Published February 24, 2010
The Obama White House — having been battered for months by falling poll numbers, rising public opposition to its signature domestic initiative, massive defections by Independent voters, and election defeats in New Jersey, Virginia, and (especially) Massachusetts — is beginning to fray. The smooth-running Obama team we witnessed during the 2008 election is stumbling around in the dark, making mistakes in judgment that are compounding the problems.
For example, during the State of the Union address, President Obama declared that “jobs must be our No. 1 focus in 2010.” That was a message echoed by Democrats across the land who knew that many (though not all) of their problems can be traced to Obama's relentless effort to pass health insurance legislation the public has rejected and considers, at a time of nearly 10 percent unemployment, to be beside the point. These members of the president's own political party wanted to turn their attention to jobs rather than health care, reasoning that hanging a lantern on a policy that is crippling their party is a prescription for a disastrous midterm election. Yet this week — fully a month after the State of the Union address — attention is once again focused on health care. And if Obama, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid get their way and use the reconciliation process to pass ObamaCare, Democrats will be forced to spend the next several months still talking about it. This will lead Democratic lawmakers to ponder whether their leadership has a political death wish.
Another sign of a White House that is beginning to unravel is the emergence of internal feuding in No-Drama Obama Land. According to Politico, critics left and right are accusing Rahm Emanuel of disloyalty-by-proxy after a Dana Milbank column in Sunday's Washington Post defended the White House chief of staff — while trashing reputed Emanuel rivals Valerie Jarrett and Robert Gibbs:
The key paragraph contained high praise for Emanuel — at the expense of his boss: “Obama's first year fell apart in large part because he didn't follow his chief of staff's advice on crucial matters. Arguably, Emanuel is the only person keeping Obama from becoming Jimmy Carter.” In the piece, the longtime Post politics watcher portrays a White House filled with Obama's Chicagoland sycophants, and idealists veering the White House dangerously off to the left — with Emanuel the only forceful voice of pragmatism and moderation.
When knives are unsheathed in an administration, with key aides distancing themselves from presidential failures and impending political defeat, it's a bad sign. That is doubly the case when the White House chief of staff is at the center of the infighting. It has radiating effects; morale plummets, trust dissipates, and people begin to take sides. Time and energy are spent battling colleagues instead of working in unison with them.
Then there is that old reliable comforter to reach for: self-delusion. In this case it comes in the form of the belief that your troubles are caused by a “communications problem.” According to a recent Washington Post story, Obama aides are aggressively “retooling” the administration's communications strategy in ways that mirror a successful campaign more than they do a confident White House operation. The president's advisers are said to be focused on producing a faster turnaround in responding to critics and more discipline in channeling the president's schedule, so as to stay on message. This strategy was said to be the result of an end-of-the-year analysis in which White House advisers concluded that “the president's communications team had not taken the initiative often enough and had allowed drawn-out debates in Congress, and relentless criticism by Republicans, to drown out his message.”
“It was clear that too often we didn't have the ball — Congress had the ball in terms of driving the message,” communications director Dan Pfeiffer told the Post. “In 2010, the president will constantly be doing high-profile things to be the person driving the narrative.”
I recently had a conversation with a journalist who has close ties to the Obama White House and asked him if they really believed that at the core of their difficulties was a communications problem rather than a substance problem. He indicated they do.
Having worked in three administrations and two terms in the White House, I understand the temptation to believe that all that is needed to bend public will your way is one more clever argument, one more uplifting prime-time speech, a more aggressive and disciplined rapid-response team. But at some point, after enough time and trials, you need to make peace with certain hard truths.
In this instance, the Obama administration needs to accept the fact that the public has rendered its verdict on ObamaCare. They do not like it and they do not want it. No health care “summit,” no new speech in Elyria, Ohio, or Las Vegas, no 2.0 version of the original plan will change any of that. Don't just take my word for it. Listen to the widely respected political analyst Charlie Cook, who told National Journal in an interview:
I sort of reject the notion that there is a communications problem with President Obama. I think it's just fundamental, total miscalculations from the very, very beginning. . . . This isn't a communications problem. This is a reality problem. And I think they just made some grave miscalculations and as it became more clear that they had screwed up, they just kept doubling down their bet. And so I think, no, this is one of the biggest miscalculations that we've seen in modern political history.
It is hard to think of another president who has dropped this far this fast, who after a year has done as much to hurt his party and his cause. Some of that damage is repairable; other presidents have come back from significant setbacks and imposing challenges. But from all appearances, the Obama White House still doesn't get it. It looks for all the world like health care is the whale to Barack Obama's Captain Ahab. He is determined to press ahead with his health care agenda come what may. Well, what may come is an epic midterm election loss, the repudiation of liberalism, and deep damage to the Democratic Party. The specter of Jimmy Carter is beginning to haunt the Obama presidency. And the worst is yet to come.
Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. He served in the Bush White House as director of the office of strategic initiatives.