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Obama at year one: The end of the inside game


One year ago today, Barack Obama was inaugurated president of the United States of America. This is not the anniversary he was hoping for. Scott Brown's victory in Massachusetts was one of those unknown-unknowns that Donald Rumsfeld so feared: Ted Kennedy's death followed by Martha Coakley's decision to insult the Red Sox and mock the idea that she'd shake hands with voters. Now Obama's first year, which seemed destined to be remembered for its historically successful health-care push, is in doubt.

But if Coakley's hapless candidacy were all there was to the story, Obama's name would be left out of it. It's not, of course, which is why congressional Democrats fear its portents. Americans aren't happy with Obama or his party. Some of the anger is situational, the product of a bad economy mixed with an ugly political system. But not all of it. Obama ran promising to change Washington. Instead, he's done more than any president in a generation to settle into its norms.

They say that no campaign is ever as good as it looks while winning nor as bad as it seems when losing. The same goes for presidencies. Before Brown's unlikely campaign threw the future of health-care reform into doubt, it seemed that Obama's inexhaustible appetite for compromising with the way Washington really worked was going to let him achieve something that had foiled generations of political leaders. Now, it seems to have fomented the very backlash that might doom his health-care bill.

Either way, this was a surprise. In February 2008, I wrote a cover story for The American Prospect setting up the choice between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. "The Manager or The Visionary," I called it. The idea was that Clinton promised a presidency familiar with the ways of Washington and based atop an unending series of discrete, measurable policy achievements. Obama promised something less quantifiable but potentially more lasting: A persuasive presidency that changed the way Americans thought about government. A presidency based more on the transformative template of Ronald Reagan than the ameliorative approach that came to define Bill Clinton.

It was a distinction Obama drew many times during the campaign. "I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not," he famously said. In another lauded speech, Obama went to the New York Stock Exchange and echoed Franklin Delano Roosevelt's call for "a reappraisal of values."

But that candidate bears little relation to this president. The speeches are over, for one thing. Obama's use of the bully pulpit has been rare and restrained. He gave a major address on health-care reform when he needed to save the legislation in the Senate, but he didn't begin health-care reform with a big speech meant to explain the issue and his approach to voters. He talked up the passage of stimulus at his first press conference, but he never did what FDR did with the banks and explained clearly and slowly why stimulus was needed. A president who promised persuasion has instead offered legislation. And his speeches have been timed to affect the legislative process, not to convince the country of his cause and leverage popular support in his negotiations with Congress. It's been all inside game, pretty much all the time.

Similarly, the legislation itself has been built to pass rather than built to convince. Financial regulation, for instance, has never been about what should be done to the banks, but has instead focused on what Congress can find the votes to do the banks (though Obama's apparent insistence on the Consumer Financial Products Agency is a welcome surprise, even if it's only being communicated in private meetings with Chris Dodd). Health-care reform was compromised to begin with and then cleaved of its most popular elements as the process wore on. The administration knew the stimulus was too small when they sold it, but they never argued for a bigger package, and have resisted calling for a follow-up.

That's not a bad strategy, per se. Obama's presidency has tried to show, not tell. He's not given speeches about how government can work. He's not tried to change minds about the theoretical possibility of government working. He's tried to make government work. Winning achievements, not arguments, has been at the center of the administration's agenda.

But that's meant letting the government work. And that turns out to be an ugly thing, full of deals with pharmaceutical companies and concessions to Nebraska and delays and press releases and controversy and anger and process stories and confusion. Americans don't like Washington, and they like it less when they see it more. Obama's strategy has meant they see it constantly, and there's no one really guiding them through its thickets. The country is trapped in a sausage factory, and they want out.

Obama's focus on achievements has also meant an acceptance of Washington's procedures. Gone are the promises of transparency and bipartisanship, neither of which is really possible if the other side doesn't want to work with you to get things done and you don't want to let them destroy your agenda. And Obama and the Democratic Congress are laboring under the weight of the major thing Washington has achieved in recent memory -- the hideously unpopular, though genuinely important, bank bailouts, which did much to convince voters that Washington is playing a rigged, inside game.

