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Obama at Halftime: How he Fumbled, Why He’s Recovering

The president spent three years getting played. That’s starting to change.

President Barack Obama waves as he departs the White House.

President Barack Obama waves as he departs the White House.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

It’s been a season of assessments for Barack Obama. Four major magazine pieces about his first three years as president have come out in the last four weeks: a monumental contextualization of Obama within the history of the presidency by James Fallows in The Atlantic; a fly-on-the-wall account of the evolution of his economic policies by The New Republic’s Noam Scheiber; a peek under the hood of White House decision-making by Ryan Lizza in the New Yorker; and, on the cover of Newsweek a month ago, Andrew Sullivan on why Obama’s “character, record, and promise” have been so “grossly underappreciated.” What do they say, and what do they get right and wrong?

One of them can easily be dismissed via the evidence presented by another. In the Gospel according to Andrew Sullivan, everything Barack Obama – like God – does has a purpose, to be revealed in the fullness of time. It’s a “show-don’t-tell, long-game form of domestic politics,” where “what matters to him is what he can get done, not what he can immediately take credit for.” He summarizes well what he takes to be the Obama method: The president “begins by extending a hand to his opponents; when they respond by raising a fist, he demonstrates that they are the source of the problem.” For Sullivan, this is where, as the pop stars say while showing off the boudoir on MTV’s Cribs, the magic happens – when, “finally, he moves to his preferred position of moderate liberalism and fights for it without being effectively tarred as an ideologue or a divider.” Only, in Sullivan’s account, Obama doesn’t get things by fighting. He gets them because … they just sort of happen.

Case in point: the repeal of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy banning gays in the military, which he apparently got by doing nothing at all: “[W]hat he was doing,” writes Sullivan, “was getting his Republican defense secretary and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs to move before he did.” Such mystic accomplishments cascade: “Under Obama, a crucial state, New York, made marriage equality for gays an irreversible fact of American life” – he has become like unto a state governor; meanwhile – Sullivan actually credits this to Obama, directly – “support for marriage equality and marijuana legalization have crested to record levels.”

But they did so also under George W. Bush. Maybe Sullivan is right: doing nothing is the trick. (Although, on medical marijuana, the Obama administration has indeed done something: launched a nationwide crackdown.)

“If I sound biased, that’s because I am,” Sullivan writes. “Biased toward the actual record ….” He concludes that if you don’t understand Obama’s greatness yet, you’re just being impetuous: “Nothing in his first term – including the complicated multiyear rollout of healthcare – can be understood if you do not realize that Obama was always planning for eight years, not four.” It’s all part of the grand master’s secret plan, charted ten moves ahead of the rest of us.

So: all according to plan, eh? Read Ryan Lizza. What’s remarkable about his New Yorker piece is how definitively it establishes much of Obama’s policy making as not planned, but merely reactive. Lizza has somehow got ahold of the kind of documents and “decision memos” – proposals drafted by White House aides for the president to either approve or reject – that usually only surface decades after a presidency ends. They show, among other things, an erstwhile Keynesian in Chief – Obama’s February 24, 2009 speech defending the $787 billion in investments in his American Recovery and Investment Act got a 92 percent approval rating – rashly rewriting his entire economic approach, in a lurch from stimulus to austerity, in the face of a Tea Party onslaught. It also shows him as, in moments, strikingly heartless: His aides describe to him a plan to “expand programs to reduce and prevent the incidence of homelessness among veterans. He responds: “Given what we did last year, does the increase need to be this high?”

Of course, part of this is the ordinary give-and-take of governing. But part is organic to the foolish way Obama and the people around him think – how often they let themselves be guided by clichés made up by Republicans and parroted by pundits. “Democratic Presidents rarely address small business in their message,” a team of aides tells the president. But of course Democratic presidents are obsessed with talking about small business. Click here, here, here, and here for Democratic presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, and Clinton saying at least as much or more about small business as Ronald Reagan ever did. Likewise when top Obama aide David Plouffe announces it’s time for cuts to balance the budget. “‘We’re going to need a period of ugliness’ — he meant with the left — ‘so that people in the center understand we’re not wasting their tax dollars.” Except that this clashes with the vast majority of polls, which show Americans prefer higher taxes over lower spending as a way to balance the budget.

