The Obama presidency, as it passes 500 days in power, is marked by a dichotomy that surprises allies and adversaries alike; historic policy triumphs and political debacles.
Passage of a stimulus plan that probably prevented an economic cataclysm, a huge overhaul of health care, and rewriting the rules for financial regulation, a near certainty to be enacted, are legislative achievements that no recent presidency can match.
On foreign policy, President Barack Obama’s ability to restore America’s respect and standing overseas makes it slightly less difficult to deal with the challenges of Iran, North Korea, the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and Afghanistan- Pakistan conflicts, and establish a productive relationship with the emerging superpower China.
Yet much of the conversation in the past few weeks has been dominated by costly mistakes or miscalculations. There were the clumsy efforts to force out Democratic Senate primary challengers in Pennsylvania and Colorado. Much more serious was underestimating and under-responding to the tragedy of the BP Plc oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. This goes to the core competence and political acumen of the White House.
To gauge this and try to get some explanation, I called a dozen smart political minds, equally divided between the Beltway and around the country. Two-thirds of these experts were Democrats, who would only speak on background, not wishing to alienate the administration.
Almost to a person they agreed Obama blew the BP oil spill. Many cited the analogy to President George W. Bush’s inept handing of Hurricane Katrina and the ensuing perception about his incompetence. Substantively, most note that there’s no doubt Obama has been far more engaged and knowledgeable on this crisis than his predecessor was five years ago. The lack of political leadership, however, they say is analogous.
Why does a White House that includes Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, unsurpassed in appreciation of the nexus of policy and politics in Washington, and David Axelrod, one of the best political strategists in America, respond so slowly and inadequately to such a major catastrophe?
For starters, this high-powered White House, these Democrats and Republicans agree, is too insular. Important outside Obama supporters say they’re consulted rarely; others say it’s usually on parochial or relatively minor matters. A common refrain: The White House staff is open and receptive when things are going well, and removed and inaccessible when they‘re not, which is when they need advice.
It’s not that there was anything illicit or even unusual about the efforts to clear the Democratic Senate primary fields in Pennsylvania and Colorado for preferred candidates; this is done by Republicans and Democrats, in state capitals as well as Washington. It’s just that it was ill-advised, at least in the case of Pennsylvania, where they were trying to eliminate the stronger candidate and the White House exacerbated the damage by stonewalling. This was not the “change you can believe in” that Obama promised.
The oil spill miscalculations are far more serious. Top Obama aides are furious at James Carville, a prominent Democrat and Louisiana resident, for criticizing their tepid response. Yet Carville was complaining to them, in private, for weeks; another consultant wonders, “why wouldn’t they embrace him in the fold and utilize him as a point person down there?”
It is a White House that doesn’t adapt well to being knocked off its agenda. On April 20, there was a sense that an overhaul of financial regulation was inevitable, and the administration had a shot at climate-change legislation after making some concessions on offshore drilling. The BP disaster that day was an inconvenient distraction, and the reaction was more, let’s stay on top of it while hoping it all goes away.
Some of the critiques are sophomoric. Obama hasn’t conveyed the passion or outrage that some other politicians would; he doesn’t do intense passion or anger and would be crazy to fake it. And it’s silly to say this is chiefly a communications or optics problem.
It was, say these political wise men and women, a sense of misguided command. Responsibility for dealing with BP and the mishap on the scene was delegated to the Coast Guard and the very capable Admiral Thad Allen. The Guard is an effective organization that routinely works collaboratively with oil companies at drilling sites. That’s precisely why they shouldn’t have been in charge; it called for someone more suspicious of BP’s false assertions that it was prepared for an accident 10 times as serious as this one, or skeptical of the company’s gross underestimates of how much oil was spilling.
There was an alternative approach. On April 23, Obama could have dispatched to Louisiana a high-level lieutenant --such as White House energy and environmental czar Carol Browner -- who would be given wide-ranging authority over BP and the Coast Guard and act as a liaison to state and local governments and the affected businesses and residents. For the duration, she would have reported directly to the president, who would visit weekly to get on-site progress reports.
The environmental damage wouldn’t be any less today, but the White House wouldn’t be grasping to get out in front of the story or struggling to distance itself from BP; those devastated folks in the Gulf might feel at least they had someone on their side. This wouldn’t have paralyzed the presidency, and might have made for different perceptions and politics. That course was suggested to the White House back in April; it was largely ignored.
Another factor cited by political strategists is that the tumultuous pace of the past year and a half has exhausted the top Obama advisers; while not exculpatory, it’s a consideration. The challenges, starting with the spill in the Gulf, won’t get any easier in the months ahead. Reinforcements better be on standby.
(Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)