This is a conundrum for many presidents: If you can't pass legislation without winning a vote in Congress, how do you keep your legislation from being tainted by its association with Congress?

Obama hasn't answered it. But more surprising, he hasn't really tried. The White House has played an inside game, focusing on helping Congress pass legislation rather than helping the public understand it. That game was almost enough to pass health care -- and it may still succeed on that count. But Brown's election throws it into doubt.

There's been a lot of talk from the White House that they will sell health care after it passes. There was clearly the theory that they would save the banking system and the improving economy would make their argument for them. It's not happening. The inside game is pretty much over. And if it's not now, it will be soon, when Democrats in Congress don't have the votes to carry Obama's agenda.

Going forward, Obama is going to have to make Washington work without letting the way Washington works drag down his presidency. And that means he'll have to begin speaking to the country more clearly, rather than hoping his accomplishments will speak for themselves. These criticisms are always easy to levy, and communicating to a country of 300 million people that doesn't want to watch long policy speeches is easier said than done. But Obama will have to try, because soon, he will have no other choice.

Photo credit: AP Photo/Ron Edmonds.

By Ezra Klein  |  January 20, 2010; 10:10 AM ET
Categories:  Obama administration  
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Next: The deficit commission cometh



Its taken you way too long to write this post.

Posted by: wisewon | January 20, 2010 10:17 AM | Report abuse

It's absurd to say he has spoken infrequently. He hasn't been clear? Wait, wait, let me be perfectly clear, he has been clear. But the distinction you made between selling people on it after it's been done, versus before, is on the mark. But what does it mean to sell them on it after? It means you treat them like nothing, like dirt, like slaves whose lives you can push around and then try to sweet talk later.

Posted by: truck1 | January 20, 2010 10:24 AM | Report abuse

I've been a fairly harsh critic of late, Ezra, but this post is a gem. I'll be sure to recommend it widely.

Posted by: scarlota | January 20, 2010 10:27 AM | Report abuse

Well, hello there.

Not much to say about the whole debacle except Dems still have the second largest Senate majority ever. Maybe not having to keep a phoney supermajority together might give people a little room to think outside the beltway.

What happened in MA was astonishing. But the same thing has happened here in MN in the past. It doesn't matter how blue the state is, if you flick the light switch and nothing happens, you flick it again (ht to your commenter from yesterday for a marvelous analogy).

Posted by: luko | January 20, 2010 10:36 AM | Report abuse

Yeah. Being silent is always the strategy for victory. That's the one thing that always makes me angry at Democrats. Kerry went on vacation in 04 instead of campaigning. Worked for him, why wouldn't it work for Coakley? Democrats always think their rightness is so obvious and intrinsic that they just don't need to make a case. It is like they don't think they are operating in a democracy.

Republicans are evil. Democrats are stupid. But operationally, you end up in the same situation either way.

Posted by: pj_camp | January 20, 2010 10:39 AM | Report abuse

He's done a lot of speaking but not much education. And the legislators did precious little listening to their constituents.

I spent 4 months trying to get an interview with my senator's office and when it finally occurred, the person running the meeting knew zero about health care and spent all his time telling me a) that the senator was already committed to incremental changes to what we already have and b) that it was unrealistic of me to have expected her to solicit input earlier because she was not on Bacchus' committee.

We've seen the same thing on issue after issue. Financial reform and environmental policy are left to the insiders and voters are left on the sidelines.

Democrats have alienated so many of the disparate groups that voted for Obama, it's not clear to me what message Democrats are supposed to draw from the Massachussetts debacle...other than they have no idea how to use their majority status.

