Saturday, January 23, 2010

Two stories tell a great deal about what is going on now in national politics: Obama Calls Team From 2008 for Races in Fall

January 24, 2010
Obama Calls Team From 2008 for Races in Fall

WASHINGTON — President Obama is reconstituting the team that helped him win the White House to counter Republican challenges in the midterm elections and recalibrate after political setbacks that have narrowed his legislative ambitions.

Mr. Obama has asked his former campaign manager, David Plouffe, to oversee House, Senate and governor’s races to stave off a hemorrhage of seats in the fall. The president ordered a review of the Democratic political operation — from the White House to party committees — after last week’s Republican victory in the Massachusetts Senate race, aides said.

In addition to Mr. Plouffe, who will primarily work from the Democratic National Committee in consultation with the White House, several top operatives from the Obama campaign will be dispatched across the country to advise major races as part of the president’s attempt to take greater control over the midterm elections, aides said.

“We are turning the corner to a much more political season,” said David Axelrod, a senior adviser to the president, who confirmed Mr. Plouffe’s role. “We are going to evaluate what we need to do to get timely intelligence and early warnings so we don’t face situations like we did in Massachusetts.”

As Mr. Obama prepares to deliver his State of the Union address on Wednesday and lay out his initiatives for the second year of his presidency, his decision to take greater control of the party’s politics signals a new approach. The White House is searching for ways to respond to panic among Democrats over the possible demise of his health care bill and a political landscape being reshaped by a wave of populism.

Yet improving the tactical operations addresses only one part of his challenge. A more complicated discussion under way, advisers said, is how to sharpen the president’s message and leadership style.

The reinforcement of the White House’s political operation has been undertaken with a sense of urgency since Tuesday when a Republican, Scott Brown, won the Massachusetts Senate seat that had been held by Edward M. Kennedy. The White House was caught off guard when it became clear that Democrats were in danger of losing the seat, and by the time alarm bells sounded from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, it was too late.

The president summoned Mr. Plouffe to the Oval Office hours before the polls closed in Massachusetts and asked him to assume the new role because of the implications the midterm elections hold. Mr. Plouffe built a reputation in 2008 as a master of the nuts and bolts of campaigns, and will assemble a team to provide unfiltered political information that serves as an early-warning system so the White House and party officials know if a candidate is falling behind.

The day-to-day political operation will be run by Jim Messina, a deputy White House chief of staff, but Mr. Plouffe will coordinate the effort.

The party is trying to become less reliant on polls conducted by candidates, which can often paint a too-rosy picture of the political outlook. The president’s leading pollster, Joel Benenson, will be among those conducting research for Mr. Plouffe, aides said, along with others who will divide the country by regions.

Mr. Plouffe, who did not follow Mr. Obama to the White House last year, has remained in the president’s tight circle of advisers and has frequently worked on projects for the party.

The first indication of Mr. Plouffe’s more prominent role came in an op-ed article he wrote for the Sunday issue of The Washington Post, presenting a blueprint for how Democrats could avoid big defeats in the fall. He acknowledged the challenges ahead, saying, “We may not have perfect results, but November will be nothing like the nightmare that talking heads have forecast.”

Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said he had “no interest in sugarcoating” the defeat in Massachusetts. Several party leaders said they expected Mr. Menendez to remain in his position for the rest of the election cycle, but the move by the White House had the effect of subverting at least some of the committee’s authority.

“Our own political operation will be more rigorously in communication with the other elements, so we can compare notes,” Mr. Axelrod said. “What we learned from Massachusetts is that we need to be more assiduous about getting our own data and our own information so we have a better sense of where things stand.”

The White House intends to send Mr. Obama out into the country considerably more in 2010 than during his first year in office, advisers said, to try to rekindle the relationship he developed with voters during his presidential campaign.

His first big chance will come when he delivers his State of the Union address.

