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Benjamin W. Heineman, Jr.
Legal Scholar

Benjamin W. Heineman, Jr.

Business ethics expert; senior fellow at Harvard’s schools of law and government; former General Counsel for General Electric; former assistant secretary for policy at the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare (now Health and Human Services.)

Past Is Not Prologue

The politics and policy of the nomination and general election processes are, of course, far different than the policy and politics of governing. The campaign past is hardly governing prologue.

The fundamental question is: Can President Obama conduct a strategic presidency that sees clearly the basic dimensions of executive government -- including substantive policy (where to go), practical politics (how to get there), administrative structures (how power is distributed) and action-forcing processes (how to run the executive branch to get things done) -- and integrate them over a two-to-four year time frame?

Two points. First, the power of the president starts with defining the national agenda, and this means making hard choices about priorities. In a first term, a president can only be strongly identified with three to five major issues, issues on which he will personally make strategic and tactical decisions. To be sure, the economic crisis dictates the immediate actions, starting, of course, with the stimulus package.

But beyond that does, for example, complex health care legislation come before a complex climate change (cap-and-trade) bill? Thus far, even in the transition, the president-elect, with each White House staff and cabinet announcement, has emphasized how critical each issue is. But to govern is to choose -- rigorously, ruthlessly, emphatically. And to govern successfully is to win on those big priority, presidential issues which are the core of the first term, while recognizing that compromises that make everyone happy may just be a jumble and that decisions that don't are necessary. A "new" politics doesn't erase the need for hard choices.

Second, can an Obama Presidency develop the same kind of decision-making discipline, in a completely different setting, that characterized the campaign? There is tremendous tension on most major issues between executive branch offices and other departments and agencies. Managing cross-cutting issues -- such as health care or climate change or homeland security or international economics or almost any other important concern --is the test of executive leadership. And this inherent, eternal problem will be exacerbated by the strong personalities and egos Obama has picked for top slots.

Who is at the table to give advice? Who manages the decision process? And who, ultimately, decides? On the top issues, the president will decide in detail. But there are many other issues which, while not the core of the first term, are very important and require a complex process of sub-presidential decision making, refereed by the chief of staff or some other senior administration leader. Whether the new administration can set a clear agenda and manage both presidential and sub-presidential issues in a strategic fashion that integrates policy, politics, structure and process over time is a far cry from the broad political messaging of the nomination and general election campaigns -- especially for a president-elect with no experience as a political executive.

By Benjamin W. Heineman, Jr.

 |  January 12, 2009; 12:31 PM ET
Category:  Presidential leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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