On Leadership
Video | PostLeadership | FedCoach | | Books | About |
Exploring Leadership in the News with Steven Pearlstein and Raju Narisetti


When pulling a Clinton 'triangulation,' where Obama should diverge

Score one for President Obama. While many on the left are furious about the tax cut deal, the president has won over the pundits--and, quite possibly, a number of independent voters--with the tax cut extension, which the House approved late on Thursday. The controversial bill now goes to the White House, where Obama will have the chance to sign into law what very well may be a turning point in his presidency.

In recent weeks, the comparisons to Clinton's "triangulation" strategy have been ubiquitous. Countless arguments among the professional and amateur class of talking heads have been waged over not only how to define triangulation--really just a fancy word made up by a consultant to stand for moving toward the center--but whether or not what Obama is doing really fits the mold. "In this more expansive sense of the epithet, one can reasonably tag Mr. Obama as a triangulator," writes Matt Bai in The New York Times. "In striking his tax deal ... Mr. Obama effectively said that the perfect could not be the enemy of the better, and that this was the best he could do."

Call it whatever you want, but Obama is pulling a Clinton-esque move, doing his best to court voters in the middle. Still, by making the tax cut deal the first step toward that approach, he differs in one important way. Critics of "triangulation" have said it led to Clinton playing "small ball"--cooperating with Republicans on smaller issues such as school uniforms and television technology--finding "symbolic, superficial or trivial" areas, as The National Review's Jonah Goldberg puts it, to show he could cooperate.

Tax policy, of course, is none of those things. And if Obama really wants to be the transformational leader he campaigned to be, he'll have to make sure the rest of his priorities over the next two years aren't either.

So far, it appears that may be the case. The White House is already planning more centrist moves on major issues such as tax reform, spending cuts, global trade promotion and even Social Security, reports The Wall Street Journal. He has to, if you think about it. Clinton was able to focus on smaller issues because in 1994 the U.S. was on the early end of a remarkable boom in economic growth, while Obama is trying to navigate more centrist politics amid record unemployment, a slowly recovering economy and a devastatingly high national debt.

Leadership types like to talk about new leaders first earning "small wins" to shore up assurances, and then building onto more difficult goals. And he's doing just that, focusing first on less controversial goals like the South Korea trade deal and education reform to build confidence. If he moves on to the most substantial issues--and is able to score some hard-fought and, no doubt, extremely difficult-to-achieve bipartisan wins--it's unlikely anyone will be questioning whether he should be called a triangulator or not come 2012. They'll just be calling him president.

By Jena McGregor

 |  December 17, 2010; 12:42 PM ET |  Category:  Change management , Economic crisis , Government leadership , Presidential leadership , Public leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Jayson Werth: Nats get a taste of managing star power | Next: Wall Street bonuses may drop, but not expectations


Please email us to report offensive comments.

If you are an operator, you operate. They are investors, they invest. Kellogg claimed toucan suit wood fool breakfast consumers. Toucan Gold won case on dismissal, judge found Kellogg too flaky.

Posted by: jobandon | December 21, 2010 9:23 AM

Move to the middle? When has Obama ever acted like a progressive? Continuing Bush's wars and tax cuts? The right wing media, of which WAPO is a proud member, are the only morons that think this guy is a liberal. HINT: HE ISN'T!He may as well be a FREAKING REPUBLICAN!

Posted by: hughsie48 | December 19, 2010 8:29 PM

Obama, the pawn and the scape goat!

This is by far one of my best summaries of the role of government in America I have written. Without balance being restored to the economic underpinnings of this country we will all fail. A large amount of blame rest squarely at the feet of President Reagan and his obsession with seeing the Federal Government as "the problem" and his skill at acting. He played President for 8 years and as an actor and former salesman for GE 1954-1962 and the AMA 1960s, sold the country on this nonsense.

The consolidation of wealth in 3% of the citizens is not sustainable. Historically, when this type of imbalance occurs there is a revolution by the "have not / poor." The reforms to the economic system began with FDR, it was our first resolution to the great depression that produced decades of growth in wages, standard of living, education, and industrial growth that made the US the leader of the free world.

