Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Elzabeth Drew Takes Down Obama

From In The Bitter New Washington NYR/December 23, 2010

...If, as Peter Hart says, the voters hadn’t yet turned on Obama, he hardly helped those Democrats who were running in tight races. Numerous Democrats complained (off the record, for fear of alienating the White House) that he and his aides didn’t seem to grasp the hurt and anxiety that was troubling so much of the public.

Obama is not given to Clintonian expressions of “I feel your pain.” Once they got to the White House, Obama and his campaign team (virtually all of his top assistants) seemed to live in a hermetically sealed box—cut off from and not interested in what was going on outside, or what experienced people who tried to help them had to say. No one could dispute the fact that Obama was a good family man who dined with his wife and children each night and then turned to his briefing papers.

To the extent that the Obamas went out in Washington, it was on their “date night,” or, so far as is known, to the Georgetown apartment of their close friend Valerie Jarrett, who also works at the White House. True, the Beltway isn’t the country, but there are people here who could have helped the Obama team navigate its shark-filled waters.

Of course Obama should have gotten out of Washington more and listened to people, not just talked at them; and, as Walter Mondale said recently, he should have gotten rid of “those idiot boards”—the TelePrompters on which the great orator has been strangely dependent and which divide him from his audiences. Last year, a friend of mine was invited to a Hanukkah party that the Obamas gave for prominent Jews (a group with whom there had been tensions), and after the Obamas descended the grand stairway, they stood in the foyer briefly, the President made a few remarks and shook a few hands, and back up the stairs they went. No mingling.

In their first two years, the Obamas have seemed a bit tone-deaf: there were too many vacations while people were hurting, especially Michelle’s extravagant trip to Spain. (I’m as interested in Michelle’s clothes as the next woman but at the same time think she and her staff are too focused on her looking smashing, which she does. Her wardrobe seems quite extensive for these troubled times.)

Barack Obama’s personality has been much mulled over in the past two years, but it seems inescapable that his high self-esteem often slides over the thin line to arrogance, which trickles down (with some exceptions) to much of his staff, some of whom are downright rude to all but a chosen few. Obama has seemed uninterested in anyone but his immediate group, and three of the four members of his immediate circle—Jarrett, Robert Gibbs, David Axelrod—had had no experience in governing. The fourth, Rahm Emmanuel, expressed himself with such flippancy, arrogance, and overuse of the F-word that he offended not just members of Congress but also would-be allies of the President.

Vice President Joe Biden, who is liked on Capitol Hill, was virtually shut out of the dealings with people in Congress in the first two years—”I can handle them,” Obama told Biden—but Biden is now expected to be given a larger role as part of the White House’s new determination to “reach out.” (A few months ago highly placed members of the staff also swore they would “reach out,” but that seemed to last for just a few days.) One of the oddest aspects of Obama’s persona is that someone who seems so confident has insisted thus far in having people around him with whom he is said to be “comfortable.”

For example, Tom Donilon, his recently appointed national security adviser (a promotion from his role as deputy), is by all accounts a capable man but is no one’s idea of a serious strategic thinker. The explanation I was given for Donilon’s being given his new position was that “the President is comfortable with him.”

Just as Obama is described as pleased with himself, he has been treated with hero worship by much of his staff. After all, he had taken on the formidable Clintons, and, against the expectation of almost all the pundits and the experts, he had beaten them. Why should he listen to those who had doubted him? A common complaint about the Obama White House in the first two years has been that there were no “grown-ups” around, people who knew more about governing and who would tell Obama that he was wrong. When people tried to suggest someone who should be brought in, that person was rejected as “not one of ours.” Joe Biden is said to argue with Obama on issues, such as Afghanistan, but not to get into the management of the White House.

Those who supported Obama in 2008 expected him to be able to move public opinion, to get people to follow him. The fact that the Obama White House has been so poor at “messaging” baffles even his strongest supporters. In fact, he had no overall message. As Winston Churchill put it, there was no theme to his pudding.

When I asked a White House aide about this, he pointed to what had been billed as a “major speech on the economy,” at Georgetown University in April 2009. But the speech was utterly forgettable—and forgotten. One ally attributes this problem to the inexperience of both Obama and his top staff. An ally says, “You can’t leave a message if you don’t have a strategy and you don’t know where you’re going.” Another says, “They had something that worked in the campaign but didn’t work in the White House.”

Thus, Obama didn’t see the need to explain what he was doing. His 2010 campaign themes seemed to wander all over the place: Stanley Greenberg, a pollster and former aide to Bill Clinton, said that Obama’s oft-used theme, that we shouldn’t go back to the Bush days, actually tested negatively, because people didn’t believe that the country was making economic progress.

