As carefully as Barack Obama prepared for it, the presidency has held some surprises for him—some foreseeable, some not, and some of his own making. Seeking to avoid the mistakes of the early Clinton era, Obama concluded that, unlike Clinton, he didn’t want to hold the numerous meetings that can chew up so much of the president’s time. Instead, according to his press secretary, Robert Gibbs, Obama’s style is to drop by an aide’s office—a restless man, he roams the White House corridors—or stop an aide in a hallway and ask, “How are you coming on that thing we were talking about?” Gibbs says, “The worst thing is not have an answer.” Asked what happens then, Gibbs replied, “He gets that disappointed parent look, and then you better go find an answer.”
Obama’s publicly announced schedules have large gaps; he makes it a point to set aside time to step back and think—sometimes going for a long, solitary walk around the White House grounds—or make calls, or read. A night owl, he usually takes work home, to be studied after he’s tucked his daughters into bed. Aides say he turns around paperwork fairly quickly, responding to and signing off on their memoranda. As for Obama’s admission during the campaign that he can misplace papers, Gibbs told me, “It’s easier now that he lives over the store.”
Of Obama’s approach to governing, Gibbs says, “He’s not by any stretch a micromanager.” According to another close observer, “The boys are running the White House”—by which he meant chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, chief campaign strategist and now senior adviser David Axelrod, and deputy chief of staff Jim Messina, who was also chief of staff of the campaign. Gibbs is often called in for advice, because he’s smart and he knows Obama’s mind well. This cast of characters—Axelrod has the prized if unglamorous office adjoining the President’s study—gives a strong political tone to the Obama White House. To the disappointment of a number of Obama’s supporters, he also has continued the widely criticized practice of having an office of Political Affairs in the White House (headed by Patrick Gaspard, national political director of the Obama campaign and a longtime labor activist).
About two weeks into Obama’s presidency, when I asked a White House aide if there was anything noticeable about Obama the president as opposed to Obama the candidate, he said:
There’s a somberness and an intensity to his day that’s extraordinary. I saw it occasionally in the campaign, but there were always light moments and banter; there’s a funny side to him. Now he’s determined and focused in a very serious way; it’s a little sad.
Obama takes particular care to avoid getting caught in traps (a lifetime trait)—some see this as avoiding taking a position—and as he began his presidency he was determined, as he had been in the campaign, not to refight the culture wars of the Sixties. He put off fixing the benighted “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays serving in the military that Clinton had been forced to adopt after he clumsily allowed it to come up just as his presidency began. In his first week in office, Obama lifted the restrictions on funding for abortion counseling by family planning groups working overseas—but not until the day after the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, as opposed to the day itself, so as not to seem to be rubbing his decision in the face of abortion foes. He said that it’s time “to move past this stale and fruitless debate,” and that his administration would initiate a “fresh conversation” on the subject. He invited labor leaders to a White House ceremony—they hadn’t been there for a long time—in which he announced the revoking of several Bush anti-labor policies, buying time before taking on labor’s number one demand, the highly controversial proposal to make it easier to form unions (the “card check”).
Obama understood the policy and political implications of quickly assuring the nation, and the world, that George Bush didn’t live there anymore. On January 22, his second full day in office, he issued four executive orders that, first of all, simply wiped away the infamous legal underpinnings that had been cooked up to justify actions the Bush administration had taken in the name of the “war on terror.” The memos of John Yoo and others that, among other things, justified torture and lengthy detention without trial were nullified. Other executive orders said that Guantánamo was to be closed within a year; that the Geneva Conventions would be applied to the treatment of prisoners arrested as terrorists (some on very flimsy or no evidence); and that torture (including waterboarding) would be forbidden. The President also abolished the secret prisons that the US had maintained to hold wartime suspects; and ended the policy of “extraordinary renditions” to countries known to torture prisoners. He also requested a stay on cases pending in the one-sided military tribunals that had been set up under Bush.
