White House

A Pen, a Phone, and a Flailing President

The White House’s problem might not be strategies and tactics. It might be Obama himself.

WASHINGTON - OCTOBER 29: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks to the media at the briefing room of the White House October 29, 2010 in Washington, DC. Obama made a statement regarding the suspicious packages that were found on cargo planes from Yemen heading to the United States. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
National Journal
Add to Briefcase
Ron Fournier
Jan. 27, 2014, 4:38 a.m.

For months, the White House and its al­lies mocked crit­ics of Barack Obama’s lead­er­ship, ar­guing that no pres­id­ent has “Green Lan­tern” su­per­hero powers. Now these same people are pre­dict­ing that Obama can sal­vage his agenda by wav­ing a ma­gic­al “pen and phone.”

The con­tra­dic­tion il­lus­trates how far par­tis­ans will go to de­fend a flail­ing pres­id­ency, grasp­ing at slo­gans and in­sults as a grow­ing ma­jor­ity of Amer­ic­ans tune out. We wit­nessed a sim­il­ar drama un­der Pres­id­ent Bush, who set a low bar for pub­lic ap­prov­al that Obama is close to match­ing.

More than that, Obama’s plan to ex­ert ex­ec­ut­ive branch au­thor­ity, start­ing with his State of the Uni­on ad­dress, fur­ther il­lus­trates his un­fa­mili­ar­ity with the levers of polit­ic­al power, the lim­its of his lead­er­ship style, and the vast amount of time and po­ten­tial squandered by the pres­id­ent so far.

“We need to as­sure the Amer­ic­an people that we can get something done either through Con­gress or on our own be­cause what they want are an­swers,” White House ad­viser Dan Pfeif­fer said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Uni­on.”

“He is go­ing to look in every way he can with his pen and his phone to try to move the ball for­ward,” Pfeif­fer said. “We’re put­ting an ex­tra em­phas­is on it in 2014.”

Pfeif­fer was amp­li­fy­ing a front-page story in the Wash­ing­ton Post about a strategy memo he wrote. De­tails of the Pfeif­fer memo were leaked to Post re­port­er Scott Wilson as part of the White House’s pub­lic-re­la­tions blitz sur­round­ing the State of the Uni­on ad­dress on Tues­day. From the story:

Among its con­clu­sions is that Obama, a former state le­gis­lat­or and U.S. sen­at­or, too of­ten gov­erned more like a prime min­is­ter than a pres­id­ent. In a par­lia­ment­ary sys­tem, a prime min­is­ter is elec­ted by law­makers and thus be­hold­en to them in ways a pres­id­ent is not.

As a res­ult, Wash­ing­ton vet­er­ans have been brought in­to the West Wing to em­phas­ize an ex­ec­ut­ive style of gov­ern­ing that aims to sidestep Con­gress more of­ten. A cent­ral am­bi­tion of Obama’s pres­id­ency — to change the way Wash­ing­ton works — has ef­fect­ively been dis­carded as a dis­trac­tion in a time of harden­ing par­tis­an­ship “¦

Wilson’s story in­cluded at least one dam­aging in­sight on Obama:

Even some of Obama’s closest ad­visers ac­know­ledged that he some­times ap­peared dis­tant in meet­ings be­fore the dis­astrous health-care rol­lout in the fall.

And his team:

The White House post­mortem also con­cluded that the ad­min­is­tra­tion suffered from a lack of fo­cus in a year without an elec­tion “¦

The as­sess­ment con­cluded that Obama and his com­mu­nic­a­tions team al­lowed his fifth year to be judged too much by his deal­ings with Con­gress, which were poor.

A con­ser­vat­ive Re­pub­lic­an fac­tion killed his gun-con­trol pro­pos­als — joined by some Demo­crat­ic sen­at­ors — and even­tu­ally shut down the gov­ern­ment for 16 days. “We still didn’t know enough about the Re­pub­lic­ans,” said one seni­or ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial, who like oth­ers in­ter­viewed for this art­icle spoke on the con­di­tion of an­onym­ity to dis­cuss the in­tern­al as­sess­ments.

Didn’t know enough? After five years in of­fice? This of­fi­cial, like so many oth­ers in the West Wing, ap­par­ently is not suf­fi­ciently self-aware to real­ize he con­firmed an Obama cri­tique — that the pres­id­ent is too re­moved and dis­in­ter­ested from the polit­ic­al pro­cess to af­fect it, that he doesn’t value con­gres­sion­al re­la­tions enough to give them any­thing more than lip ser­vice, and that, for his enorm­ous in­tel­lec­tu­al gifts, Obama is han­di­capped by a lack of polit­ic­al curi­os­ity. He chose not to know enough about the Re­pub­lic­ans.