This successful system's dismantelment began with Reagan and has produced the collapse of out country's economy. Scream all you want, this is a fact. Sure! We could hope for something like the Cubians, Santa's sleigh which is a Boeing 737. Thousands of Cuban-Americans are heading to Havana this holiday season carrying everything from electronics and medicine to clothing and toiletries to help relatives back home supplement monthly salaries averaging about $20. From the above facts, I introduce you to the new leader of the free world. In 1 or 2 years China. Prove me wrong! Show me where I went wrong in my writing.

Amazon.com: Hungry? Out of work? Eat your import!


Posted by: ReaLife | December 19, 2010 7:23 PM


Spot on comment! Well said.

Posted by: berou | December 19, 2010 2:32 PM

Not only don't I agree with you, I also do not agree with those comments above that attack our President's character and the Clintons'. It seems to me there is at least one important difference between Mr. Obama's approach and Mr. Clinton's. Clinton understood the rift in American politics, the irreconcilable differences between Gingrich and F D Roosevelt. Clinton pragmatically used his political skill to achieve a budget surplus with the advantage of a growing economy, smoking a cigar with Newt as well as Monica. The economy thrived on technology, even as Walmart and others were undermining the U.S. industrial base by importing cheap goods from China. Obama, on the other hand, feels a need to "build consensus." He let important legislation languish in the Senate while he weirdly hoped to cajole GOP votes for it. Clinton knew they hated him. Obama pretends they don't hate him. Obama is in denial psychologically about himself and his motivations. He cannot hope to achieve his stated goals and will be playing catch-up to the GOP agenda. Needless to say, the economy is not going to support any current politician. The destruction wrought by George W and Greenspan, the wall street and housing bubble they enabled, cannot be repaired in four years.

Posted by: HandyDan | December 19, 2010 2:01 PM

The problem is that President Obama has been forced by events to move toward the center. The whacko leaders and far left liberals in Congress got re-elected in their safe districts and in the blue states. They have not learned anything yet. They are baffled and insulted by the president and the Republicans representing the majority of Americans.

Posted by: micoz1 | December 19, 2010 9:00 AM

Just needs to be said, the Clintons are
the most stinking a22holes of the whole bunch, BJ Bill and big balls HRC.

Posted by: gone2dabeachgmailcom | December 19, 2010 5:04 AM

Withour question, Obama is the most destructive force every in American power.
He does not understand the job he was given.
Also, he does not know how to do it even if he understood it. We have just about the most incompetent leader in the global world.

Posted by: gone2dabeachgmailcom | December 19, 2010 5:00 AM

Leopards don't change their spots. Obama has not changed one bit. He is there to play president and to enjoy it. He knows nothing about finances, cannot negotiate himself out of a paper bag, fawns over others with power including Ahmadinejad and Putin, but he loves the private plane and the power and the money and just playing the role. The country? forgeddabout it. Obama cannot be labelled because he is all fake and will throw anyone under the bus if it is expedient. If and when Pelosi and Reid lose their power Obama will play with whoever has it next. The country? forgeddabout it.

Posted by: mlbduffy | December 19, 2010 12:34 AM

So far, Obama has done a masterful job of pushing the Republican agenda. No Republican president could have done more. I agree it is time for him to move to the center by making a sharp left turn and paying some attention to the progressive agenda.

Posted by: jklfairwin | December 18, 2010 11:47 PM

It is irresistable urge to commit suicide on Economy and Security.The Government hand is exceeding its reach to control both, but the key to the puzzle is missing or hidden.The Weak-kneed Europe is trying to lead, some how, it comes to the precepice, the direction is lost,fortunately,it stumbles.We,now, turn to the East,the Rising Sun-Chin,the answer is mind-boggling,not the Golden Buddha,politically speaking.
Mr.Obama is still, taking a long deep breath,partnership or not.We, the Americans are used to,luxury, not yet used to long reaching tentacles of Socialism,prepared to swim,we are as naked as we can to cross the currents,the Rip-tide is strong, solutions are arms- length,Alas,Mr.Obama is loosing the vision,Clinton, the visionary is not yet embedded in him, the time is running out, The Country is willing to go it alone, but the Deficit is unimaginable-finally, the shores of 2011, is in sight,find the feet like our soldiers did on the Beaches of Omaha.Hang tight, We will make it-that's the GREAT HOPE and FAITH in ourselves.

