Imagine, for a minute, President Obama, not as a series of campaign promises, speeches, accomplishments, or pitfalls, but as an ongoing story arc, with a definite beginning, and an ending waiting to be written. The first four years of an American presidency follow a typical three-act structure: Act I starts with Inauguration Day and runs through midterm elections; Act II picks up there and carries us through the climax, re-election; from there, Act III wraps up the first term, either by continuing on to the next four years, or by transitioning into post-presidential life.
If the American presidency were a reality TV show, this is where we start season two. And this is where John Heilemann’s New York Magazine article, aptly named “The West Wing: Season II,” reveals the inner workings of the Obama administration, not as a big government entity, but as a team, with its leader moving towards the center for anchorage, and reaching out beyond the radius of his circle to find out how he can do better. “In a series of interviews in early January with senior White House officials and many of Obama’s closest confidants outside the building,” wrote Heilemann, “a picture emerged of a president engaged in a searching, clear-eyed, and sometimes painful process of self-scrutiny, and now determined to implement a plan to fix what has ailed his enterprise—and himself.”
Act I has now come and gone. Obama, and America, have had to deal with a fair share of obstacles these past couple years: the economy, two wars, rising unemployment, polarized politics, overestimated expectations. Many of these cast shadows over his accomplishments and ultimately led to the beginning of Act II: a mid-term election that handed half of Congress over to the Republicans and validated the power of the Tea Party movement.
Yet the President isn’t backing down, and during this pivotal time of his first term, he’s making changes such as brokering deals with Republicans to get bills passed, appointing a former businessman and Cabinet member as his chief of staff, even scheduling meeting on his own with people on the other side, opponents he wouldn’t normally talk to. You could say he’s rewriting his presidency, but none of these things attempt to erase or renegotiate the last two years, which is essentially what a rewrite would do. Rewrites start back again from the beginning; Obama is rejuvenating from the middle. What we’re seeing in him is a narrative shift, one that’s taking him out of the offensive in terms of pushing legislation, and veering him towards the defensive, protecting his accomplishments for re-election. Heileman writes:
“Contrary to the feral howling on the left or the applause of many Beltway tapioca centrists, the objective here has less to do with tacking to the center than with finding a way back home. What Obama seeks is to reconnect with the essence of why he was elected, to reanimate the unifying, postpartisan, pragmatic yet visionary persona that inspired so many in the first place. ‘What he wants,’ says one of his friends, ‘is to be Barack Obama again.’”
It’s no easy feat for Obama to extend himself beyond his inner circle; doing so takes him out of his accustomed academic comfort zone and opens him up to a vulnerability that he can’t control. But this safeguard, writes Heilemann, ended up harming the President more than it protected him, by secluding him to what many felt was isolation, a “suffocating cocoon”:
“The more pointed variant of this critique was directed specifically at Obama. Unlike 42—who loved to stay up late, jabbing at the speed dial, spending countless hours gabbing with local pols and businesspeople around the country to gauge the political wind and weather—44 not only eschewed reaching out to governors, mayors, or CEOs, but he rarely consulted outside the tiny charmed circle surrounding him in the White House. ‘What you had was really three or four people running the entire government,’ says the former White House strategist. ‘I thought they put a pretty good Cabinet together, but most of those guys might as well be in the witness-protection program.’
“A funny line, no doubt, but an overstatement, surely? Well, maybe not. ‘I happen to know most of the Cabinet pretty well, and I get together with them individually for lunch,’ says one of the most respected Democratic bigwigs in Washington. ‘I’ve had half a dozen Cabinet members say that in the first two years, they never had one call—not one call—from the president.’”
The blow came in November when an escalating political climate where violent rhetoric soared and the need to be heard completely negated the responsibility to listen. There was almost no point to saying anything last fall, not when bigotry was being reincarnated as political rhetoric. America, in many senses, turned into a high school of self-indulgent teenagers who simultaneously didn’t want government in their lives, but also blamed it for not fixing their problems. The so-called discourse was paralyzing. Repeatedly, Obama was criticized for not acting as a strong enough spokesman for his party, and the result was a Republican stronghold over Congress:
“The midterms, however, slapped the president upside the head—and shattered his sense of complacency. ‘It is hard to describe how personally upset he was at some of the members we lost, how terribly he felt, especially about the ones that were in the tough districts who’d voted with him down the line,’ says someone who knows Obama well. ‘It was a really tough time for him.’”
It was a time-out, so to speak, for the President, who realized that the only thing just as damaging as polarization is isolation, and that if he wanted to keep his job, he needed to be the first one to take a step toward compromise. He brought his 2008 campaign manager Peter Rouse, in as interim chief of staff; Rouse identified three problems: insularity, reactionism, and a lack of leadership communication. Obama agreed, but was slow to admit it, so he started scheduling meetings on the sly with prominent Democrats and Republicans, and repeatedly he learned that his entire political approach needed to change:
“Obama knew that the hardest change for him to make would be shattering his self-circumscription, but resolved to push himself to do so. ‘He’s got an enormous capacity to do what he has to do when he recognizes he has to do it,’ the Democratic bigwig says. ‘During the campaign, he did a lot of things he didn’t like to do, and he actually got pretty good at it. A lot of it was just the bullshit—the receptions, the glad-handing, all the stuff you have to do to be political. You have to be extrovertedplus, and he will never be extroverted, much less plus. But he’ll get better at this, because he knows he has to, and he will work at it.’”