Thomas Wilner, a Washington attorney who has defended some Guantánamo prisoners and won two significant Supreme Court cases on their behalf, says, “With a stroke of a pen, the President has restored the rule of law.” These sweeping orders left some difficult issues to be dealt with by panels the President established. One was what to do with the remaining 245 Guantánamo prisoners, some of them hard cases to resolve because of tainted evidence or contradictory government reports. These were to be decided on a case-by-case basis, and at least one prisoner has been released by the new administration. Other thorny questions to be resolved are whether interrogations conducted by the CIA will follow a different set of rules from those governing the US military, and what would be the rules for using rendition in exceptional cases. For example, under what circumstances could a suspected terrorist in a foreign country be transported to the US for prosecution? The panels would work through the arguments and resistance to reform that would be put up by the CIA and the Pentagon. The blowback against some of these orders was swift. Politicians howled that they didn’t want Guantánamo prisoners in their states (as if they were more dangerous than rapists and murderers); Dick Cheney warned darkly that Obama’s policies made it more likely that a serious ter-rorist attack would succeed. In another turnabout, David Iglesias, one of the US attorneys fired by the Bush administration for apparently political reasons, has been made a leading Guantánamo prosecutor.
On January 26, Obama indicated that he would make a sharp departure from the Bush administration’s policies on global warming and its expansive politicization of science. He ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to reconsider the Bush administration’s denial of California’s request to be allowed to establish fuel efficiency standards stricter than those at the national level. He said, “Rigid ideology has overruled sound science.” Soon after, he lifted Bush’s eight-year ban on federally funded embryonic stem cell research.
Obama also went to the State Department on his second day, to make it clear that diplomacy would now occupy a higher place, and he and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dispatched two special envoys, George Mitchell to the Middle East and Richard Holbrooke to Afghanistan and Pakistan—just two areas presenting daunting foreign policy challenges to the new president. He gave his first televised interview in the White House to an Arab television station, to tell, he said, “the Arab world and the Muslim world” that the United States “is not your enemy.” This was part of his strategy—a rather large undertaking—of trying to appeal to Arabs and Muslims not to follow radical leaders, and of sending this message in various forms (including in his inaugural address).
Some of the Obama team’s early errors, in particular on appointments, can be chalked up as “rookie mistakes”; some as the results of sheer fatigue and overload—Obama and his top aides had been at work almost without stop since the election. At the same time that they were still setting up a government, with hundreds of high-level jobs still to be filled (a process that has now been slowed as a result of embarassing errors). White House aides had to cope with outmoded equipment (their Internet connections broke down for almost a full day), and they (successfully) worked to get two bills through Congress—allowing women to sue for equal pay and expanding the state children’s health insurance program, or SCHIP, which Bush had vetoed twice and Obama promised in the campaign to push for as a start on providing universal health care. Facing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, with the news growing grimmer by the day, Obama and his aides were well into a tough fight on Capitol Hill over a huge bill to stimulate the economy while also planning other initiatives. And then there were unexpected crises—two of them over men Obama liked and considered indispensable: getting Timothy Geithner confirmed as treasury secretary, with jurisdiction over the IRS, despite his inexplicable failures to pay certain taxes; and the furor over Tom Daschle’s failure to pay taxes on a corporate car and driver, and over his earnings from the health industry he was to preside over—which forced him to withdraw his nomination.
Obama’s serene self-confidence can cause blind spots. Winning an election can create autointoxication among a president and his top aides. The idea of naming Judd Gregg—a flinty New Hampshire fiscal conservative—as commerce secretary seemed peculiar from the outset. More experience and more thought could have prevented the embarrassment of his withdrawal. It appears that the main reason Gregg pulled out (without informing the President) was that he had come under fire from Republicans for joining the Obama administration. Actually, having Gregg in the cabinet might well have caused Obama more grief than his withdrawal.
Also, Gregg found himself in a wrangle with the White House over the highly political issue of control of the census—normally under the Commerce Department—which affects the apportionment of congressional districts and determines the distribution of billions of federal dollars to the states on the basis of population. During the Clinton presidency Gregg had opposed a measure to make it easier to count minorities and the poor (he had even voted to abolish the Commerce Department), so when Hispanic and African-American groups howled at Gregg’s nomination, Rahm Emanuel moved to exert White House control over the census.
The most important problem that Obama and his aides weren’t prepared for was the degree to which the Republicans would oppose him. In part, this was circumstantial: the first major bill to test the President’s stated desire for bipartisanship was on the subject that arouses the most partisanship: taxing and spending. The Democrats were bent on using the opportunity of the stimulus bill to expand or create as many domestic programs as they could. Against the evidence of the past eight years, the Republicans remained wedded to tax cuts as the way to stimulate the economy. To some extent, Obama set himself up by calling for bipartisanship—especially on this subject. He was acting on his campaign pledge to “change the ways of Washington,” or “end the partisan wrangling,” which didn’t necessarily mean winning bipartisan support for every bill.