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
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?