If the postpartisan Obama of the campaign was largely absent in the first half of his term, many other aspects of the political character revealed in Game Change — the strengths, the weaknesses, the temperament, the tendencies — have been on vivid display in his White House. Four examples spring to mind.The first is Obama's aversion to the artifice of politics. For much of 2007, as our book makes clear, the candidate's performance was weak, in no small part because he recoiled from the performance-art elements of the job. And so it was again in 2009 and 2010, as Obama often lapsed into an odd passivity, evincing a stubborn reluctance to engage with voters on a visceral, emotional level and causing supporters and detractors alike to wonder, What's wrong with this guy?
The second is Obama's tendency to perform at his highest level when — and only when — the game is on the line. In the campaign, this penchant, which he demonstrated in the final weeks before Iowa and later during the financial crisis, served him well and earned him the sobriquet of the ultimate fourth-quarter player. In the White House, he has done the same, notably in the last-minute push for the passage of health care reform. Yet, faced with sustained challenges like the BP oil spill, Obama has struggled to calibrate his inner clock and rouse himself to palpable intensity and action.
The third example is Obama's approach to designing and deploying his inner circle. Obama demanded that his people be good at what they do and get along with their colleagues. He filled his Cabinet with strong men and women of great ability and accomplishment. But, just as he did during the campaign, Obama has relied on only a tiny claque of trusted aides for advice on the major decisions confronting him. Though this kind of tightly controlled, top-down approach was effective during the election, more than a few seasoned Washington hands wonder if it is the optimal way to run a White House, let alone the entire federal government — and they argue that Obama should widen the circle, opening himself up to more contrary (and contrarian) counsel.
Fourth, and final, is Obama's failure to put forward what might be called a "theory of the case": a sustained, compelling distillation of his vision of the role of government at this moment in history, the connective tissue between his inspirational rhetoric and concrete policy proposals. In the campaign, Obama found it unnecessary to lay out such a thesis; what he had to do instead was show, during the nomination fight, that he was not a Clinton, and then, during the general election, that he was not a Bush. Yet the absence of a theory of the case has persisted since Obama arrived at the White House. And it has left him a worryingly indistinct figure, even among his supporters, with many on the left seeing him as a temporizing, compromising moderate and many in the center perceiving him as having pitched to the left.
Let's dissect these one by one.
First point, I think Halper-mann is off kilter. If anything, Obama was selective in his artifice. He certainly convinced enough people that he was neither Clinton nor Stokely Carmichael, while maintaining elements of both moderation and radicality. Even Bill Clinton couldn't pull this stunt off. He left it to the right wing to paint him as a radical (remember his trip to Moscow in college?), which sadly laid the groundwork for the opposition to his administration.
The second point, the last-minute sudden death overtime winner, is I think the most valid point the article makes. Take healthcare reform. It took a year to get the bill that we got, a bill that capitulated and compromised so badly that when he couldn't get 60 Democrats in the Senate, out of 60 Democrats, he nearly needed to find support in the GOP!
Imagine if, in that year between proposal and passage, the bill had passed much earlier. Already, portions of the bill, the parts about universal coverage for children up to age 26 or the abolishment of the pre-existing condition clause, would have been effective and millions of stories would be coming out about how HCR helped working families keep working.
The BP crisis showed another side of this inability to focus on a task from the get-go, as the authors point out. It's not that Obama was wrong to initially let BP and the EPA work out the response there. The magnitude of the crisis and the enormity of the task (as well as the criminal behavior of the drillers) was unknown. Obama could have, however, made it clear that action had to be prompt and effective, or he'd "call out the troops" to coin a phrase.
Point three: Howard Dean, on the Keith Olbermann show last night, made a couple of salient points with regard to this concept, that Obama staffed himself with yes-men.
That was the problem with the inside the beltway folks who -- I think the president never really got the view of what was going on outside the beltway. This is not an election about left or right. And the -- and the tea party is not against big government. That's -- these are big fallacies that are put forward by people like fox... It's not a matter of left and right. it's a matter of being clear and being much tougher. We should have used reconciliation from the very beginning. but that's over. That's all water over the dam. We've got a big problem tomorrow.
He's right: for a man who ran on change, there wasn't a whole lot changed. You could easily have fit the Obama administration inside Clinton's and not that that is a bad thing necessarily, but it was the wrong message to send to the people and it was likely the wrong administration at the wrong time. He needed outsiders, at least to keep an eye on the insiders, and Elizabeth Warren late in the game was not the move he needed to make. Make that move earlier, much earlier, and you have some legitimacy.
When Bill Clinton was in his second term and his entire legacy was going to be put on trial, he didn't go out and hire cronies. He went out and hired the most unctious, hateful enemies he could find: David Gergen and Dick Morris. This sent a message that he would listen to any opinion, no matter houw foul and far afield of his own thinking. Obama needs to do this, but with a wrinkle: he needs to people who will stiffen his spine and force him to confront the folks on the right.
Fourth point...this one is iffy. Like the Teabaggers, Obama ran as the anti-establishment candidate. He had to, and he had the opportunity to. Had he spent another four or eight years in the Senate, he would have lost the luster of the Outsider. This was his time, this was his chance. And he ran a platform that really put the onus of his success on us, a dangerous proposal for any politician with a population that has an attention span as short as ours.
You know, "We are the change we seek," that sort of thing.
I mean, he was right. And wrong.
He was right in that, if we lose our democracy to the corporatocracy that is, first inch by inch and now mile by mile, absorbing our freedoms and our rights, it's not the politicians fault. It's ours. We are the "WE, THE PEOPLE".
And he was wrong in that when the shit hit the fan, we weren't going to blame ourselves, we'd blame him and Congress and the Teabaggers. He needed to own up to that the minute he set foot in the Oval Office.
By abrogating that responsibility on the campaign trail and in the Oval, he has effectively set in motion an administration adrift. There are good reasons and plenty of them why he might have been caught off-guard, the economic collapse primary amongst them.
But to bailout the banks to the tune of nearly a trillion dollars while not even being able to scarf up one percent of that for homeowners, the "WE, THE PEOPLE," speaks volumes to me about his lack of focus and disappated energy.
He will win in 2012. He has the personal appeal that Jimmy Carter lacked, and will still draw enough votes in enough purple states that he can comfortably plan on redecorating the Oval in 2013. And his appeal will bring many of the seats lost today back to the Democratic party.
Will it be enough to really and vigourously attack the agenda he set out with in 2007? That's the $64 question!