Picking GOPers, Obama rewrites book on leadership

After Republicans swept the 1994 midterm elections, political strategist (and fellow columnist for The Hill) Dick Morris devised a strategy for President Clinton’s 1996 reelection, which Morris called “triangulation.” The president would co-opt key elements of the Republican agenda by making them his own, thereby distancing himself from his own party’s left wing, while defining the GOP by its more unpopular right-wing positions.

It worked. But after the election, the level of partisan warfare in Washington escalated, with Democrats and Republicans more passionate about antagonizing, investigating and demonizing each other than at any time in recent memory. The battle culminated, of course, in a bitterly personal and partisan impeachment trial that drew time and attention away from the issues most central to ordinary Americans’ lives.

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At last summer’s Democratic convention, Barack Obama outlined a different approach to governing. “The challenges we face require tough choices, and Democrats as well as Republicans will need to cast off the worn-out ideas and politics of the past,” he said. “For part of what has been lost these past eight years can’t just be measured by lost wages or bigger trade deficits. What has also been lost is our sense of common purpose ... And that’s what we have to restore.”

Put another way, the president is less concerned with defining the three points of a triangle, and more interested in making progress on what’s inside. And that means reaching across the aisle.

Last month, the president named Republican Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman to be U.S. ambassador to China. In March, Huntsman made headlines by declaring that the future of his party demanded less ideological extremism and partisan bickering, invoking Ronald Reagan as a paragon of both principle and pragmatism.

President Obama echoed those sentiments this week, signing legislation to commemorate the late president’s 100th birthday. “President Reagan understood that while there are often strong disagreements between parties and political adversaries — disagreements that can be a source of conflict and bitterness — it is important to keep in mind all that we share,” Obama said.

Some will say President Obama’s kind words for Reagan were mere professional courtesy; the Huntsman appointment, an aberration. But in the past two weeks, Obama has twice more signaled his intent to bridge the partisan divide — and in no insignificant way.

In selecting federal appellate Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court, the president saw more than just a sharp and experienced legal mind. Her appeal was bipartisan, having been nominated to judicial posts by both President George H.W. Bush and President Clinton.

This week, Obama tapped GOP Rep. John McHugh (N.Y.) to serve as secretary of the Army — a choice hailed both by liberal Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and conservative Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss (Ga.).

Now, as healthcare reform winds its way through Washington, watch to see Obama’s governing strategy at work in the policy arena — as he focuses not on the extreme points forming the outer edges of the debate, but rather on the vast areas of agreement that exist “inside the triangle.”

It’s a new style of presidential leadership that is slowly taking shape.

They just don’t have a word for it yet.



Del Cecato is a partner at AKPD Message and Media, the political consulting firm founded by David Axelrod in 1985. He served as media adviser and admaker for Obama for America and Obama-Biden 2008.