The Audacity of Patience: Obama's Savvy Coalition-Building Broke All the Rules about How to Run for President. If He Can Take the Same Approach in the White House, He Will Be a Towering Success

By Schmitt, Mark | The American Prospect, December 2008 | Go to article overview

The Audacity of Patience: Obama's Savvy Coalition-Building Broke All the Rules about How to Run for President. If He Can Take the Same Approach in the White House, He Will Be a Towering Success


Schmitt, Mark, The American Prospect


A single tactical choice early in Barack Obama's quest for the presidency set the course for all the events that followed--Obama s securing of the Democratic nomination and surprisingly smooth path to resounding victory in the general election. After Sen. Hillary Clinton defeated him in the New Hampshire primary, rather than pouring resources into the very next primary states, Obama campaign manager David Plouffe looked weeks into the future. He deployed staff to states that wouldn't vote for another month and implemented a long, patient strategy of assembling a majority of delegates, one at a time, in friendly and unfriendly states alike.

The move broke all the rules for an insurgent candidate, which is what Obama was at the time. There is a tried-and-true strategy for insurgents--what President George H.W. Bush in 1980 called "Big Mo"--momentum. Only a wave of victories in early states can overcome the superior nationwide organization of an establishment candidate like Clinton, the theory goes. Insurgents can't waste time thinking about the months ahead. Momentum is a rapidly depleted resource.

Plouffe's choice was not the last time that the Obama campaign would gamble on patience and the long view, despite admonitions from those with more experience that he was blowing the moment. Only six weeks before Election Day, William Galston, a political theorist and Democratic campaign brain since the 1970s, led a chorus of public criticism, warning Obama, "You are in danger of squandering an election most of us thought was unlosable," as John McCain seemed to "win the news cycle" on too many days. Then the financial crisis broke, and while McCain was frantically trying to seize the role of bipartisan broker on an issue he knew nothing about, it was Obama's calm clarity that lured a wave of moderates, independents, centrists, and prominent Republicans into the ever-widening circle of his coalition.

Obama will need a full reservoir of that same patience in the White House, because he'll face similar frantic pressure and second-guessing. He will be surrounded by a crippling crowd of people and groups convinced that if their own No. 1 cause isn't enacted in the first 100 days, it will never happen. The conventional wisdom about the presidency is very much the same as the advice Obama was given in the primaries: Move quickly. Overwhelm the forces of the establishment. Use the momentum of the election to achieve the biggest things possible. You'll never be more powerful than on Jan. 21.

If Obama ignores this conventional wisdom, he will not do so because he's crazy or lazy but because he's taking the same approach to governing as he took to the election. It will mean he's taking the long view, gambling on patience, and carefully putting into place the pieces that win lasting majorities for progressive policies, just as he won a majority of delegates and a majority of votes in the election.

ON THE DAY AFTER THE 2004 election, George W. Bush declared, "I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it." He announced that he would privatize Social Security and revamp the tax system by the following spring. In Bush's version of the conventional wisdom, the presidency was a rapidly depreciating financial asset, and he had to act quickly.

But Bush was wrong. The error was fatal. The collapse of his own presidency, the Republican brand, and the McCain candidacy can be traced to that moment of macho strutting as surely as to the "Mission Accomplished" moment on the USS Abraham Lincoln. The fact was Bush had earned no political capital; he had no mandate for the policies he now intended to pursue. All he had won was the raw institutional power of the presidency and control of Congress. He pushed that power further than any president before him, including Richard Nixon. And in doing so, Bush found its limits. The institutional power of the presidency, combined with a compliant one-party Congress, can start wars, enrich predatory capitalism, and destroy long-established norms, but alone it cannot do what Karl Rove aspired to, which was to build a new and lasting political order. …

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