Obama and the Lessons of the Crisis
October 15, 2008 | 12:58 PMGary Orfield
Presidents often shape their legacy in responding to crises. The truth is that Presidents in normal situations don't have great latitude to make major changes since power is shared with Congress and other institutions and policy-making involves delays, compromises and limits.
In a crisis, however, executive leadership is critical. Usually we cannot tell much about candidates in this respect during campaigns, which are highly scripted processes of communicating endlessly repeated central themes of broad general appeal, like "The Change We Need." This year, however, we have had the most frightening world financial crisis that the great majority of Americans have ever experienced and it was necessary for government to act very strongly and quickly, so both men who may have to implement the solutions had to react.
I think that there are some real insights into a possible Obama presidency from observing his responses. He is calm and confident. He seeks the best expert advice. He does not pretend he has answers when he does not. He is not panicked into playing the 24-hour news cycle for short term political gains. He does not wobble around after announcing his stand and he tries to convey relatively clear and consistent messages to the public.
Other lessons from both this crisis and his management of the campaign — he tends to have a long-term strategic sense and to manage a coherent and well-run operation and he tends to be moderate, pragmatic, and careful in his approach. In many ways this suggests that an Obama presidency would be radically different than what we've seen in recent history.
Another lesson might be drawn from his clear recognition and respect for Congressional leaders and their collaboration with him, something that was not very evident in the early parts of the Carter and Clinton presidencies and wholly lacking now in Washington.