Rather than unveiling a laundry list of new initiatives, advisers said, Mr. Obama will try to reframe his agenda and how he connects it with public concerns. In particular, he will focus on how his ideas for health care, energy and financial regulation all fit into the broader economic mission of creating what he calls a “new foundation” for the country, the key words being “rescue, restore and rebuild.”

While presidents typically experience rough patches, this one is particularly challenging for Mr. Obama. Liberals have grown disenchanted with what they see as his unwillingness to fight harder for their causes; independents have been turned off by his failure, in their view, to change the way Washington works; and Republicans have become implacably hostile.

The long and messy legislative fight over health care is a leading example of how Mr. Obama has failed to connect with voters, advisers say, because he appeared to do whatever it would take to get a bill rather than explain how people could benefit.

“The process often overwhelmed the substance,” said Dan Pfeiffer, the White House communications director. “We need to find ways to try to rise above the maneuvering.”

The discussion inside the White House includes at least two distinct debates: Should Mr. Obama assume a more populist or centrist theme in his message? And should the White House do what it takes to pass compromise legislation or should it force votes, which even if unsuccessful can be used to carry an argument against Republicans in the fall?

It remains an open question how much new legislation will pass Congress, but the coming months will help frame the campaigns. While some form of financial regulation and job creation measures may pass, Obama aides said, the larger initiatives like health care, a cap on carbon emissions and an immigration overhaul may have to wait, even though the White House denies trimming its ambitions.

“I wouldn’t say the door is shut on trying to find some places where you can develop a strategy for a bipartisan vote in the Senate,” said John D. Podesta, a former White House chief of staff under President Bill Clinton who advises the Obama team.

But he said Republicans appeared determined to oppose any initiative Mr. Obama offers. “They would try to deny him passing the Mother’s Day resolution,” he said.

Some veterans of the Clinton White House have advised their friends in the West Wing to take a breath and not make lasting decisions in the immediate aftermath of the election, when it might be tempting to overreact.

Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff and himself a Clinton alumnus, gave a pep talk at the senior staff meeting last week. “These things go in cycles,” participants recalled him saying. “We’ve got a lot of work to do. Keep your head up and keep going.”

Obama's Power Outage
by Leslie H. Gelb
January 22, 2010 | 9:27pm

BS Top - Gelb Obama Defeatism Alex Brandon / AP Photo One Senate upset, and the president seems ready to deal away health care. Leslie H. Gelb on how he needs to stop prattling on about institutions, grab the reins, and lead.

If you want to grasp instantly why President Obama faces the abyss, look no further than his bizarre commentary a day after Tuesday’s Massachusetts senatorial election.

First, study his explanation of what went wrong in his first year in office. "If there's one thing that I regret this year,” he opined, “[it] is that we were so busy just getting stuff done and dealing with the immediate crises that were in front of us, that I think we lost some of that sense of speaking directly to the American people about what their core values are and why we have to make sure those institutions are matching up with those values. And that I do think is a mistake of mine." President Warren G. Harding could not have said it better. Neither could Obama’s Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, generally regarded as the most inarticulate White House spokesman ever (with the exception George W. Bush’s Dana Perino).

Obama has to make a fundamental personal and strategic choice: Either continue to do a little of this and little of that and call it pragmatism, or take on the fight to make the nation face up to its economic crisis.

I thought the president already was dealing with our core values and priorities. He was spending most of his time bailing out the banks (without restricting compensation for bank executives and without incentives to lend the bailout money to ordinary citizens); the war in Afghanistan (without any clear plan for how to end it); and health-care reform and cost-cutting (without actually reforming or cost-cutting). If those weren’t real “immediate crises” or top priorities, I’m a spoil sport. Obama’s chief priority, of course, was the economy and job creation, and no one knows the outcome on that front yet. As for how he would now remedy the unfortunate situation he describes (“matching up” our core values with our institutions), my guess is that only a few dozen professors will have the foggiest idea what he is talking about. And not even they will grab the American flag and man the barricades to fight for “matching.”

