The New York Times reports that the President is revamping his tactical political team and focusing on the basics, by which is meant “how to sharpen the president’s message and leadership style”. But that’s not basic enough. Neither of these address the two fundamental questions: the focus of his policies and the quality of his management of the executive bureaucracy. Perhaps stemming from his earlier belief that he had “lost touch” with a fearful electorate, one of President Obama’s first moves in the wake of the Massachusetts debacle was to reshuffle his political operatives and put them on a permanent campaign footing.
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.”
Jake Tapper notes many of these new operatives were part of the team which successfully guided his 2008 campaign to victory. “In addition to the return of top aides such as Plouffe, other mid-level operatives from the 2008 Obama campaign who helped bring candidate Obama victories in Iowa and in Feb. 5 ‘Super Tuesday’ primary states, will be enlisted to work on campaigns to keep expected Democratic losses to a minimum, aides said.” These are guys Obama will be relying on to bring back the magic.
But the roots of the President’s political woes may lie deeper. Mort Zuckerman observed that in contrast even to Clinton, Obama has put politics at the center of his activities. Policy and governance are an afterthought. Zuckerman, who voted for Obama, wrote:
One business leader said to me, “In the Clinton administration, the policy people were at the center, and the political people were on the sideline. In the Obama administration, the political people are at the center, and the policy people are on the sidelines.” …
There’s the saying, “It’s the economy, stupid.” He didn’t get it. He was determined somehow or other to adopt a whole new agenda. He didn’t address the main issue.
This health-care plan is going to be a fiscal disaster for the country. Most of the country wanted to deal with costs, not expansion of coverage. This is going to raise costs dramatically. …In the campaign, he said he would change politics as usual. He did change them. It’s now worse than it was. I’ve now seen the kind of buying off of politicians that I’ve never seen before. It’s politically corrupt and it’s starting at the top. It’s revolting.
Five states got deals on health care—one of them was Harry Reid’s. It is disgusting, just disgusting. I’ve never seen anything like it. The unions just got them to drop the tax on Cadillac plans in the health-care bill. It was pure union politics. They just went along with it. It’s a bizarre form of political corruption. It’s bribery. I suppose they could say, that’s the system. He was supposed to change it or try to change it. …Focus on cost-containment first. But he’s trying to boil the ocean, trying to do too much. This is not leadership.
Now President Obama has belatedly decided to tackle the financial industry, where again the danger is that politics, not policy will be at the center; where genuine reforms are ignored in favor of going after unpopular targets and leaving sacred cows untouched; where the “deal” not risk management or long term growth, is king of the hill. If that happens, then like health care “reform” the cure may be worse than the disease and salve nothing.
Zuckerman’s words — a man who voted for him — and the rejection by Massachusetts — the most liberal state in the country — echo through the debate. Sharpening the message and leadership style are not basic enough. Here’s a President who may have made the mistake of putting politics, not policy at the center of things. And repeating the mistake with greater emphasis isn’t necessarily a solution. He can send for his conjurers again and create the mightiest permanent campaigning machine history has ever seen. But they won’t bring back the magic. That requires performance in the areas of policy and governance.
The really worrisome thing is if the President can’t change as opposed to won’t change. If politics is all he knows and all he is good at then 2010 will be a rough year indeed, not just for Obama, but for everybody.