revolution. President Obama’s softly, softly approach is a rationalization, not a coherent strategy.

It would be nice to have a more systematic assessment of the historical record.

My suggestion: Start in the 1970s, when the modern polarization in Congress begins. Code each attempt at major policy change as either “president leads” or “president encourages Congress to lead.” Code the outcomes as “policy passes,” “policy passes but so watered down as to make little or no progress toward achieving the goal,” or “policy doesn’t pass.”

After this it would be good to go back further in time, to replace the two-or-three category indicators with more nuanced ones, and to consider context. This last may be particularly important. Underlying the Obama administration’s hypothesis is a belief that the political climate is fundamentally different today, with congressional Republicans committed to categorically rejecting any concrete proposal a Democratic president offers. And some contend that a big budget deal occurs only when international financial markets demand one.

Even the simple version of this analysis would be, to my mind, more helpful than the reasoned reflections of a ream of pundits. Would someone with time and energy please take a crack at this (or if it’s already been done, alert me and others)?

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