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Barack Obama and the Big Three

November 21, 2008 09:13 IST

Congress may or may not be writing the preliminary epitaph for GM this week. But it sure seems to be playing out the perfect epilogue for the comparably bankrupt Bush era. Another big complicated challenge, pushed to the forefront by crisis circumstances.

More ideological heel-digging and scripted talking points from both parties in Congress. And no effort by the White House to enlighten the public and develop consensus. Yes, we know this depressing dance by heart. Let's do the gridlock again.

For many of the same reasons, the fight over the future of America's auto industry presents the perfect opening trial for Barack Obama's promise of new politics and new productivity in Washington. Indeed, all the core elements for prolonged stalemate are in place: deep philosophical differences on economic policy, a bare budgetary cupboard, mounting pressure for action from a major Democratic interest group and mounting hostility from the public to another costly bailout to big business.

I am sure that the president-elect from Chicago is not eager to be honeymooning in Detroit, not with the larger economic crisis already on his plate along with all the other challenges he is inheriting after eight years of a lame-duck government.

But the mess in Motown could prove to be a blessing in disguise for Obama. It provides a unique opportunity to test drive his new model of leadership--and if he succeeds, whether it is tomorrow or two months from now, to begin restoring the American people's confidence that the president and Congress can come together to solve national problems.

That new model of leadership is premised on a timeless understanding of American politics:

a) that the true power of the presidency is the power of persuasion; and

b) that persuasion usually demands engagement.

This was George Bush's greatest failing. He never seemed to grasp the need, especially in this highly polarized time, to reach out to doubters and try to bring them closer to his side. Too often he seemed intent on putting the bully in the bully pulpit.

By contrast, this is arguably Obama's greatest gift. It's not just that he is infinitely more articulate than the man he is replacing--it's how Obama applies his way with words to explain his reasons, answer our questions and bridge our divisions.

In my view, that's what made Obama so appealing to a lot of independents and moderate Republicans during the campaign--the exceptional effort he made to respect and respond to differing viewpoints. When the Reverend Wright controversy reared up, he could have followed the typical, cynical damage control playbook. Instead, he went out and thoughtfully spelled out why he had maintained this relationship, how he could understand the rage behind Wright's deeply offensive statements without excusing them.

He failed to convince many Americans of good faith. But the fact that he risked his entire candidacy to try to explain his actions said something compelling to many others about his character.

Another telling example of Obama's explanatory knack was his handling of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act reform bill that the Senate passed this spring. Obama knew that his decision to grudgingly support this bill, which many progressives viewed as yet another capitulation to Bush, had the potential to infuriate his base of liberal anti-war supporters.

So he posted a detailed statement on his Web site, which explained the difficult balancing act behind his conclusion that the bill was a necessary evil. More importantly, he gave his supporters the space and the license to vent their frustration and challenge his decision--something that is almost never done in modern American politics. Imagine Bush inviting the Minutemen to come to one of his town halls on immigration reform.

Now imagine what a difference Obama's expository instincts and talents could make in the currently intractable debate on the Democrats' auto industry bailout plan. This is a complicated issue to begin with, which lends itself to ambivalence and legitimate arguments from both sides.

But what's really compounding the problem--and leading me to believe that ambivalence is the only thing that's ever going to get lent here--is the glaring absence of convincing answers to the tough questions that critics are raising.

With Bush in opposition and Obama in transition, there is simply no powerful or trusted voice explaining to the American taxpayer why they should loan piles of cash to companies that have become world leaders in making bad products and losing money.

Or why GM, its workers and the broader economy would be worse off by reorganizing under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Or why it would be a risky thing to have the American auto industry dominated by foreign-owned companies. In fact, I doubt most Americans even realize that the so-called bailout is not a handout but rather a loan that would come with strict conditions.

In fairness, though, the general public knows more than enough to be justifiably angry at this unpalatable situation. They just watched a president and Congress they barely trust force a bailout for the market-crashers on Wall Street down their collective throat, while barely bothering to tell them why it is necessary (if not fair). And that was with bipartisan (albeit deeply reluctant) buy-in.

Now they are listening to Democrats, on their own this time, paint another doomy-gloomy picture--without really acknowledging the valid concerns many skeptics have or educating taxpayers about why a federal bridge loan is a better option for the American economy than a private bankruptcy filing. That may well be the case, but that case is not being made constructively or consistently.

Obama seems focused on filling this persuasion vacuum as president. In his interview on 60 Minutes, he said that it is critical for presidents to be able to explain to the American people what they're doing and why they're doing it. "That is something that I think every great president has been able to do. From FDR to Lincoln to John Kennedy to Eisenhower ... They were people who were able to say, 'Here's the direction we're going. Here's why I think it's important. Here are the possible dangers or challenges. But ultimately, you know, this is gonna lead us to a better America.' And I want to make sure that I can recreate a bond of trust between the presidency and the public that I think has been lost."

The question, though, is what does he do as president-elect? So far, Obama has stuck to his "one president at a time" mantra. He has largely stayed in the background as the auto industry bailout debate plays out on Capitol Hill this week. That may be strategically smart, as well as refreshingly respectful.

But it may not be politically tenable, not with the CEOs of the Big Three testifying yesterday before the Senate that the industry faces a "catastrophic collapse" without an emergency infusion of capital from the government. It's hard to step back from that without hearing wolf cries.

If Obama thinks that threat is real, he has no choice but to take off his statesman hat, put on that of salesman and begin aggressively lobbying Republican leaders and the American people for a bipartisan rescue plan. That will mean not only answering the crucial questions but also following through on his promise to get all the stakeholders to the table and extracting major concessions from each of them, including Democrats' union supporters.

As no less a progressive than former Labor Secretary Robert Reich has said, the only way for a deal to work or be politically salable is if the auto union makes some serious sacrifices. Most Republicans--and many average Americans--are just not going to swallow another big bailout plan if it is seen as a special interest payback.

On the other hand, if Obama is going to maintain his hands-off posture, maybe his first act as the Explainer-in-Chief should be to persuade his Democratic allies in Congress to idle their engines on this issue for the time being. Ratchet down the rhetoric, hold off on a vote and buy the new president some time to build the understanding and the consensus they will need to prevent Detroit from becoming No-Mo-town.

Dan Gerstein, a political communications consultant and commentator based in New York, is the founder and president of Gotham Ghostwriters. He formerly served as communications director to Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) and as a senior adviser on his vice presidential and presidential campaigns.

Dan Gerstein, Forbes
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