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In the Bitter New Washington

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Pete Souza/The White House
President Barack Obama in the Green Room of the White House, October 2010

After an election, there’s inevitably a variety of pronouncements of politicians on what they “heard the voters say.” They and the various pundits largely “hear” an echo of their own previously held views and find vindication of their particular hobbyhorses. It’s a subjective and self-serving exercise.

There’s also the question of how representative the electorate of 2010 was: Was it the sign of things to come, or was it an aberration? The Democratic consultant Geoff Garin said in an interview, “The idea that these voters represent the center of gravity in this country is not correct, because the 2010 electorate didn’t represent the full range of American voters: it’s very different from the electorate of 2006.” By several accounts, it was older, whiter, and more conservative than the usual electorate.

It appears that in losing at least sixty-two House seats the Democrats got whacked by the center: that independents swung to the Republicans by a substantial margin, a phenomenon that started occurring in the spring of 2009, after the stimulus bill passed; and moderates voted for the Democrats in a far smaller number than in 2008. But the Republicans are in danger of overreading their mandate, just as George W. Bush did after he was reelected in 2004, and made his first order of business privatizing Social Security.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, according to his press secretary Don Stewart, has been telling his Republican colleagues that the message of the election “isn’t that they love us; it was because they want us to stop things.” On the night of the election, McConnell issued a statement saying:

Americans have been speaking out for two years to cut wasteful Washington spending, reduce the size and scope of the federal bureaucracy, and help create sustainable, private-sector jobs…[and] we are hopeful the administration and Democrat leaders will change course.

The Senate Democrats, in their apparently poll-driven “Day After” statement, said they heard the voters saying that the two parties should “work together” (however unlikely that was) to improve the state of the middle class; at the same time they wanted the Democrats to “fight” (a word repeated often) for the middle class, to provide them decent jobs and education. They said that they heard the voters tell them that “the time for politics is over.” Numerous Democrats also privately blamed Obama for his air of detachment or for not seeming to understand the plight of those hurt by the recession; and many blamed the missteps of his ham-handed White House staff members.

The underlying factor of the election was of course the weak economy, but voters were heard to want varying things done about it; and beyond the economy there were voters who had a wide variety of conflicting views. Thus, the 2010 midterm election didn’t have any one meaning; and it’s prone to overinterpretation by both sides. Therein lies the danger.

The Democratic pollster Peter Hart, who conducts the highly respected NBC/Wall Street Journal poll with the Republican Bill McIntruff, said in an interview that the 2010 vote was

a continuation of 2004 and 2006; a public that was repulsed with what they saw was going on in Washington. And now they’re scared to death about the economy: when a company leaves they think it’s never coming back. They think their situation is desperate. So they took a big whack at the House of Representatives—as much as we’ve seen in seventy years; it was not so much for as against.

The economy is going through a wrenching change, which, it’s becoming clear, will go on for quite a while. Hart maintained that the voters hadn’t yet turned against Obama—some exit polls found more anger at Wall Street than at the President. A number of Democrats point out that his approval rating (45 percent and climbing toward the end of the campaign) was higher than Ronald Reagan’s (42 percent) and Bill Clinton’s at the same time in their presidencies. But the sweeping Democratic gains of 2006 and 2008 were wiped out in a single night.

Republicans are studying the past, anxious to not repeat it. They note that Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, and Clinton lost Congress in the midterms and two years later went on to win reelection; something they are determined to prevent Obama from doing. Thus, when McConnell said in a speech at the Heritage Foundation shortly after the election, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president,” he was simply speaking the plain truth. The Republican leaders are especially eager to avoid the mistakes that Newt Gingrich made—mainly in overreaching and losing to Clinton over the government shutdown in 1995.* So the experienced Republican leaders, unlike some of the incoming Tea Party freshmen, aren’t interested in causing a government shutdown. But a major question is whether Obama has the guile and toughness that Clinton did in fighting Gingrich. Surely, the former congressman and Republican strategist Vim Weber says, the Republicans are going to test him in some way.

The President seems to be shrinking and becoming more ineffectual before our eyes. Even his standing in the world seems to be eroding. As might have been expected, Obama achieved no reduction of the “partisan bickering” that he, like a series of presidential candidates, had vowed to reduce. John Podesta, founder and chairman of the Center for American Progress, the head of Obama’s transition, and a Clinton chief of staff, told me in an interview, “Obama built his 2008 campaign on trying to do big things and changing the dynamic of Washington. It turned out that he couldn’t do both.” He continued, “Passing major legislation that was clearly necessary came with a cost. It gave the Republicans the opportunity to deny him the ability to fulfill his promise to independents to end the bitter partisanship.” Both Republican and Democratic voters rejected the legislative process itself—in particular on the health care bill, which they saw as taking too long, involving too many “back-room deals,” and becoming too rancorous. The young voters who were among Obama’s strongest supporters in 2008 didn’t turn out in large numbers (they usually don’t in midterm elections), despite Obama’s hectic late election campaign that took him to a number of college campuses; nor did minority voters.

