The principal salesman
Q: Even before we know the outcome of the health care vote in the House, how would you rate President Obama's leadership on the issue?
To some extent, a President's ability to lead on an issue like health care reform is limited by the strong emotional commitment of other players in the decision-making process. Those who called on him to take a stronger hand in shaping the final product have assumed that if he merely made his desires clear, the Congress -- his Congress -- would do as he wished. That was not very likely, given the constitutional authority of the legislative branch and the presence in Congress of legislators who had made changing the nation's health care system a high, and very personal, priority long before they had ever heard of Barack Obama.
One who endeavors to exercise leadership must first gain a good understanding of the context in which the ensuing battle is to be fought. Knowing he could not dictate to Congress, and knowing of the strong resistance to the changes he preferred, the President instead relied on his own use of the presidential ability to capture public attention in order to focus not on the remedies, but on the problem. Rather than embracing any particular form of change (public option, taxes on Cadillac plans or multi-state pools), the President became the principal salesman for the argument that the system needed reform and put considerable effort into hammering away at the deficiencies he perceives in the current system. He became not the shaper of the end product but the creator of the environment in which the debate would take place.
With Obama's greater involvement in the design of the legislation, it would still have come out looking much as it does now; his impact would have been minimal. But if some significant change is enacted, it will likely be because of the groundwork he helped to lay. The challenge of leadership is to understand what one can do and to focus one's attention on fulfilling that role. Win or lose, he made the success more likely than it could have been if he had shaped his participation differently.
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