Monday, Apr. 26, 2010
The Secrets of Obama's Underappreciated Success
By Mark Halperin
Barack Obama's right-wing opponents cast him as a socialist failure. His left-wing hecklers see him as an overcautious hedger. But, critics notwithstanding, the President is on a path to be a huge success by the time of November's midterm elections.
Before the jabberers on the right (What about the huge debt, the broken tax pledge, the paucity of overseas accomplishments?), the yammerers on the left (Guantánamo hasn't been closed, gays aren't serving openly in the military, and too many policies cater to business interests) and the chides in the media (POTUS and party poll numbers are down, and Washington is more partisan than ever), look at the two key metrics that underscore Obama's accomplishments. It is too early to assess the ultimate measure of victory: whether the President's actions have been prudent and beneficial, domestically and internationally. But by Election Day 2010, Obama will have soundly achieved many of his chief campaign promises while running a highly competent, scandal-free government. Not bad for a guy whose opponents (in both parties) for the White House suggested that he was too green in national life to know how to do the job — and whose presidency began in the midst of a worldwide economic crisis that demanded urgent attention and commanded much of his focus. (See "Obama's Troubled First Year: Grading Him on the Key Issues.")
Let's start with the competence Obama has shown. As he proved in the campaign, he is a master of personnel decisions, choosing people who are excellent at what they do, but also requiring that they play nicely with others. In the two most vital areas, national security and economic policy, all the President's women and men generally get along well with one another, and have had critical roles in advancing the agenda. It is true that the economics team has some rivalries, and the Administration still hasn't figured out how to overcome its collectively weak public-communications skills on the economy. But overall, the White House is populated by hard workers who are rowing in unison to advance the cause and rarely take their disagreements public through damaging leaks.
Obama's two best personnel decisions are probably the two men serving right below him: Vice President Joe Biden and White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. Yes, Biden still falls victim to caricature as an irrepressible big mouth and is the butt of late-night jokes. And Emanuel can be overly brash and flutter nerves on Capitol Hill and among Administration allies. But Obama knew what he was getting in both men, and they have performed up to or above his expectations. With their West Wing offices across the hall from each other, Biden and Emanuel often work in tandem, each doing more heavy lifting than is publicly seen or commonly known. Obama — who proved during the campaign that he knows how to maintain control of his operation without micromanaging — sets the tone and overall goals, and then allows his Veep and chief, along with other senior advisers, to execute his plans.
Biden has traveled extensively overseas and across the country and has helped coordinate both national security policy and congressional strategy, all while dealing with governors and mayors on the economy. Politically, he is expected to be an asset in the midterms, as he was in 2008, with white working-class voters who appreciate his homely truths and affable manner, and who still haven't warmed to Obama.
As for Emanuel, Obama was intent on selecting a tough, competitive, savvy chief of staff, one who would be able to use the levers of power to advance an agenda through both legislation and executive action. Emanuel unexpectedly found himself in the spotlight last week when he appeared on Charlie Rose and repeated his oft-expressed interest in one day serving as mayor of Chicago. The press flew into a frenzy, and some pundits deemed the remark an unseemly display of ambition. It was, in fact, a reminder of Emanuel's deep ties to his hometown, his reluctance to leave his job as a member of Congress to join the Administration — part of the House leadership, Emanuel was on a direct path to be the Speaker within a decade — and his willingness to bow to Obama's wishes and jettison his long-term plans in order to manage the White House.
Emanuel's hand (and his six years of experience in the Clinton Administration) can be seen in many facets of the Administration's operational success. The White House controls the Washington and media agenda on most days, carefully coordinating with Capitol Hill and interest-group partners. Bad news is not allowed to fester. And the greatest asset, the President himself, is deployed with strategic planning and tactical nimbleness.
It's easy to forget what circumstances could be like, what problems Obama might have encountered. Think back just a few years ago, to the last time a young Democrat was swept into the White House on a message of change. Unlike Bill Clinton, especially early in his presidency, Obama has largely maintained control of his public image, preserved the majesty of the office (a job that has become harder than ever because of the toxic freak-show nature of our politico-media culture) and maintained good relations, in public and private, with the armed services brass, the intelligence community and law enforcement.
The passage of the health care bill and the pledge to help Democrats wherever possible with fundraising and political assistance has (for now at least) quieted the Capitol Hill voices that until recently were questioning the White House's competence and commitment. Control of Congress makes things easier, for sure, but so does an absence of indicted, disgraced or bungling appointees.
Over the past 16 months, both Biden and Emanuel have expressed concern internally that Obama has been too bold, risking his presidency on big bets. But those disagreements with the President have been fleeting and mostly futile — and, as it happens, unwarranted. So far, most of Obama's big bets have paid off.
The health care bill's passage is, of course, the White House's signal achievement, and was accomplished without revealing the Administration's cognizance (thanks to internal polling and focus groups) of the legislation's stark unpopularity among the public. But beyond health care, Obama acted decisively to stop the world from going into economic depression, after inheriting a mess from his predecessor. Quibble all you wish about the dimensions of the stimulus law or the administration of TARP or the Detroit bailout, but the actions taken were professionally handled, apparently necessary and, so far, constructive. Strikingly underrated by the Washington press corps are Obama's gains on education policy, including a willingness to confront the education establishment on standards for both teachers and students. Overseas, Obama has snagged an arms-reduction deal with Russia, managed the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq exactly as promised, eliminated numerous terrorist leaders through an aggressive targeting operation and laid the groundwork for dealing with Iran and, perhaps, North Korea.
In the months ahead, the President will likely pass a financial-regulation overhaul (despite this past weekend's snags), manage the confirmation of a second Supreme Court nominee with relatively little commotion, announce the reduction of the U.S. troop level in Iraq to about 50,000, showcase the undercovered gains on education reform, take advantage of the improving economy to tout his stimulus efforts and sharpen his "Obama-Biden future vs. Bush-Cheney past" argument to help stave off massive Democratic losses in November. He also has a decent chance to pass a small-to-medium-size energy bill. True, some promises, like comprehensive immigration reform, will remain on the sidelines, but most of his major goals will be completed or well under way.
Assuming the President will need a game-changing move in the wake of any significant midterm losses, Emanuel has already played a clever bit of inside-baseball, installing his old friend and Clinton Administration ally Bruce Reed as staff director of the bipartisan deficit-reduction commission that is due to make recommendations in December. If there are big Republican electoral gains, expect the analysis from conservatives and the media to be that the country wanted a check on big spending from Washington. That overriding concern could shape the outcome of the elections more than any of Obama's accomplishments or appreciation for the job he has done thus far. The commission's proposals could then be coordinated with an "I get it" message from Obama, providing a bold opening to the second half of his term, as he sets about tackling another campaign promise: long-term deficit reduction. A difficult pledge to achieve, perhaps, but given the President's track record, it is one that shouldn't be dismissed out of hand.