Second, he instantly sold out almost a year’s worth of effort—his own, and that of his fellow Democrats—spent on passing health-care reform. Here’s what he said: “[I]t is very important to look at the substance of this package ... I would advise that we try to move quickly to coalesce around those elements of the package that people agree on. We know that we need insurance reform, that the health-insurance companies are taking advantage of people. We know that we have to have some form of cost-containment because if we don't, then our budgets are going to blow up and we know that small businesses are going to need help so that they can provide health insurance to their families. Those are the core, some of the core elements of, to this bill.” (Typically, Mr. Obama reacts to cataclysms with major new decisions within hours, only to redefine or recolor them within days.)

• Roger Martin: Obama’s Real Wall Street SchemeUnless I’m misreading where Mr. Obama is going or unless he changes his explanation of “core,” this statement feels like virtual capitulation to Republicans—without even waiting a few days to establish a bargaining position. Why on earth give the “core” away before even starting the bargaining? Truth be told, I’d prefer a tight bill that zooms in on portability of coverage, opens up insurance companies nationwide to competition, offers insurance protection for previous conditions, establishes store-front clinics as neighborhood “hospitals,” provides catastrophic insurance, and puts forth medical information programs to cut costs, and takes a few other practical small steps. But it offends my sensibilities to watch the president throw in the towel before the give-and-take even begins anew. And it certainly has offended his fellow Democrats.

These remarks show, once again, that the Obama team does not excel at managing policy or the power of the White House. The clarion call of “matching” values with institutions will not do. The only overriding goal that will provide both focus and power to the White House is to strengthen the economy and create good jobs. And the only way to leverage that objective with the American people and Congress is to forcefully make the case that the United States is in an economic crisis. And we are, in the most profound sense. The actual jobless rate is not 10 percent. If you include those who have abandoned the search for jobs, the figure stands closer to about 17 percent. In net numbers of jobless, that’s more than during the Great Depression. Our public-school system ranks lowest among industrial democracies. Our infrastructure ranks about the same. Far more home-mortgage foreclosures and personal bankruptcies are expected in the next two years. This is a crisis. And if Mr. Obama can convince Americans of this reality, he’ll be better positioned to push through tough and necessary regulatory measures to corral runaway greed and conflicts of interest on Wall Street, as well as new funds and tough procedures to rebuild human, technological, and physical infrastructure. The president must convince the public that the crisis is real. Only then can he draw the necessary power to fix it.

He can also make the point he made at the end of his West Point speech on Afghanistan: that the American economy is the basis of American democracy, of American economic competitiveness, and of American military and diplomatic power in the world. Washington has lost more power in the world in the last three years than at any time since the end of World War II. That’s because leaders around the world take a major power less seriously when it is on the economic decline. Most other nations are already discounting the ability of the United States to sustain its global responsibilities. So, they heed us less.

The economic crisis also should drive American leaders to reevaluate how big and how long the nation’s military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan should run. Counting all kinds of costs, the direct drain of these wars still exceeds $200 billion and will continue to rise. America’s economic crisis is not an argument for isolationism; it is an argument for using our power in more creative ways, as our leaders did during the Cold War. Containment with allies, coupled with deterrence and continued military and economic support to those truly willing to fight terrorism, is a far less expensive and more effective national-security policy than we now have.

Obama has to make a fundamental personal and strategic choice: Either continue to do a little of this and little of that and call it pragmatism, or take on the fight to make the nation face up to its economic crisis, make the tough political decisions to get the job done—and make the necessary adjustments in his foreign policy to free up the funds and the time for determined and steady leadership. It takes time, relentlessness, toughness, and a lot of political skill to prevent America from sinking. Mr. Obama’s confusing rhetoric about matching and weak bargaining sense on health care suggest that he has yet to grasp the point: Great presidents don’t run away from crises; they use them to pound home necessary fixes in American government and society.

Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (HarperCollins 2009), a book that shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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