Posted by: jayrkay | December 18, 2010 10:16 PM

Left-wing ideologues are no more credible than right-wing ideologues. Obama is turning out to be a statesman; i.e., he panders to no one, including the Maureen Dowds of the comfortable left who excoriate him for not treating the Republicans as blood enemies. Well good for him, and good for not only the United States but the world.

The tired extremes of right and left, and their interminable and fruitless ideological warfare, are forever sacrificing common sense, intelligent compromise and vulnerable people in order to seize the prize of being able to impose their concept of government or morality on everyone--including those who don't agree with them. Obama is working to overcome this lethal ideological division, which is currently the most powerful existential threat to the U.S.A.--far beyond al Qaeda or any other external enemy.

It is a sign of the times that more people are hero-worshiping a dangerous megalomaniac like Julian Assange, who is accountable to no one and takes no responsibility for anything he does, while simultaneously trying to pull down a genuine statesman--one who stands almost alone in service of something greater than himself--while taking full responsibility for everything that he does.

Obama is making it clear that he owes nothing to those who cleave uncritically to simplistic slogans of the left, and who think their version of reality is so much better than put forth under George Bush, whose supporters cleaved uncritically to simplistic slogans of the right. He is making a bold attempt to appeal to the non-ideological middle, where people will settle for reasonably good government that doesn't create chaos. After all, what is government for?

Posted by: nickcw | December 18, 2010 3:46 PM

Obama is a sell out. Now he's activated his organization to work on issues. In the meantime, Republicans have coherently putting their issues on the air waves (not that I in any way agree with their views). So Obama has activated his grassroots organizers - not because of the issues - but because he wants to get reelected.

And what middle are we referring to here? America has been moving to the right for years. I thought Obama would make a difference - and he hasn't. He's a sellout.

Posted by: denver13 | December 18, 2010 12:34 PM

Whatever you call what Obama is doing, it is a cheap imitation of true leadership.
What a pity.

Posted by: realitybased1 | December 18, 2010 10:58 AM

"And if Obama really wants to be the transformational leader he campaigned to be,....."
- - - - - - - - - - - - -
He IS the "transformational leader"!! :-)
One day he is clinton, next day he is Bush, nxt day he is carter, then Lincln, then Reagen!! Whatever it takes to please the voters ! :-)

Posted by: thornegp2626 | December 18, 2010 10:20 AM

Personally I think Congress should work through Christmas making the tough decisions to reduce the national deficit; bring the troops home from Iraq in January and pass legislation making earmarking an illegal practice. Harry Reids departure from office in this regard would be a good beginning. 1.5 billion in earmarks for is constituents and 6 billion in total earmarks attached to HR4853.What a wonderful Christmas gift for our childrens grandchildren.

Posted by: joe100821 | December 18, 2010 7:18 AM

In all the back and forth there has been almost no mention of the real culprits in the whole mess, and they are the voters. Our politicians are not put in place magically, they are voted in by human beings who make choices, and choices have consequences. The issues facing our country are serious and pressing, yet we continue to wallow in culture wars that the rest of the developed world left behind. Yet today, Congress could not even pass a bill in support of protecting the rights of girls not even teenagers to not be married to someone decades older. And the voters put up with this nonsense. Where is the outrage over the tax deal that everyone knows we cannot afford? Where is the outrage over the insufficient regulation of the financial industry after they nearly precipitated another great depression? Where is the outrage over our continuing presence in Iraq and the tragically predetermined end in Afghanistan? Where is the demand for justice for those who lied to take a nation to war? Triangulation? Capitulation is a better word, but those capitulating are the American people.