To the dismay of the White House, a substantial number of women switched over to the Republicans because of their fears about the economy, somehow under the illusion that a change of party would make things better for them; so did the elderly, alarmed by the prospect that Medicare expenditures would be cut by half, as proposed in the health care bill (despite the administration’s insistence that this wouldn’t lower their benefits). Many also apparently fear the removal of “Cadillac plans” for Medicare, which include special benefits. The withdrawal of support by these groups hurt many Democrats down the line.

If, as Peter Hart says, the voters hadn’t yet turned on Obama, he hardly helped those Democrats who were running in tight races. Numerous Democrats complained (off the record, for fear of alienating the White House) that he and his aides didn’t seem to grasp the hurt and anxiety that was troubling so much of the public. Obama is not given to Clintonian expressions of “I feel your pain.” Once they got to the White House, Obama and his campaign team (virtually all of his top assistants) seemed to live in a hermetically sealed box—cut off from and not interested in what was going on outside, or what experienced people who tried to help them had to say. No one could dispute the fact that Obama was a good family man who dined with his wife and children each night and then turned to his briefing papers. To the extent that the Obamas went out in Washington, it was on their “date night,” or, so far as is known, to the Georgetown apartment of their close friend Valerie Jarrett, who also works at the White House. True, the Beltway isn’t the country, but there are people here who could have helped the Obama team navigate its shark-filled waters.

Of course Obama should have gotten out of Washington more and listened to people, not just talked at them; and, as Walter Mondale said recently, he should have gotten rid of “those idiot boards”—the TelePrompters on which the great orator has been strangely dependent and which divide him from his audiences. Last year, a friend of mine was invited to a Hanukkah party that the Obamas gave for prominent Jews (a group with whom there had been tensions), and after the Obamas descended the grand stairway, they stood in the foyer briefly, the President made a few remarks and shook a few hands, and back up the stairs they went. No mingling.

In their first two years, the Obamas have seemed a bit tone-deaf: there were too many vacations while people were hurting, especially Michelle’s extravagant trip to Spain. (I’m as interested in Michelle’s clothes as the next woman but at the same time think she and her staff are too focused on her looking smashing, which she does. Her wardrobe seems quite extensive for these troubled times.)

Barack Obama’s personality has been much mulled over in the past two years, but it seems inescapable that his high self-esteem often slides over the thin line to arrogance, which trickles down (with some exceptions) to much of his staff, some of whom are downright rude to all but a chosen few. Obama has seemed uninterested in anyone but his immediate group, and three of the four members of his immediate circle—Jarrett, Robert Gibbs, David Axelrod—had had no experience in governing. The fourth, Rahm Emanuel, expressed himself with such flippancy, arrogance, and overuse of the F-word that he offended not just members of Congress but also would-be allies of the President.

Vice President Joe Biden, who is liked on Capitol Hill, was virtually shut out of the dealings with people in Congress in the first two years—“I can handle them,” Obama told Biden—but Biden is now expected to be given a larger role as part of the White House’s new determination to “reach out.” (A few months ago highly placed members of the staff also swore they would “reach out,” but that seemed to last for just a few days.) One of the oddest aspects of Obama’s persona is that someone who seems so confident has insisted thus far in having people around him with whom he is said to be “comfortable.”

For example, Tom Donilon, his recently appointed national security adviser (a promotion from his role as deputy), is by all accounts a capable man but is no one’s idea of a serious strategic thinker. The explanation I was given for Donilon’s being given his new position was that “the President is comfortable with him.” Just as Obama is described as pleased with himself, he has been treated with hero worship by much of his staff. After all, he had taken on the formidable Clintons, and, against the expectation of almost all the pundits and the experts, he had beaten them. Why should he listen to those who had doubted him? A common complaint about the Obama White House in the first two years has been that there were no “grown-ups” around, people who knew more about governing and who would tell Obama that he was wrong. When people tried to suggest someone who should be brought in, that person was rejected as “not one of ours.” Joe Biden is said to argue with Obama on issues, such as Afghanistan, but not to get into the management of the White House.

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    This is described in my book Showdown: The Struggle Between the Gingrich Congress and the Clinton White House (Simon and Schuster, 1996). 

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