What Obama Needs to Do to Turn His Presidency Around

Yes, it sounds prosaic, but he needs to be patient for the political climate to improve and continue to talk about the economy, former aides say.

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 13: U.S. President Barack Obama delivers speaks at the 2013 Tribal Nations Conference held at the Department of Interior Building on November 13, 2013 in Washington, DC. Obama meet with leaders of 566 Native American tribes earlier in the day at the White House. 
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George E. Condon Jr.
Nov. 21, 2013, 4 p.m.

 

It may be that only those who have weathered crises in­side the White House can ap­pre­ci­ate the chal­lenge to Pres­id­ent Obama’s team as it tries to re­cov­er from the self-in­flic­ted wound of the botched un­veil­ing of the Af­ford­able Care Act. They are the ones who know how dif­fi­cult it is to think bey­ond just get­ting through the cur­rent week; they are the ones who know how many of the pres­id­ent’s plans have been shoved aside by the con­tro­versy dom­in­at­ing the news cov­er­age.

That Obama is go­ing through the worst days of his pres­id­ency is un­deni­able. He is at his low­est point in the polls. His com­pet­ence and trust­wor­thi­ness are in ques­tion like nev­er be­fore. His al­lies in Con­gress are waver­ing. But the mes­sage from his­tory — and from vet­er­ans of the Obama White House — is also un­deni­able: Fix the prob­lem, but don’t let it push everything else off the agenda. That is a theme that runs through con­ver­sa­tions with Obama vet­er­ans as well as the or­al his­tor­ies of pres­id­ents and pres­id­en­tial aides archived at the Miller Cen­ter of the Uni­versity of Vir­gin­ia.

Jimmy Carter was bit­ter about the im­pact of the Ir­a­ni­an host­age crisis on his ad­min­is­tra­tion and how it over­shad­owed everything else he was try­ing to ac­com­plish. “No mat­ter what else happened, it was al­ways there. It was pain­ful,” he said. “It was just an over­lay­ing of feel­ing  dis­traught, or ill at ease, or un­com­fort­able.”

Ger­ald M. Raf­shoon, Carter’s White House com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­or, re­called, “After the host­ages were taken, it really be­came im­possible to think about your pri­or­it­ies or themes. After Nov. 4, 1979, we nev­er had a meet­ing with the pres­id­ent when he didn’t have that on his mind.” Stu­art Eizen­stat, Carter’s chief do­mest­ic policy ad­viser, com­plained of “a tre­mend­ously strained at­mo­sphere” as the crisis blocked ac­tion on oth­er agenda items. “There was an enorm­ous di­ver­sion of pres­id­en­tial time and at­ten­tion from a whole vari­ety of is­sues…. It was a very dif­fi­cult, tense, and un­happy time.” The White House chief of staff, Hamilton Jordan, lamen­ted that he was “totally pre­oc­cu­pied with the host­age thing” to the det­ri­ment of oth­er pri­or­it­ies.

When Ron­ald Re­agan suc­ceeded Carter in the White House, some of his aides saw the same thing de­vel­op­ing when con­tro­ver­sies arose over Ir­an-Con­tra or Chief of Staff Don­ald Regan. With the Carter ex­per­i­ence in mind, aide Mi­chael Deaver showed some “tough love” to­ward his boss, de­mand­ing that Re­agan “fire some­body” or move on. “If we get too deeply in­to this,” he told the pres­id­ent, “we’re go­ing to have a ser­i­ous prob­lem, once again di­vert­ing us from our real goals.” When Re­agan balked, Deaver in­sisted, telling him, “You’re go­ing to get stuck in this forever.”

In­deed, that is the danger fa­cing today’s White House. Obama can take Deaver’s ad­vice, hold aides ac­count­able, fix the web­site, and move on with his agenda; oth­er­wise, he risks get­ting “stuck in this forever.” At stake are both his second term and his repu­ta­tion.

Ap­pre­ci­at­ing that, Dav­id Axel­rod, the former Obama aide who has long been one of his closest con­fid­ants, be­lieves the White House has ab­sorbed the les­sons of past stumbles. But he thinks boun­cing back will re­quire more time and dis­cip­line. “They’ve sort of hit the nadir, and the web­site is go­ing to get bet­ter. I think you see signs of that already,” he told Na­tion­al Journ­al. But the chal­lenge is great. “If you look back, right from the be­gin­ning of the year, there has been a series of events — shoot­ings, nat­ur­al dis­asters, in­ter­na­tion­al events, the shut­down, and the self-in­flic­ted wounds of the web­site — all of those have con­spired to take him off the main mes­sage.”

That main mes­sage is the eco­nomy. Re­pub­lic­ans may mock what they de­ride as re­peated “pivots” to the eco­nomy. But Obama has al­ways be­nefited from re­mind­ing Amer­ic­ans that jobs are his highest pri­or­ity and by cham­pi­on­ing pro­grams to be­ne­fit the middle class. “That,” says Axel­rod, “is home base. But it is very hard to de­liv­er that mes­sage in a sus­tained way when events keep tak­ing you off. So you have to have the dis­cip­line to stick with your mes­sage.” Ad­di­tion­ally, he ac­know­ledges, you have to un­der­stand that you can’t con­trol news cov­er­age. “As in­tent as the me­dia is now on this health care is­sue, it is hard to get to oth­er is­sues. That is not to say you shouldn’t try.”

Demo­crats be­lieve that Re­pub­lic­ans are over­play­ing their hand by ham­mer­ing on a web­site the ad­min­is­tra­tion ex­pects to fix and by con­tinu­ing to come across as ob­struc­tion­ists. “Even if the pres­id­ent has taken a beat­ing in the short term,” Axel­rod says, “the Re­pub­lic­an Party’s rat­ings have not gained.” 

To play on that, the White House in com­ing days will high­light more le­gis­la­tion and more ap­point­ments that Re­pub­lic­ans in Con­gress are block­ing. “Im­mig­ra­tion, jobs, and oth­er do­mest­ic pri­or­it­ies will make their way for­ward as Obama­care fades,” pre­dicts Bill Bur­ton, the former White House aide. Ben LaBolt, a former Obama spokes­man, adds, “See­ing the pres­id­ent put for­ward and drive the agenda each day is the most im­port­ant thing in re­gain­ing foot­ing.” 

But, both in­side the White House and in the or­bit of former Obama aides, there is a real­iz­a­tion that it will take time and a little luck to turn things around. “My sense, look­ing at the White House and talk­ing to some people over there, is that they are eager to get on to that lar­ger agenda,” Axel­rod says. “But how you blast your way on to that is a chal­lenge.” The real­ity, hard as it is for Demo­crats to swal­low, is that it may not hap­pen un­til they get past up­com­ing health care dead­lines and un­til the pres­id­ent de­liv­ers his State of the Uni­on ad­dress — two long months from now.

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