Now we’ve moved on to Act II, with what some call a re-write of the White House, starting with Obama’s newly-infused confidence, his focus on the future, and his appointment of Bill Daley as White House chief of staff. But none of these things attempt to erase or renegotiate the last two years, which is essentially what a rewrite would do. Rewrites start back again from the beginning; Obama is rejuvenating from the middle. What we’re seeing in him is a narrative shift, one that’s taking him out of the offensive in terms of pushing legislation, and veering him towards the defensive, protecting his accomplishments for re-election. His departing staff, particularly David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs, “two of the people closest in the world to him, they’re like his relatives,” has implied some level of pushing out, but others have pointed to the resignations as matured presidential insight:
“I don’t think Obama was especially well served by either of them in the White House,” says an A-list player in a previous Democratic administration. “It’s the same with every president. They come to town and the campaign people are their family, but as they learn that there’s a difference between campaigning and governing, the campaign people get washed out.”
It’s of note to remember that both Axelrod and Gibbs are on Obama’s re-election campaign; Gibbs will likely work full-time as communications director or senior strategist, and Axelrod expects to work as “keeper of the message,” like he did in 2008. “If we were fired,” he told Heilemann, “putting us to work for the campaign would be a weird assignment.”
In retrospect, Axelrod admitted to Heilemann that many of the White House’s wounds were self-inflicted:
“No. 1, we overloaded the message circuit board. No. 2, so much of it was tied to Congress; I think we were too Hill-centric. A lot of that by necessity, but nonetheless, we came here basically saying that the answers to America’s problems were not all in Washington but out in the country, and that we wanted to do things differently. I think the optics did not speak to that to the degree they should have. No. 3, I think we overused him. There was a period of time in the eighties when the Bears weren’t very good, and they would hand Walter Payton the ball on every play: It was Payton left and Payton right and Payton up the middle. He was the greatest running back of all time, arguably, but still it became kind of a dreary game plan. And, you know, we have one of the great political performers of our time. But I think we degraded that to some degree by using him as much as we did in the ways we did.”
And so now, as he looks to 2012, Obama is doing so by reaching out beyond Washington again and basing his re-election campaign in Chicago:
“Many politicos believe that putting it there is lunacy; that no amount of geographical hocus-pocus can confer outsider status on an incumbent president; that the benefits of being outside the Beltway are vastly outweighed by the loss of proximity to the principal. But Plouffe avidly argues otherwise: that being in Chicago will enable the campaign to be in closer touch with ordinary voters, and also less prone to leaks or becoming suffused with conventional wisdom. Moreover, he is confident that the tightness of the Obama team is such that proximity matters little. ‘It isn’t like in 2008, Barack Obama was in our headquarters twice a week holding strategy meetings—he was out campaigning,’ Plouffe says. ‘We made a lot of decisions by conference call, and, you know, it worked out okay.’”
It’s somewhat ironic to see a president who began his election with a grassroots campaign struggle to regain connection with those outside his circle of comfort. But Washington itself breeds insularity, and when you inherit the economic and military situations that were passed on to him, plus the colossal expectation that he fix it all now, you almost can’t blame him for retreating away from all the political crossfire. Like Bush after 9/11, and like Clinton after the Oklahoma City bombing, it took a national tragedy for him to regain his approval ratings, perhaps because words don’t leave physical wounds, and it took six deaths for America to realize that the deepest scars are many times the ones that we can’t see.
As we go into Act II, Heilemann leaves us with a cliffhanger. The article is a comprehensive synthesis of problems we’ve seen in the news for the past year, but its greatest strength lies in Heilemann’s intimacy with Washington and the Oval Office, and he honors it by writing not just on the Obama Administration’s actions, but on their less-publicized thoughts as well. Obama, as portrayed by Heilemann, is not the mythical character we’ve come to elevate our presidents to being; he’s an ordinary citizen who’s trying to do his job the best way he knows how, and sometimes, that involves making repeated mistakes until he realizes something’s not working. But his focus, wrote Heilemann, is still clear: “To establish the kind of compelling narrative about where his administration intends to take the country and how it plans to do so that has been lacking since day one.” It’s not an easy job, and what Obama needs more than anything, if he’s to succeed, is balance:
“Nowhere in the Constitution is the spinning of yarns enumerated as a responsibility of the President of the United States. Yet the most successful of them in our recent history—Roosevelt, Reagan, Clinton—were all masters of the art. For a variety of reasons, Obama lost his storyteller’s touch, and also his connection to what made so many vest so much hope in him to begin with: his apparent capacity to lift the country up and calm it down at the same time. Has he figured out how to reclaim that brand of mojo? Not yet, not fully. But at least he understands he must, which is a start. ‘It’s kind of like with a 12-step program,’ says the grandee. ‘Before you can begin fixing your life, you have to admit you have a problem.’”
The same can be said for the rest of America. We control the Obama narrative just as much as he does. Just as history will record and later judge him based on his merits and mistakes, it will also do the same for us. If we want to begin fixing our broken America, we first need to admit that we have a problem, and that its solution doesn’t lie in the hands of government.
Photo courtesy of Beverly & Pack via Flickr