Following the collapse of the budget supercommittee, a story about Ronald Reagan comes to mind.
It was early in his first term as governor of California. Two aides – I believe Lynn Nofziger was one – took him to lunch and gave him a lecture.
Forget you’re a movie star, they told him. Forget all the national talk about you. And forget about going home each and every night at five. You have to get to know the legislators, especially the leaders, especially the Democrats. You have to have drinks with them. Tell jokes with them. They have to get to know you, like you, and trust you.
Reagan followed their instructions in Sacramento and later in Washington. His famous statement about Tip O’Neill, “We’re friends after five o’clock,” was the DC translation of that Sacramento lesson.
Reagan’s success as a political leader had many elements, but, particularly when it came to working with the California Assembly and the U.S. Congress, heeding that lunchtime lecture was a big part of the story.
Now contrast Reagan’s approach with President Obama’s. Chris Matthews discussed the Obama method in a surprising interview on MsNBC’s “Office Politics” the other day. The clip made tv.Breitbart.com. Google “Breitbart, Chris Matthews” and you will find it.
The tingle is no longer running up Matthew’s leg. “I hear stories you would not believe,” Matthews tells the interviewer. Basically, the president will have nothing to do with members of Congress, even those of his own party. He doesn’t call. He doesn’t write. Matthews continues, “I keep asking them, when did you hear [from the president] last? Silence. He doesn’t like their company.”
Here are two more contrasting stories, Reagan and Obama.
Reagan once explained to Washington Post reporter and later biographer Lou Cannon what he had learned as a union leader in Hollywood. “The purpose of a negotiation,” he said, “is to get an agreement.” As much as he was known as a successful bargainer, he would split off issues, drop positions, set aside areas of contention, in order to isolate and maximize areas of commonality. This is how big-time politicians work. They focus on items of agreement and cut, shape, and obfuscate in other areas — and take a collective bow at the end.
Now think of what Steve Jobs said about Mr. Obama. This story comes from the recent Walter Isaacson biography. You have probably heard it by now.
Over dinner with the president, Jobs pushed about addressing immigration reform, particularly dealing with the urgent question of allowing graduate students in engineering and other scientific and technical disciplines to stay in the United States after completing their studies. The president brushed him aside saying that he had put a comprehensive reform package on the table and all elements of reform would have to wait on the passage of that omnibus bill. He kept giving us reasons why things could not happen, Jobs recalled.
The official line of Hill Democrats and the White House is that the GOP was intransigent on taxes and this is why the supercommittee failed. In fact, the Republicans on the committee, led in late stages by Pennsylvania Tea Party senator Pat Toomey, developed a plan to raise revenues without raising tax rates (http://tinyurl.com/7gtk38d). Toomey even got the Club for Growth (which he once headed) to go along. “We’re the Club for Growth,” their spokesperson said, “Not the Club Against Tax Increases.”
But, following their leader, the Democrats wouldn’t move even an inch in the GOP direction. They insisted on higher tax rates on “the rich.” But the famous top one percent starts with families earning (according to The New York Times) $344,000 a year, not what most of us would consider exceedingly wealthy. As a group, they pay (according to the Tax Foundation) 36.7% of all the income tax collections at an average rate of about a quarter of their income. This compares to 13.3% of total taxes collections coming for the bottom 75 percent, a group that tops out at $66,200, and whose average rate is less than six percent of earnings and for the bottom half is 1.85%.
The point here isn’t statistics but leadership. The intransigence of the Democrats absolutist position on tax rates is absurd on its face, particularly when you consider the implications of boosting rates in this kind of economy. A capable president would have found a way to work a deal with Senator Toomey – and would have got his own party to give ground on entitlements and domestic spending.
The problem Steve Jobs saw sometime ago and Chris Matthews has recently grasped is now becoming the book on Mr. Obama in proliferating corners even of his own party: he doesn’t grasp the nitty gritty of leading, of getting things done. His approach reflects his background. For most of his career, he was primarily a college professor, very intelligent, to be sure. But he didn’t deal for a living. He lectured. He still does.