Just over a year into his tenure, America’s 44th president governs a bitterly divided nation, a world increasingly hard to manage and an America that seems more disillusioned than ever with Washington’s ways. What went wrong?
Pundits, Democratic lawmakers and opinion pollsters offer a smorgasbord of reasons – from Mr Obama’s decision to devote his first year in office to healthcare reform, to the president’s inability to convince voters he can “feel their [economic] pain”, to the apparent ungovernability of today’s Washington. All may indeed have contributed to the quandary in which Mr Obama finds himself. But those around him have a more specific diagnosis – and one that is striking in its uniformity. The Obama White House is geared for campaigning rather than governing, they say.
In dozens of interviews with his closest allies and friends in Washington – most of them given unattributably in order to protect their access to the Oval Office – each observes that the president draws on the advice of a very tight circle. The inner core consists of just four people – Rahm Emanuel, the pugnacious chief of staff; David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett, his senior advisers; and Robert Gibbs, his communications chief.
Can you imagine what the headlines would be in the New York Times and Washington Post if President Bush had cut himself off from all but a handful of advisers?
But the problem with Obama’s White House is that his inner core are all accomplished politicians, they know how to have meetings and score points. But they have no idea and have no experience with actually governing. They went into the White House with the belief that Obama had been elected King instead of President. They thought that they could accomplish things simply by ordering them to be so.
Obama himself has had only one political race where he had a credible opponent, and he lost. His other races, for the State and U.S. Senate were won by behind the scenes maneuvering to eliminate the opposition. His Senate career was unremarkable. He has never had to persuade, cajole and compromise. He doesn’t know how, and that’s what you do in Washington DC.
He’s in a box. He can’t get anywhere if he doesn’t get some new advisers, and he is not going to get anywhere if he gets rid of them. I think that he has goals, but he doesn’t really have any idea of how to achieve them.