Posted by: Athena_news | January 20, 2010 10:42 AM | Report abuse

Great stuff, most especially pointing out that the spur to changing Obama's direction will be necessity. Now we get to see what, if anything, the man is made of.

Posted by: janinsanfran | January 20, 2010 10:42 AM | Report abuse

I think this is basically right. What's striking is how apt, in retrospect, the Ryan Lizza profile from summer '08 is: "Perhaps the greatest misconception about Barack Obama is that he is some sort of anti-establishment revolutionary. Rather, every stage of his political career has been marked by an eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions rather than tear them down or replace them."

Posted by: hemmeralex | January 20, 2010 10:42 AM | Report abuse

Don't overlook the thousands of small decisions that the Obama administration is making that are visionary and trajectory-altering. Steve Chu as Secretary of Energy, ending the HIV travel ban, increasing funding for research, the soon to be implemented increase in MPG requirements... all these things probably have a larger influence on the trajectory of the country than many of the issues that are media darlings.

Posted by: mschol17 | January 20, 2010 11:07 AM | Report abuse

governing in 2010 just got a whole lot harder. But on the bright side for Dems Brown is now an incumbent so his clock is ticking too for results. Don't celebrate, work.

Posted by: visionbrkr | January 20, 2010 11:07 AM | Report abuse

You refer to the health care bill as his legislation. Yet I thought it very unusual that there was never any White House draft sent to Capitol Hill. Nor was there much comment from the White House on what Congress was doing, except anonymous comments. Finally, Obama has chosen to hide inside the White House and hasn't had a press conference in six months where he might have faced questions on what he wanted in the bill.
Obama brought this on himself. The health care bill he promised would be negotiated before C-Span cameras was put together behind closed doors. He broke a campaign promise, and now we see the result. Health care is dead, and Congress won't take up the issue again for 20 years. That leaves it up to the states to decide whether to follow Mass. with mandatory health care insurance, or not. The effort to make a federal grab of what is a state issue is over.
I might hope Obama would learn, but I predict he won't. He making the Jimmy Carter mistake of retreating into the Oval Office shell. It is another failed presidency.

Posted by: edwardallen54 | January 20, 2010 11:20 AM | Report abuse

Ezra and most of the posters are clearly right. If the Dems can't govern successfully after an election like 2008 when can they?

Before the 2008 election people had lost faith in the ability of government to solve problems. (I'd say they lost it sometime in the late '70s and early '80s.) Most people just didn't see the relevance of gov't to their lives, and the people who did and knew how to make it work just looted the place.

Obama promised to change all that, and people gave him the chance. But as Ezra states, he didn't do that at all. He and his bunch of insider advisers thought they knew better and played the inside game. And then failed at the game and even worse, disillusioned their supporters, who had really hoped for something different.

Obama could resurrect his presidency, but he will have to be less risk-averse and more willing to stick his neck out, explain what he wants and why, and stick it to people who try to take hostages or otherwise play the same drama queen games. Otherwise he just looks weak, and if George Bush proved anything, it's that Americans really don't like weak Presidents.

Posted by: Mimikatz | January 20, 2010 11:21 AM | Report abuse

Despite all the failures it's brought them, Democrats continue to listen to con artists like Rahm Emanuel and Evan Bayh who insist that the party must abandon its values to win elections. They get what they deserve, even as the rest of us suffer the consequences.

Posted by: BigTunaTim | January 20, 2010 11:43 AM | Report abuse

Robert Gibbs needs to resign.

His communications team lost control of the healthcare message last August, and as far as I can tell, never really tried to get it back. I like Gibbs, and he did a great job helping to get Obama elected, but it's time for a new PR team. When a bill that preserves the current private insurance system gets understood by most Americans as a "government takeover" of healthcare, you've lost the message war. Propaganda has prevailed (again).

Posted by: mayelinden | January 20, 2010 11:45 AM | Report abuse

I have not understood why Obama didn't talk to the people. After being elected, he governs like Dukakis, like a distant bureaucrat. Why??