Posted by: stevenasmith | December 18, 2010 3:02 AM

Management and employees need to move toward the center for a negotiated concession on loyalty. Businesses, Universities worldwide are into a phase of creative disassembly where reinvention, adjustments are constant. Hundreds of thousands of jobs are being shed by Lockheed Martin, Chevron, Sam’s Club, Wells Fargo Bank, HP, Starbucks, Yahoo etc., state, counties, cities. Even solid world class University of California Berkeley under the leadership of Chancellor Birgeneau, Provost Breslauer, Vice-Chancellor Yeary are firing employees, faculty via “Operational Excellence (OE) initiative”: 1,000 fired; 0 Vice-Chancellors (management) fired. Yet many employees, faculty cling to old assumptions about one of the most critical work relationship of all: implied, unwritten contract between employer, employee.
Until recently, loyalty was cornerstone of that partnership. Employers promised work security, a progress up the hierarchy in return for employees fitting in, accepting lower wages, performing in prescribed ways, sticking around. Longevity was a sign of employer-employee relations; turnover was a sign of dysfunction. None of these assumptions apply today. Organizations can no longer guarantee work careers, even if they want to. Senior managements paralyzed themselves with an addiction to “success brings success’ rather than “success brings failure’ and are now forced to break implied contract with their employees – a contract nurtured by management that future can be controlled.
Jettisoned employees are finding that their hard won knowledge, skills, earned while being loyal are no longer wanted in employment market place.
What kind of a contract can employers, employees make with each other?
The central idea is powerful, simple: job is a shared partnership. Employers, employees face financial conditions together, longevity of the partnership depends on how well the for-profit, not-for-profit meet customers and constituencies needs. Neither employer nor employee has a future obligation to the other.
Organizations train people.
Employees create the security they really need – skills, knowledge that enhance future employability.
The partnership can be dissolved without either party considering the other a traitor.
Let there be light!

Posted by: Transparencynow | December 18, 2010 12:47 AM

It's time for the American People to be politicaly mature enough to realise that whatever President Obama does in the next two years will not erase what damage he and the Democrat Congress have done in the last two years. If re-elected, this President will really show what he stands for. If that happens, we can kiss our "Constitutionally Guaranteed Rights" goodbye.

Posted by: barrysal | December 18, 2010 12:46 AM

The media pundits only concern is where their next copy is going to come from. There was little doubt that the tax plan would pass because most politicians are terrified of the consequences of withdrawing life support for our economy. The reality is that most of the benefit of the tax cut extension goes to the President's favored middle class. So the compromise with the Republicans did not really cost very much. The bigger compromise with some kind of sanity is that the extensions are only for two years. So the President did back away from giving out an endless unaffordable bribe to his supporters. Of course, it remains to be seen what kind of courage any politician is going to have when renewal time comes around at the next election. But few in the media seem able to grasp the bigger reality. It is that the United States has bigger and different economic problems now than we did fifteen years ago under Bill Clinton. The global competition from China and India that has been a large factor in our loss of jobs and huge trade deficit is a phenomenon that the European world has not seen before at least in the last five hundred years. The role of automation in changing the nature of work is a phenomenon that is totally new to the world. Bill Clinton was lucky enough to govern when there was a large burst of growth in jobs associated with technology and a large investment in new technology. In the last decade many of those jobs have been lost to China and India. The maturation of computer technology and the continual drastic deflation in its cost has created an environment where less investment in technology is required from businesses to gain more results in driving down costs and achieving more with fewer workers. The net result is that President Obama is facing economic problems that nobody knows how to solve. That reality is not going to be changed by playing political games with policies that have a history of failure even if those policies provide a temporary fix to the media addiction to superficial excitement.

Posted by: dnjake | December 17, 2010 6:27 PM

Signing welfare reform and the balance budget act are "small ball" initiatives? Typical MO of Obama's apologists, in order to elevate the current president, they either disparage George W. Bush or try to diminish Clinton's accomplishments. Bill Clinton's record speaks for itself.

Posted by: alinosof | December 17, 2010 6:17 PM

Post a Comment

characters remaining

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company