Leaders lead, like President Barack Obama.
“A leader leads! A leader leads,” cried former White House staffer Peggy Noonan, criticizing President Obama’s leadership on “Meet the Press.” This is a rallying cry of the right: Obama is not a leader. I say he has shown, and continues to show, leadership but in a more subdued way similar to Noonan’s former boss, President Ronald Reagan.
Instead of making specific, clear and detailed policy demands of Congress, both Obama and Reagan offered principles and priorities, and let Congress work out the details. This is a tactic called “priming,” where people, in this case the U.S. Congress, are not told what to think, but what to think about.
President Bill Clinton’s famous mistake in his push for universal healthcare was that he delivered a fully written bill to Congress and expected them to pass it — he tried to tell Congress what to think.
Presidents Obama and Reagan outlined their priorities and let Congress do the rest. Reagan swooped into office demanding that taxes be slashed and that Congress focus on the War on Drugs, among other administration priorities.
President Obama took office demanding universal health care and a focus on jobs. The idea of priming as a leadership tactic is to shape the national dialogue in broad strokes, not to get down in the weeds on specific legislative clauses.
The first example of leadership through priming is financial stimulus. Reagan and Obama both worked with Congress to pass massive stimulus measures in their first years in office.
Reagan’s success was the Economic Recovery Tax Act and Obama’s the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, both enacting major tax cuts (although for different people). Obama asked for investments in public goods beyond tax cuts.
Both presidents took office promising such measures and took similar steps to achieving them.
Reagan asked Congressman Jack Kemp and Senator William Roth to write and shepherd his tax cuts through Congress.
Obama asked Congress to pass a bill with middle-class tax cuts and fiscal stimulus.
Neither president put pen to paper to write their stimulus bills, they just outlined their provisions as national priorities, and Congress followed suit with specific legislation.