‘I’ve Had Enough’: When Democrats Quit on Obama

Bergdahl swap is latest last straw for top Democrats frustrated with president’s leadership.

National Journal
Add to Briefcase
Ron Fournier
June 9, 2014, 5:59 a.m.

The email hit my in-box at 9:41 p.m. last Wed­nes­day. From one of the most power­ful Demo­crats in Wash­ing­ton, a close ad­viser to the White House, the missive amoun­ted to an elec­tron­ic eye roll. “Even I have had enough.”

An­oth­er Demo­crat had quit on Pres­id­ent Obama.

The tip­ping point for this per­son was the Sgt. Bowe Ber­g­dahl case — not the sol­dier-for-Taliban swap it­self as much as how the White House mis­handled its ob­lig­a­tion to com­mu­nic­ate ef­fect­ively and hon­estly to Con­gress and the pub­lic. More than that, Obama’s team had failed once again to ac­know­ledge its mis­takes, pre­fer­ring to cast blame and seek cov­er be­hind talk­ing points.

“DC is hard, and de­press­ing,” the Demo­crat wrote. “I still be­lieve good comes from gov­ern­ment (e.g. 8 mil­lion in ACA). But that Politico story is a cau­tion­ary one: good re­mind­er that you can’t go so in the bunker [and] no longer identi­fy le­git­im­ate cri­ti­cism.” That day, Politico had pos­ted a story chan­nel­ing the White House com­mu­nic­a­tions team’s re­sponse to the Ber­g­dahl back­lash.

White House aides were aware Sgt. Bowe Ber­g­dahl had been tagged a desert­er, and that they would be grilled over not keep­ing Con­gress in the loop. But they figured people would be most out­raged over the na­tion­al se­cur­ity im­plic­a­tions.

The White House has been sur­prised by how much at­ten­tion has re­mained on the ques­tions about Ber­g­dahl, from the cir­cum­stances of his dis­ap­pear­ance to the wild beard his fath­er grew while he was be­ing held that’s even led to Ber­g­dahl’s ho­met­own can­celing a cel­eb­ra­tion. All this, Obama aides say, is in their minds a proxy for the hatred to­ward the pres­id­ent.

The new ap­proach: Frame the cri­ti­cism as an­oth­er ex­ample of Re­pub­lic­ans com­plain­ing about something just be­cause Obama was the one to do it.

To this seni­or Demo­crat, the Politico story showed the White House to be both tone-deaf and ar­rog­ant, two vices that are un­der­min­ing what could have been a great pres­id­ency.

I share this email to make the broad­er point and to of­fer a dis­clos­ure: In the 18 months since I began writ­ing columns fo­cused on the pres­id­ency, vir­tu­ally every post crit­ic­al of Obama has ori­gin­ated from con­ver­sa­tions with Demo­crats. Mem­bers of Con­gress, con­sult­ants, poll­sters, lob­by­ists, and ex­ec­ut­ives at think tanks, these Demo­crats are my Obama-whis­pers. They re­spect and ad­mire Obama but be­lieve that his pres­id­ency has been dam­aged by his short­com­ings as a lead­er; his in­at­ten­tion to de­tails of gov­ern­ing; his dis­en­gage­ment from the polit­ic­al pro­cess and from the pub­lic; his un­will­ing­ness to learn on the job; and his fail­ure to sur­round him­self with top-shelf ad­visers who are will­ing to chal­lenge their boss as well as their own pre­con­ceived no­tions.

“Dem Party is F****d,” wrote a Demo­crat­ic con­sult­ant with strong ties to the White House and Cap­it­ol Hill dur­ing the botched rol­lout of the Af­ford­able Care Act web­site.

A Demo­crat­ic House mem­ber whose en­dorse­ment in 2008 helped lift the Obama can­did­acy told me in Janu­ary, “He’s bored and tired of be­ing pres­id­ent, and our party is pay­ing the price.”

Tal­en­ted guy but no lead­er,” said a Demo­crat­ic lob­by­ist and former mem­ber of Con­gress in March. “If he could gov­ern half as well as he cam­paigns, he’d be a good-to-great pres­id­ent.”

Ques­tion­ing why the Vet­er­ans Af­fairs De­part­ment hadn’t been over­hauled months ago as prom­ised by Obama, a seni­or White House of­fi­cial con­ceded privately to me, “We don’t do the small stuff well. And the small stuff is the im­port­ant stuff.”

The level of dis­quiet among Demo­crats re­minds me of Pres­id­ent George W. Bush’s second term, when my best sources were frus­trated Re­pub­lic­ans. (In­ter­view­ing Re­pub­lic­ans today is like in­ter­view­ing Demo­crats in 2006: pre­dict­ably par­tis­an, rarely in­sight­ful.)

Few frus­trated Demo­crats are will­ing to com­plain openly. I grant them an­onym­ity, which cre­ates a prob­lem: Read­ers, for good reas­on, don’t trust an­onym­ous quotes. One way to avoid de­lu­ging read­ers with un­named Demo­crats is for me to di­gest their com­plaints along with oth­er re­port­ing to shape my columns and tweets. Like this one:

Or this tweet after Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans in Con­gress ques­tioned the Ber­g­dahl af­fair, and Obama pushed back by say­ing: “I’m nev­er sur­prised by con­tro­ver­sies that are whipped up in Wash­ing­ton, right?”

I got that one from an Obama fam­ily friend. The same mis­takes get made again and again, pro­vok­ing a fa­mil­i­ar chor­us of friendly fire, which leads me to con­clude that either Demo­crats aren’t be­ing hon­est with the pres­id­ent, or he isn’t listen­ing. Either way, when those closest to him are quit­ting on him, it’s hard to main­tain the au­da­city to hope that Obama will 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.