The case of health care reform is moral at it's core. It is simple, even if the compromises are not. But the case wasn't made. It needed to be made, over and over and over, to put opponents on the defensive. But it wasn't. Why??

Now Mass voters have in essence voted to deny Americans health care reform very similar to what they possess - and which they like by an overwhelming majority. Is this because they are bad people? Maybe it is, as this is (in my view) a country of hate. But it is at least possible that if the case were made CLEARLY they would not have voted to kill 45 thousand Americans next year, the year after that, and on into the indefinite future.

Posted by: mminka | January 20, 2010 12:00 PM | Report abuse

It's certainly true that each president should be measured on their own performance overall, but comparisons and reference points are inevitable. So who among the post-Hoover presidents does Obama resemble?

Surely not FDR, who in emergencies (depression and war) acted with vigor - a real leader. Or even Truman, who in retrospect actually captained the ship of state. As I go through the list of ex-potus, I see lots of differences, but the major point I notice is leadership. Obama seems not to know what that word means in the context of the presidency.

I'm a lifelong Democrat and believe in its central promise of a more equal and caring society that responds to challenges and gets things done.

Now that the veil over this liberal's eyes has been lifted, I see a second-level state legislator with a passion for avoiding conflict - a university academic with some vision, perhaps.

In Obama, I don't see a leader. He'll probably get my vote in 2012 (if he runs), but the vote will be to avoid a Scott Brown, Sarah Palin type Republican, not to express satisfaction with Obama's performance. It matters little whether Obama-we-see is the real Obama-deep-down. We can only responsibly choose based on what he has done. Obama has failed as a national leader or even as a competent administrator. But we have no prospect for another Democrat and any Republican to take the reins and lead progressively.

Obama is a lame duck with probably six years ahead of non-perforance. Quite a prospect, isn't it?

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | January 20, 2010 12:09 PM | Report abuse

"His communications team lost control of the healthcare message last August, and as far as I can tell, never really tried to get it back. "

Actually, they never had control of the healthcare message; they ceded articulation to different people with different objectives. That made it very easy for the Tea Baggers to move in with a single "no" message.

I would also add that it's hard to have a good message when you don't have a coherent package to sell. A plan to expand more of a failing model isn't a very persuasive argument to people who voted for reform.

Posted by: Athena_news | January 20, 2010 12:09 PM | Report abuse


I remember when you were defending Obama's inside game and talking about how it was much more favorable than the Clinton method of writing legislation and then sending it to Congress. It's clear that neither approach is the answer. You redeem yourself with this post.

Posted by: goadri | January 20, 2010 12:16 PM | Report abuse

"The country is trapped in a sausage factory, and they want out."

Excellent analysis, Ezra. But, while you conscientiously end with a solution as the form requires of you, there really is no solution here. We are a nation of refusenik non-citizens: we decline to participate in our own government.

Posted by: raisedbywolves1 | January 20, 2010 2:01 PM | Report abuse

@mimiKatz: "If the Dems can't govern successfully after an election like 2008 when can they?"

This is the problem in almost every outstanding election where one party or the other enjoys a tremendous victory. Republicans frequently asked that if we can't govern when we have the house, the senate and the presidency, when can we? The year after 1994 was satisfying on the whole, but after that, we ended up asking the same sorts of questions--if we can't govern on policy objectives for more than a year, when are we going to get responsible government?

Certainly, the whole impeachment debacle with Clinton did nothing to advance policy. And cost them at the ballot box when the next mid terms rolled around.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | January 20, 2010 3:10 PM | Report abuse

Excellent post, EK.

To date, I think the single most critical failure by Obama and the Dems, ironically, has been a failure to communicate.

The Great Orator has failed to adequately explain (in a way that folks can understand) exactly what he and his Party are doing and why.

The failure to effectively communicate spreads beyond Obama to his official spokespersons (people who are actually paid to do this!), and all the Dem legislators.

