‘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
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.

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