Can Obama teach an old dog (Congress) new tricks?

When my brother-in-law heard that we had gotten an energetic puppy he recommended a shock collar to train him to follow directions.  He predicted that our dog would do some really funny and unnatural things in response to the new feeling.  It is against the dog’s nature and instincts to learn a new chain of command (and probably has a lot to do with the strong electrical shock to his neck too).  As it turns out we never got around to using one with our black Labrador, but I’ll never forget his description of what to expect.

This is not unlike our bodies, which reacts negatively when training for a new sport or participating in a new activity. I remember two such instances – training for a half marathon and learning to play squash. In both cases, my body got the weird aches and pains as I reacted to the new training regime. I have a new theory that the reactions we’re getting from Congress lately are a result of a new training regime or new way of doing business. I know this metaphor isn’t perfect but I think Obama is training Congress to do “politics” by a new set of instincts. This is why we’re seeing such strange behavior and feeling odd aches and pains.

I realized this when reading old party people like Edwin Meese on the Right and Leslie Gelb on the Left having the same old reactions to Obama’s modern problems. Obama advocated change, talked about a new way of producing policy, of bi-partisanship and innovation. Yet, he’s struggling with Congress and straining to accomplish his sizable agenda. In a recent piece on the Daily Beast, former New York Times columnist Leslie Gelb recommended Obama fire his leadership (specifically Rahm) and restart. As John Dickerson of Slate’s Political Gabfest put it, “we elected Obama, presumably in part, for his ability to overcome these obstacles and work through them,” not to freak out at the first sign of trouble. It dawned on me that Gelb’s reaction was classic “old Washington.” The Cabinet and inner circle often did not serve entire terms with a President and took the fall for the administration’s shortcomings. It’s the old way of doing business.

Likewise on the Right this week, Edwin Meese and a group of high profile, over-60 Republicans signed The Mount Vernon Statement – a vague re-commitment to the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. Don’t get me wrong; I love over-the-top, dramatic signs of nostalgia and patriotism. However, approaching the rapidly changing political landscape by signing a re-commitment to old ideas and traditional values accomplishes next to nothing. Even if you agree with a strict Constitutional, 1787 approach to small government and traditional family values, we can all agree that this statement is neither dynamic, shocking nor helpful. I just don’t see what it accomplishes politically or culturally.

Just so anyone doesn’t think I’m being too hard on Conservatives, I suggest clicking on the hyperlink above and reading it.

Here’s a brief excerpt too:

A Constitutional conservatism based on first principles provides the framework for a consistent and meaningful policy agenda.

  • It applies the principle of limited government based on the rule of law to every proposal.
  • It honors the central place of individual liberty in American politics and life.
  • It encourages free enterprise, the individual entrepreneur, and economic reforms grounded in market solutions.
  • It supports America’s national interest in advancing freedom and opposing tyranny in the world and prudently considers what we can and should do to that end.
  • It informs conservatism’s firm defense of family, neighborhood, community, and faith.

My point is this – the old guard in the Republican and Democratic parties is fighting an inevitable shift in political norms. They are trying to address a new President and a new political culture (technology coupled with younger generations) with old school, Cold War style politics. So the saying goes, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” I have no idea if that’s true for dogs, but it certainly appears true for old politicians. It’s like a cultural/political Blackberry™ that these guys can’t or won’t adopt.

Solutions-based governing is the Blackberry™ and Obama is Congress’ grandson trying to teach them how to use it. Obama is finding out how hard it is to institute a new organizational culture and I think we’ve all recognized that it’s taking time. Too much time, according to a culture that is familiar with technology and the timely, efficient solutions it presents. Ultimately, our generation is moving toward a diminishing focus on party names and labels and an increasing attention to fiscal efficiency (hopefully) and innovative solutions. Our generation is less concerned with dividing ourselves into groups based or social values and more concerned with collaborating to find workable answers to our problems. This is what we’ve been trained to do both by technology (the Internet) and in our classrooms. So unless our politicians figure it out soon, I suggest we force it on them the way we have with the iPod™, DVR and Blackberry™.

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One response to “Can Obama teach an old dog (Congress) new tricks?

  1. I think the Mt Vernon statement was an attempt by a bunch of political hacks to capitalize on what they think the Tea Party Movement.

    I also have an interesting thought on the Leslie Gelb piece and the Dana Milbank response article.

    If you read the Milbank article it reads like it is coming straight from Rahm’s mouth. “Everyone in the White House, including the President, is wrong and Rahm is right.”

    What if it is someone, Axelrod, who is trying to force Rahm out? Making it appear as though Rahm was responsible for an agregious leak.

    Then again. If it looks like a tiger and sounds like a tiger then it’s probably a tiger.

    So maybe Rahm sees the writing on the wall that his time in the White House is short and he is flailing trying to save his job.

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