Good grief! If the Repubs can do this, surely the Dems can.

Granted, it's easier to stay on message with 2 or 3 simple talking points (this bill will mandate you to buy insurance; tax you in order to pay for it; it's a job-killer).

The Dems at all levels need to regroup on the issue of communication ... and seek professional help if they can't figure out how to develop the message and ensure they all stay on message, whatever the issue might be.

Posted by: onewing1 | January 20, 2010 3:21 PM | Report abuse

I have profoundly appreciated your comments, and voice over the past few months as I sought to understand more deeply the details, complexity and substance of the healthcare policy conversation. I commend your tone, your voice because it shows wit and nuance without cynicism: a gift. I write this note, in part to express my appreciation for insights that have helped to guide my own decisions, statements and thoughts.

In this particular piece, I do think you may miss referencing Obama's special obligation to convince the nation that he is first competent, a level of burden, frankly, more severe because of race. I do not think, given the context into which he emerged, that he had any other choice of effective strategy. It is easy to forget the near implosion facing the economy on the morning of his election. At the same time, I completely agree with you about the importance of his tone and focus the final 3/4's of his term.

He must lead us. He must lead not to win the next election, but to win this moment in history which will not happen by changing laws but only by changing attitudes. In a rather ironic way, this is sort of the inverse of the movement that brought him to possibility of power in the first place.

Again, thanks for sharing your wisdom and hopefulness.

Posted by: revtoby | January 20, 2010 4:12 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, given the separation of powers under our Constitution, why is it President Obama’s fault? What if it is Congress’ fault? What if Massachusetts’s voters were revolting against the sausage factory (which explains the surge in the polls for Brown after the XMAS-eve Senate showdown)?

As you said on Charlie Rose (December 15, 2009):

“Imagine an alcoholic, [Lawrence Lessig] says. That alcoholic could be losing his family, he could be deep in debt, he could have cirrhosis of the liver. And you might look at him and say that his worst problem is not that he has three or four drinks before he goes to bed at night. But it is the first problem. It’s the one you’re going to have to solve before you can solve all the others. And I have come to believe in this process that our first problem is at this point Congress, our government. I do not believe we can solve our problems.”

Thus I hope that you will make solving the *first* problem of ending what James Madison in Federalist #10 called the “mischiefs of faction”--i.e., hyperpartisanship as reported by Ronald Brownstein in The Second Civil War, and institutional corruption as argued by Lessig--the *number one* issue for the midterm elections in November. Continuing what you said on Charlie Rose:

“I think one of the serious problems our system has…is how much we overemphasize the president. The president does not have the power Congress has. He cannot write legislation, he cannot vote on it, and he cannot pass it. Even if he vetoes it, it can be overturned. … We think of politics in terms of the president. We imagine he sets the agenda for congress. When Congress isn’t doing well, we in the press, we say ‘The president’s strategy has been poor this year.’ … But we should not need the president to approach Congress with perfect tactical brilliance in order to get our legislative body legislate. That isn’t a sustainable way to run this country. … And so I do think you end up in a situation there where I do think that the Obama administration has been quite wise in the way they’ve handled this. But broadly speaking, I think a big part of the problem is they don’t have the power many would like them to have. And if they don’t that power and we are waiting for them to exercise it, you do end up in a bit of a space between perception of how politics works and how to change it, and reality. … I think the American people tend to think the lever they should pull to make the country better is the presidency’s lever, and I think that much more the attention needs to focus on Congress.”

So the question for November is how do Speaker Pelosi and Leader Reid fix their broken branch of Congress before the next session’s early organization meeting when Congressional rules and procedures such as the filibuster can be changed. If they don’t solve this *first* problem by then, I fear not only a Democratic wipeout next November but also a failed presidency for Obama and another lost decade for America.

Posted by: msa_intp | January 20, 2010 8:09 PM | Report abuse

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