David Gergen: Extreme Challenges Can Be Opportunities

In our conversations for the Extreme Challenges special with Anderson Cooper, I was struck once again by both the enormity and complexity of the demands that President Obama will face in coming months. He started his presidency with the most daunting burden of any chief executive since Franklin Roosevelt, and if anything, it only seems to grow heavier.

As someone who has deep roots in presidencies of the past, I must say that I was among those who worried early on that he was taking on too much, too fast. My experience has been that a White House is able at best to handle one or two big issues, and when it suddenly has five or six balls in the air, it almost always drops one or two. Barack Obama has at least a half dozen flying above him — the economy, health care, global warming, Afpak, Iran, Iraq — the list goes on and on. So, I have been worried.

But one of the lessons I have also learned is that every fresh generation of leaders can teach a thing or two to older generations about how to get things done. And maybe, just maybe, we have a President who can do it all and do it with grace and style. (What did they say about Ginger Rogers: she showed that it was possible to dance as well as Fred Astaire and do it in heels and backwards?)

From the perspective of the current White House, one advantage is already apparent from the Obama approach. He is pressing forward on so many different fronts that it is hard for his opponents to focus their fire. One day he is going about the auto industry, the next about credit cards, the next about detainees. There are so many issues bubbling that the press can’t sustain a single story line and it is hard for Republicans or even moderate Democrats to stir up much of a debate.

Take health care reform. When the Clintons proposed a major overhaul of the system, the insurers and small business folks were able to raise a heck of a ruckus within weeks after the White House put forward a proposal. Gradually public support eroded, and in a Democratic Congress, the health care reform package never even got out of committee in either the House or the Senate.

By contrast, the Obama team has so many initiatives floating and most of the bill writing has been assigned to Capitol Hill instead of the White House (where the press is mostly focused), so that a health care reform package is now winding its way through the Senate Finance Committee and will almost certainly make it out of committee and onto the floor in a matter of a few months. And there is no huge national debate! The public isn’t aroused one way or the other by the big issues buried within reform because there isn’t the kind of hot, mammoth debate we had in the country when the Clintons were pushing forward. As a result, it appears to me that health care reform has the best chance of passage under President Obama in more than half a century.

There is a legitimate question of whether we ought to be having a bigger debate about the bill shaping up on health care. Personally, I believe the country would be better served if we were to develop a national consensus through debate prior to passage — it is always healthier in a democracy to thrash big issues out before committing the nation to a new course of action. As a political matter, however, one has to say that the Obama approach is working better than many — including me — would have thought.

So, yes, the President does face Extreme Challenges in the coming months — challenges that are daunting by any standard — and we had an excellent series of conversations with Anderson. But it is also clear that he sees them as opportunities, and he is seizing upon them to advance his agenda.

– David Gergen AC360 Blog 5/21/09

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