The story raises sev­er­al oth­er ques­tions. First, why did it take this long for the White House to dis­cov­er the power of ex­ec­ut­ive or­ders and rule-mak­ing? (Re­pub­lic­ans are warn­ing of “tyr­an­nic­al ex­ec­ut­ive or­ders,” ig­nor­ing the fact that GOP pres­id­ents is­sue them, too.) For in­stance, Obama has re­fused to use the power of clem­ency in a broad way to cor­rect in­justice in crack-co­caine sen­ten­cing. He punted to Con­gress the most im­port­ant ques­tions about NSA over­reach rather than tak­ing ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion. And now we’re sup­posed to be im­pressed by his pen and phone?

At the same time, ex­ec­ut­ive or­ders are far less dur­able than laws passed by Con­gress in bi­par­tis­an fash­ion. The next pres­id­ent can re­verse ac­tions Obama takes with a stroke of a pen. It’s a leg­acy writ­ten in in­vis­ible ink. Is that good enough for Obama?

Third, there is an ob­vi­ous con­tra­dic­tion in the goals laid out in the Wilson story. How does a pres­id­ent sim­ul­tan­eously “dis­tance him­self from a re­cal­cit­rant Con­gress” and strike deals on im­mig­ra­tion, the farm bill, a min­im­um-wage hike, and trans­port­a­tion. It’s pos­sible, not likely.

Fi­nally, what happened to the am­bi­tious man elec­ted to change the cul­ture of Wash­ing­ton? The Post story comes on the heels of a jar­ring pro­file by Dav­id Rem­nick in which Obama seems to have sur­rendered to the lim­its of his most-power­ful of­fice. “The Obama of The New York­er pro­file,” wrote Slate’s John Dick­er­son, “wears the lim­it­a­tions of his of­fice like a shawl.” From his story:

The pres­id­ent’s com­ments re­flect the tri­umph of ex­per­i­ence over hope. He long ago tempered his claims about trans­form­ing par­tis­an polit­ics — he now seems a little em­bar­rassed about the whole thing. But the tone of the piece also shows how real­ist­ic he has be­come about har­ness­ing the power of his elect­or­al suc­cess and the na­tion­al mood he claimed it rep­res­en­ted. That was a prom­ise of the Obama pres­id­ency that didn’t rely on a will­ing Con­gress. He had a spe­cial re­la­tion­ship with voters and he was go­ing to turn it in­to a force. He called on that bond in his second in­aug­ur­al ad­dress: “You and I, as cit­izens, have the power to set this coun­try’s course. You and I, as cit­izens, have the ob­lig­a­tion to shape the de­bates of our time — not only with the votes we cast, but with the voices we lift in de­fense of our most an­cient val­ues and en­dur­ing ideals.”

But when he talks about tack­ling in­come in­equal­ity, he no longer speaks of na­tion­al move­ments. It’s not be­cause the pub­lic isn’t ready to be led. The coun­try is still look­ing for a polit­ic­al cham­pi­on to rally them, but un­like a pre­vi­ous ver­sion of Obama who would have prom­ised that he could chan­nel the pas­sion out­side Wash­ing­ton to change Wash­ing­ton, his as­pir­a­tions are more mod­est now. He hopes to give “voice to an im­pres­sion, I think a lot of Amer­ic­ans have, which is it’s harder to make it now if you are just the av­er­age cit­izen who’s will­ing to work hard and has good val­ues, and wasn’t born with huge ad­vant­ages or hav­ing en­joyed ex­traordin­ary luck — that the ground is less se­cure un­der your feet.” After six years the pres­id­ent re­cog­nizes that people are look­ing for “oth­er fla­vors … some­body else out there who can give me that spark of in­spir­a­tion or ex­cite­ment.”

Obama is right. Polls show the pub­lic is grow­ing weary of him, which is a shame be­cause he’s still got three years in of­fice. There are big prob­lems to solve, start­ing with the lack of so­cial and eco­nom­ic mo­bil­ity. But that’s the point. If it’s so hard to put a fin­ger on the prob­lem, if the White House seems to ri­co­chet from one slo­gan to an­oth­er, lurch­ing from strategy to strategy and con­sumed by tac­tics and ex­cuses, maybe the prob­lem is “¦ the man him­self. If so, the only ques­tion that mat­ters is, can Obama change?


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.