The Gazelle Metaphor in American Politics

Ron Suskind’s most recent book, Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President, is a phenomenal examination of President Obama’s handling of the domestic agenda since he took office. The book reveals a flailing President, insubordinate advisers, an inability to execute decisions, and several missed opportunities for true reform. I would highly recommend the book to anyone that is at all slightly interested in the events of the last three years and how modern government functions. Confidence Men delves into several complex issues and policy decisions that the administration faced, however, for the purposes of this post I would just like to share a very insightful metaphor mentioned by Gary Gensler in the text. The metaphor relates to pushing policy through in Washington:

The way Washington works is you often start with what’s optimal, a best solution to some complex problem, and, surprisingly, there’s often quite a bit of bipartisan consensus on what will actually work, at least in private. That’s your herd of gazelles. But you’ve got to get them across the savanna safely, to a distant watering hole. And the longer it takes, the more you lose. You may end up with very few. You may lose them all. Because there are predators out there, lions and tigers, packs of hyenas, and they’re big and fast and relentless — considering how any significant solution to a big problem is bound to be opposed, do or die, by some industries or interests who’d figured out a way to profit from the way things are, even if they’re profoundly busted, and often because they’re profoundly busted! So that’s you’re challenge: see how many gazelles you can get to the watering hole.

The metaphor illustrates, simply, the immense power that the status quo has, and the effort required to make change or to progress. Often in conversation about politics, solutions do seem rather simple, and that leads to immense frustration amongst citizenry who cannot comprehend why Washington simply cannot fix problems. It’s wise to think of the above metaphor at those times, because the metaphor is insightful as to how the world works and the powerful bias that exists towards the status quo. Every policy proposal will have it’s lions, tigers, and hyenas but it’s up to leaders to identify them, work fast, and exploit opportunities.

Unfortunately, Confidence Men serves as an indictment on the leadership and managerial abilities of President Obama. Too many times he was unable to get the herd across the savanna.