It makes for a curious convergence in Obama’s character: blindness in the face of controverting evidence, yes; but a lack of stout-hearted conviction at the very same time. Never once in these documents do we see Obama uttering a Reaganite “Stay the course!” No reminders of some stalwart eight-year plan they’re supposed to all be laboring under. (Instead, Fox News doesn’t even have to say “jump” before the President responds, “How high?” His staff secretary writes of a proposal to pay federal employees to participate in a healthcare study, “Regardless of the merit and relatively low cost of the idea … it could easily be caricatured by the right-wing press.” Obama replies: “Unfortunately, I think the political guys are right about how it would be characterized.”) Then there is the right’s healthcare policy panacea, “malpractice reform”: “Obviously,” Obama says about that, “we shouldn’t do anything that weighs down the overall effort, but if this helps the [American Medical Association, the main doctors’ lobby] stay on board, we should explore it.” It looks like the best way to get Barack Obama to consider changing course is to say “Boo!”

Although that presumes there was a course to change. In May of 2010, Lizza writes, three key members of Obama’s economic and legislative teams “informed the President that he needed to settle the dispute over whether the centerpiece of his economic plan was jobs or the deficit….’ This year, the Administration has strongly pushed two distinct messages on fiscal policy,’ they wrote” — more gas (i.e. spending), or step on the brake (austerity). Think about that: Six months before a crucial election Obama’s top dogs have no idea in which of two opposite directions they are supposed to be heading.

How did Team Obama propose to break the deadlock? Lizza paraphrases: “They agreed that the best policy should be gas now, brake later. But, with Democrats in Congress facing a midterm election in which federal spending was becoming a prominent issue, his advisers pushed for fiscal restraint. In fact, they argued that exploiting public opinion in favor of deficit reduction was the best way to gain support for stimulus.” From the advisers’ memo: “[G]iven the growing perception that Washington is out of control on fiscal issues … focusing more of our communications message on brake-related issues might increase our ability to achieve the ‘gas now, brake later’ strategy. In other words, we may be more likely to succeed in enacting job creation measures this year if we highlight and propose additional deficit reduction measures for the medium term.”  

That’s pluperfect gibberish, of course. They certainly think they’re playing chess here, plotting several moves ahead. But that plotting presumes certain fantastical things about how public opinion works, for instance that the public, keeping a running score in their heads, will tot up all the ways the government is pinching their pennies (“Hey, hon, just saw that the president is holding the line on the growth of spending to prevent homelessness among veterans!”); and then, turning on a dime, will signal to their legislators on election day that they’re ready for more stimulus spending now, please and thank you very much!

The results? Nothing that would have impressed Gary Kasparov.

Lizza’s piece undermines another of Sullivan’s arguments – namely, that Obama is that he has been able to accomplish what he has accomplished “without being effectively tarred as an ideologue or a divider.” Lizza, biased toward the actual record, points out that the gap between his Democratic and Republican approval ratings are greater than for any president in history. In similar vein, James Fallows: “If Obama really thought that America had moved past partisan division, then he was too innocent for the job.”

And healthcare? Republican lawsuits threaten to blow it to smithereens; and it is indeed vulnerable to legal challenge. No one is sure its labyrinthine structures will even work the way they’re designed when its main benefits finally kick in two years from now. And that very time lag has sabotaged the possibility that the public will embrace it in time for Obama to get reelected. (Sullivan: “What matters to him is what he can get done, not what he can immediately take credit for.”) All of these vulnerabilities are directly traceable to the obsessively compromising way Obama insisted on putting healthcare together (which, by the way, didn’t prevent him from being tarred as an ideologue and a divider).

Liberal-conservative civil war structures our political life; to ignore that is to court unilateral surrender. Fallows’ and Scheibers’ articles both correctly point out that the failure to grasp this fundamental fact of our modern political life is the Obama administration’s tragic flaw. Scheiber’s piece, composed in the annoying “tick-tock” style and larded with irrelevant details – such as: “the bickering soon grew so loud that Orszag’s deputy, Rob Nabors, lunged to shut the door” – to prove the reporter had a source “in the room,” is an excerpt from his forthcoming book The Escape Artist. What they’re bickering about in this scene is whether to hit the gas on the economy or the brakes. It’s part of an overall narrative that depicts Obama, over and over again, insisting that this time the Republicans will prove reasonable in negotiations, right before time they humiliate him once more by proving they intend nothing of the sort.