So Obama’s biggest failure was not to be the leader that so many expected him to be. The jubilation that surrounded his swearing-in may have gone to his head, while the celebrants overlooked that there were plenty of people out there who were not overjoyed at the advent of a black president, or even a Democrat. Obama was, apparently in his own estimation, so smart and so adored that he seems to have felt no need to explain—and explain again—to the country what he was doing and to take the country along with him. This failure to put his programs across came up a few times in the 2010 campaign.

More than once, people in town hall meetings told him that they were behind him but were having great trouble trying to defend or explain his agenda. In a backyard gathering on October 21 he made the most awkward reply of those I heard: “Our attitude was that we just had to get the policies right and we didn’t always think about making sure we got the advertising properly about what was going on.” Advertising. (When I mentioned this to a Democratic senator who was generally supportive of Obama, this ordinarily polite man responded, “Bullocks! What policies?”)

The risk-averse Obama had left it to Congress to write the big bills such as on the economic stimulus and health care (with strong participation by White House aides). But he kept up this line of defense all the way through to his pathetic press conference on the day after the election. In these comments, Obama gave away the devastating fact that he didn’t really understand the role of the president as leader. A friend of the Obama administration said to me, “Their definition of governing is passing bills.”

Someone else relatively close to the White House explained that since Obama had been so criticized for being “arrogant” and “aloof,” he had to eat large portions of humble pie. (“And I take responsibility for that,” Obama said again and again.)

We can never know if Obama’s programs would have gone down better with the public had he stood up more forthrightly to the steady attacks of the Republicans and their allies, not to mention lies. Perhaps there were other reasons, beyond the “communications” problem that the White House seems to have settled on, for the relative unpopularity of some of Obama’s policies.

Perhaps it was the policies themselves.In fact, the despised TARP program and the auto company and large bank bailouts were begun under his predecessor, something Obama could have made clearer and that George W. Bush might have had the good grace to say when his successor was being assailed for them.

Lawrence Summers, Obama’s outgoing chief economic adviser, argues that Obama’s policies weren’t more popular because people just didn’t feel their effects. As for the stimulus bill, Summers says, “Macroeconomics works with a lag time of six to eighteen months.” The stimulus program may well have been too small, but it was all that the administration could get from Congress. By most economic measures, the stimulus program added 2.5 to 3.5 percent to the Gross National Product. Some liberal economists argued that it should have been larger, but they did not have to deal with the realities that the administration faced.

The Democratic leaders had instructed the White House not to ask for even a trillion dollars, saying that their members would rebel at such a number. To get enough votes to overcome a Republican filibuster, the administration had to agree to some final cuts made by a group led by three moderates. The final amount was $787 billion, about 80 percent of what had been asked for; this is not atypical.

The infrastructure projects, which took up about a third of the stimulus bill, were expected to be delayed because of the complicated process of agency approval; but some others weren’t as “shovel ready” as they had been heralded. In October, Obama called for $50 billion more for infrastructure projects, but he didn’t make much effort to sell them, and they were met with opposition on all sides.

The public just doesn’t believe that the first stimulus program created jobs, though it did. Soon, little was heard of this proposal, but I’m told that Obama plans to offer it again in his State of the Union address and his budgets. Christina Romer, then chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, made an epic mistake by predicting early in 2009 that the stimulus program would lead to 8 percent unemployment, a pronouncement apparently pushed on her by the political aides, who wanted to drape the stimulus proposal in optimism. The Republicans feasted on her prediction while unemployment stubbornly hung on at 9.6 percent up until the election.

It’s never a good idea for government officials to offer specific predictions—whether the subject is the economy, war, or diplomacy. At the insistence of most of the administration’s economists, a sizable tax cut for the middle class in the stimulus bill was doled out in small droplets in the form of deductions in people’s paychecks—with the result that they were barely noticed.

Despite Republicans’ insistence that Obama’s health care program (or “Obamacare,” as they call it), should be repealed, exit polls showed the voters to be almost evenly divided between those who wanted it to be repealed and those who wanted it maintained or even expanded. But the Republicans are fixated on, if not repealing it—Obama will veto any such bill—then undermining it one way or another.

It can also be expected to be the subject of investigation in the next Congress. Most of its main provisions aren’t scheduled to go into effect until 2013, though small and presumably popular pieces of the health care bill have already been implemented (for example, offspring can stay on their parents’ insurance until they turn twenty-six, and children up to the age of eighteen cannot be denied coverage because of preexisting conditions). Those who thought they’d get new or improved health insurance right away were disappointed, and others were angered as insurance companies raised their rates.

Even Obama, in his press conference reacting to the election, said there are parts of the health bill that need a second look—thus, as is his wont, capitulating before the fight had begun—just as he seems to be doing in the extension of Bush’s tax cuts, which, according to a recent New York Times piece, were followed by record low economic growth, even before the crash. Another study says that tax cuts for the rich are the single worst way to create jobs...

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