No-drama Obama may need some drama, or at least a shakeup.
The cool, detached, sometimes too insular president will suffer a political drubbing in tomorrow’s midterm elections. It could be fatal or a glancing blow to his presidency, depending on how he responds.
What is necessary, leading Democrats say mostly in private, are fresh personnel, policies and approaches; a midcourse correction, not a radical overhaul.
The early signs aren’t encouraging. Obama has tapped a deputy, Pete Rouse, to fill in for Rahm Emanuel, the departing White House chief of staff; the National Security adviser, General James Jones, is being replaced by his no. 2, Tom Donilon; and longtime Obama adviser Denis McDonough will fill Donilon’s slot.
They are very able. Rouse is one of those rare Washington insiders who practice the late General George Marshall’s dictum that you can accomplish a great deal if you credit others. He is a stranger to self-promotion and has served Obama well in the Senate and White House.
Yet these appointments convey a signal of promoting the junior varsity after the varsity has been shellacked.
It isn’t clear whether the president will reach out for new faces to fill the top levels: a corporate executive to address the complaints that this is an anti-business administration; someone with impeccable military credentials to assist and balance Donilon, viewed by Republicans and some in the armed services as a political operative; and somebody with acute political antennae outside the Obama stratosphere.
In addition to expanding his inner circle, Obama has to be more approachable and outreaching on Capitol Hill and elsewhere, say Democratic politicians who want him to succeed.
The president’s problems are far more than public relations. Yet somehow this White House has to figure out why it’s done such a poor job in explaining its policies.
When Americans overwhelmingly believe that taxes have gone up, the economy is shrinking, that the Wall Street bank rescue won’t be repaid and that the stimulus didn’t create jobs -- all demonstrably false -- somebody hasn’t been doing something right. As recently as September, a fatigued White House botched the issue of tax cuts, due to expire for all Americans at the end of the year.
‘They Stole the Message’
Noting his party has controlled Congress and the White House for two years, former Democratic Senator Paul Kirk of Massachusetts says: “We’ve had the megaphone, and they stole the message. They’ve incited fear in people, and we’re paying the price.”
On policies, it isn’t about ideology. The left-wing rap is flawed: This administration rejected nationalizing banks and a public option on health care, and downsized automobile companies. Still, at this stage, presidencies -- whether Republican or Democratic, and even in the absence of an election debacle -- move to find more common ground with the other side. The first two years is about an agenda. That’s when Republican administrations did tax cuts and military buildups.
With Republicans likely to win a majority in the House and veto power in the Senate, the White House has to look for accord in areas like education, trade and minor energy matters. Any significant fiscal deal is probably out of reach.
Even small accomplishments depend on whether those Republicans who are predisposed to moderately conservative solutions will act accordingly or be intimidated by the give-no-ground wing of the party. Watch Republican Senators like Richard Lugar of Indiana, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Scott Brown of Massachusetts, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine and the likely newcomer Rob Portman of Ohio. And will the common-sense conservative speaker of the House, Representative John Boehner of Ohio, be able to tame his bomb throwers?
As Obama navigates these unfamiliar waters, he’ll need to lean on Joseph Biden. Despite occasional foot-in-the-mouth problems, the vice president has an intimate knowledge of the way Washington works and he commands respect, even affection, from more than a few Republicans.
There’s another invaluable potential ally: former President Bill Clinton, with whom Obama has a distant relationship. During the 2008 campaign, Emanuel, then an Illinois congressman, advised Obama to call Clinton periodically, even if he put the phone in the sock drawer. It’s time to call, and stay on the line.
There are differences between what Obama faces today and what Clinton confronted when Democrats lost their congressional majority 16 years ago -- the economy is far worse now, and Boehner may not be a convenient foil.
Still, no one understands the office, the conditions and the politics better than the 42nd president, who, in another remarkable display of resilience, has bounced back from the 2008 doldrums to become the most popular politician in America.
Clinton could tell Obama that a favorite storyline these days -- that he was saved from the 1994 election disaster by bringing in the consultant Dick Morris and making nice with Republicans -- is largely fiction.
Morris, who was forced to resign two years later after his dalliance with a prostitute came to light, probably did Clinton more harm than good with his recommendations to embrace bite-sized issues such as school uniforms and avoid confrontation with Republicans.
“Dick was an enormously destructive force,” says Paul Begala, a Clinton confidant. The two most important events in the Clinton revival were his masterful handling of the Oklahoma City bombing tragedy and his success in staring down Republicans, who shut down the government for more than three weeks.
“This was when President Clinton trusted his own instincts,” Begala says.
Clinton selectively cut deals with congressional Republicans, going along with a capital-gains tax cut and forging an accord on overhauling welfare. The stellar economic performance and balanced budget at the end of his presidency had little to do with those deals.
Some Republicans now wish Obama were more like Clinton and those “Kumbaya” moments could be replicated. A reminder: Four years after that 1994 election, 95 percent of House Republicans voted to impeach Clinton, basically for lying about sex.
(Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)