That foolishness of presuming good faith on the part of his Republican negotiating partners is illuminated by a detail in the New Yorker. The day after Obama dazzled the political world with his first speech proposing a stimulus (the one 92 percent of viewers reacted positively to), I was listening to Rush Limbaugh. A caller pronounced himself a dyed-in-the-wool “dittohead” (Rush-speak for someone who agrees with Limbaugh all the time), but wondered why his hero kept insisting that Obama was going to raise taxes on everyone when the president had clearly stated that he would raise them only on those making $250,000 a year or more. Limbaugh shot back indignantly: “Pay no attention to what he says. He means the opposite in most cases.” I hadn’t realized until reading Lizza how many Republican senators tell their followers to think in the same soul-sickening way. Jim DeMint, who called his own response to the stimulus the “American Option” — making Obama, naturally, un-American — said, “If nearly every Democrat in Congress supports a tax cut, it’s not really a tax cut.” (This was ten days into Obama’s term.) When Obama, in the wake of Tea Party mania, proposed a spending freeze, Sen. Jim Inhofe proclaimed it “totally meaningless …. He’s going to try to make people think he’s concerned about spending, which he isn’t.”

How can you negotiate with people who so denigrate the office of the presidency in the eyes of the public, insisting that everything the president says, just by virtue of being said by the president, is prima facie a lie? How can you play chess with people who cheat? (You can say Obama’s a chess master, and you can say he couldn’t possibly have anticipated how recalcitrant Republicans would be. Sullivan says both. But you can’t say both.)

According to Scheiber, Obama has at long last figured that out: “When he finally turned back to jobs in August,” Scheiber writes, “he told his aides not to ‘self-edit’ proposals to improve their chances of passing the Republican House.” And, lo and behold, it seems to be working: Obama’s approval ratings are up going into the election year. Meanwhile, this week he faced down the GOP with a tough demand that they extend the payroll tax cut – and for once, they blinked. Finally and belatedly, and in the nick of time – thus Scheiber’s title, The Escape Artist – the chief executive has learned to use the weapons at his disposal.

That’s par for the presidential course, says James Fallows, who agrees that “Obama is learning, fast, to use the tools of office.” Fallows knows of what he speaks; a former White House staffer himself (a speechwriter for Jimmy Carter), he is the wisest, calmest, and most capacious explicators of large-scale institutional problems in American journalism. He sees big pictures. Hence his observation that “the test for presidents is not where they begin but how fast they learn and where they end up. Not even FDR was FDR at the start.”

He finds a template for Obama’s newfound, and effectual, combativeness in a strategy memo from a wise old Democratic hand. Fallows paraphrases the time-honored facts of political life it lays down: When the party controlling Congress is not the president’s own, “it will always view weakening the president as its paramount goal. It will launch as many congressional investigations as possible …. It will block nominations and try to frustrate the president’s attempts to keep the executive branch operational. Its leaders will define ‘compromise’ as the president’s accepting all of their demands and abandoning his own.”

And most of all, and most wisely – and contrary to Obama’s naive presumption that he could negotiate with John Boehner and expect the speaker to whip his caucus into passing the deal that results – “[n]o Congressional leader can commit his party because no commitments are binding upon the Members except those they may personally make to their own” constituencies. Therefore, “A president ‘should first of all accept the inevitability that formal cooperation is unworkable.'”

And thus the old man’s recommendations – the ones, belatedly, that Barack Obama seems to be following to the letter: “With legislative ambitions blocked, with many appointments left to languish, with rear-guard battles under way to uphold vetoes and fend off investigations, a president should resort to the only tool that is uniquely his: the ability to speak for all of the public. He should prepare the ground by sounding reasonable and conciliatory, in light of an unquenchable if unrealistic belief that parties should be able to get along …. Then, with his bona fides established, the president can move into the next election, making a clear case for his side” – for his side, not a side halfway between his side and the other guy’s side. Bringing blows to the adversary, not merely absorbing them. The New Yorker, in their advertising for Lizza’s piece, calls this the “post-post-partisan phase of the Obama presidency.”

That wise old man’s memo points the way. The thing of it is, the wise old man was an advisor to Harry Truman, and the memo was written in 1947. Why Obama couldn’t figure all this out until the day before yesterday is an interesting question indeed.

Rick Perlstein is the author of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus and Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. He writes a weekly column for RollingStone.com.

Also by Rick Perlstein
Romney and Son: What Mitt Learned from his Dad
Why Newt Gingrich’s Greatest Triumph Was Founded on a Scam
• Why Mitt Romney’s Mormonism Doesn’t Matter
Ronald Reagan: Welfare Queen of Montana (or: Tax Tips for Mitt Romney)


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