Governing from Outside the Beltway

Washington Matters

Governing from Outside the Beltway

There are few insults more common or dismissive in politics than brushing off an idea or a person as being "too inside the Beltway." The highway that encircles the nation's capital has become synonymous with insular, out of touch thinking. That's the fear critics are tapping into when they look at President-elect Obama's team and ask, "This is change?" as they point to dozens of Clinton-era faces that will soon populate the executive branch.

But that's wrong metric to use to figure out whether Obama is serious about changing the way Washington operates. Just as the Washington establishment was stunned by Obama's tactics and success as a campaigner, it is likely to be broadsided by the way he operates out of the White House -- and outside the Beltway. 

One of the most novel aspects of Obama's novel campaign was the breadth and depth of his support. A friend of mine on a fixed income who gave a contribution to the Obama campaign early on marveled to me recently about the return on his investment: Daily e-mails, videos, invitations to rallies kept him up to date on the campaign and made him feel like an active part of it.

You can pretty much count on Obama governing in the same way, building broad and committed coalitions -- communities -- around issues and policy ideas.

Of course he'll work with Congress, and probably far more closely and with much less suspicion and partisanship than President Bush did for most of his two terms. He's signaled as much by surrounding himself with political pragmatists like former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, Vice President-elect Joe Biden and Congressional Budget Office Director Peter Orszag, who all understand the art of legislating.

But Obama's vision of governance appears to go far beyond the Capitol. He sees lawmakers of both parties -- and himself -- as employees. He will spend considerable time and effort cultivating a relationship with the boss, the public.

My 11-year-old son, Alex, and I recently walked around the sprawling FDR memorial and lingered for a while by one of my favorite statues there, a man leaning into his radio to better hear Roosevelt give one of his "Fireside chats." I found myself explaining both what a fireside was and the role of radio in that era. And as I explained that Roosevelt developed a reputation for speaking to people as friends or even family -- and often being heard that way, I realized that Obama was in many ways the 21st Century version of the same type of politician. Or, the 2.0 version, if you will, since the Internet is far more like radio of the '30s than any other current medium in terms of its immediacy and community-building capabilities.

George Packer made the same observation in a recent New Yorker article, but he discusses the difficulties of converting an election campaign into a broader political movement. After all, campaigns and movements are generally about one thing, electing a candidate or promoting a specific cause, while Obama's presidency must be about multiple issues. Packer believes Obama may be able to pull it off because much of his campaign was about governance itself -- but he also warns that Obama's success as a president may ride on his organizing abilities. "With a movement behind him, Obama would have the latitude to begin to overcome the tremendous resistance to change that prevails in Washington," he wrote. "Without one, he will soon find himself simply cutting deals."

Even a strong popular movement would have a major failing. It would be largely top down -- Obama would shape consensus and seek public backing for it. But Obama is blunt about the need for new ideas -- and movements support ideas; they don't spawn them. While he certainly will draw on Washington's various think-tanks and their thinkers, expect him to lean heavily on governors and state and local lawmakers for policy suggestions and concerns. States are regarded, often with good reason, as laboratories for policy ideas. But it can be difficult sometimes for governors to get permission to deviate from the federal template. Just ask Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who has an innovative idea for holding down state health care costs for Medicaid patients by pushing them into managed care. Even though he is a Republican, he is having difficulty getting support for the idea from the Bush White House.

Building support for programs among governors of both parties would be another way to try to drain some ideology and partisanship out of the policy-writing process. Governors are simply far more politically pragmatic than many members of Congress because they simply don't have the luxury of stalemate, not if they are going to keep their states running.

Governors will be especially crucial to drafting the enormous long-term stimulus package that Obama and his team are planning since much of the money would be funneled through the states for infrastructure projects. They've been vocal about what they want to see in that package and will be in Washington on Monday to make their point again and to demand quick action.

In fact, Obama promised to work closely with governors and mayors in drafting the plan at a news conference Tuesday. "This economic recovery plan will require their input, their participation. And you know, part of our job is to make sure that we are listening to what's happening on the ground, where the rubber hits the road, and not simply designing something out of Washington." Now, that would be change.