May 23, 2013
Howard Dean Should Have Been Obama’s Pick All Along
Posted on Feb 5, 2009
Now that Tom Daschle has withdrawn his name from the running to be health and human services secretary, President Obama should revisit the idea of nominating former Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean for the position, an idea he abandoned last November for all the wrong reasons.
Within a week of Obama’s winning the presidential election, Dean’s name began to circulate as a top contender for the job. Dean is a physician, a former family practitioner in fact, and during his 11-year tenure as governor of Vermont, health care and other welfare-related reforms were a priority. But within days of Dean’s name being floated, the Web site Politico reported him to be out of the running. “… [T]he chief attributes President-elect Barack Obama is seeking in his HHS secretary will be an ability to work with members of Congress and shepherd reform legislation through the House and Senate,” the site reported. “That job description has turned out to be a particularly ill-suited one for Dean, given his partisan background and lack of congressional experience, sources inside and outside the transition offices say.”
Dean became imprinted on the national consciousness when he surged to the head of the pack during his run for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination by playing the angry anti-war candidate. His novel use of the Internet to raise funds and organize supporters produced a meteoric rise in the polls. When he failed to craft a message that appealed to a broad coalition of American voters and his campaign plunged to earth, however, many Americans were left with a low impression of Dean and his talents that was misleading and unfortunate. Dean possesses the very qualities we need in an HHS secretary at this moment in history.
I lived in Vermont for nearly all of Dean’s 11 years as governor. The 2004 presidential contender who whipped crowds of young voters into frenzies with his bracing oratory was someone we had not seen before. He governed there as a fiscal conservative whose skinflinty ways and careful long-range planning made him popular among small-government Yankees of all political affiliations, Democrat, Republican and Independent. When, in response to a mandate from the state Supreme Court, Dean led the way for Vermont’s civil union law, social conservatives, again regardless of party affiliation, turned on him. He followed up his legislative victory with dozens of visits around the state to gatherings of people who strongly disagreed with him. He listened respectfully and patiently to their grievances, argued why he believed civil unions should be equated with basic human decency and civil rights, and did not backpedal or apologize. The gambit was an extraordinary display of political courage, and savvy. In the next election he managed to hang on to his job by the slimmest of margins.
Though Dean can be famously argumentative, he is not known as a politician who holds grudges. As governor, he’d fight like mad for an initiative he believed in but on the next issue of importance could work with those who had just opposed him. Of course, Dean played the partisan as chair of the DNC, but that was his job description. He served much longer as chief executive of a state with a fixed budget and very real health and human services responsibilities, and his track record in that capacity should count for much.
Here are some quotes from the book that President Obama and his advisers might find instructive:
And there is one other aspect of Dean’s tenure as governor documented in our book that might interest Obama, who has become president in the midst of an economic crisis with his own party in control of both houses of Congress. “One of my most persistent activities during the early ’90s,” recalled Glenn Gershaneck, who was Dean’s press secretary before eventually heading the state Transportation Agency, “was trying to fend off the more liberal wing of the Democratic Party. The will to spend money always exceeded the resources available, and the push to spend came mostly from the left.”
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