Thursday, October 28, 2010

Article Skipper: The New York Times on the first 2 years of Obama’s presidency

P052410PS-0239I’ll bet you saw Peter Baker's NYT article called “The Education of a President” earlier this month and thought to yourself: “Wow, this looks like an important article. I should read this.” But it’s over 8,000 words. You never got around to reading it, did you?

That's why I'm posting this. The article is important — but it's too long. And Baker does the MSM thing of letting his main themes pop up sporadically throughout the piece rather than organizing them clearly. In fact, Baker uses no subheadings at all to guide the reader through his grand narrative.

In this post, I give you the most interesting parts of the article, in a choppy and blunt list format. I haven’t removed all the padding; I’ve tried to leave in just enough padding to give a feel for the much more padded original.

1. The premise and selling point of the article:

For all intents and purposes, the first chapter of Obama’s presidency has ended. On Election Day, the next chapter will begin. . . .

Last month, I made my way through the West Wing talking not only with Obama [for an hour] but also with nearly two dozen of his advisers . . . hoping to understand how the situation looks to them. 

2. Obama admits how he went wrong tactically:
a) He realized too late that “there’s no such thing as shovel-ready projects” when it comes to public works.  
This baffled Ezra Klein, who said:
Over the past two years, the stimulus has funded more than 15,000 transportation projects. In total, it's funded more than 75,000 projects. Those efforts weren't ready for shovels the morning after the bill passed, but it didn't take more than a couple of months to break ground on many of them, and all of them hit within the stimulus's two-year target range.

And even if the president was disappointed by the progress, why is he giving ammunition to the stimulus's critics only weeks before the midterm election?
I assume that Obama knows what he's talking about here and that he wouldn't violate the laws of politics by distorting the truth against his own interests.

More of Obama's admissions:
b) Perhaps he should not have proposed tax breaks as part of his stimulus and instead “let the Republicans insist on the tax cuts” so it could be seen as a bipartisan compromise.

c) Obama acknowledged that the succession of so many costly initiatives, necessary as they may have been, wore on the public. “That accumulation of numbers on the TV screen night in and night out in those first six months I think deeply and legitimately troubled people,” he told me. “They started feeling like: Gosh, here we are tightening our belts, we’re cutting out restaurants, we’re cutting out our gym membership, in some cases we’re not buying new clothes for the kids. And here we’ve got these folks in Washington who just seem to be printing money and spending it like nobody’s business.

“And it reinforced the narrative that the Republicans wanted to promote anyway, which was Obama is not a different kind of Democrat — he’s the same old tax-and-spend liberal Democrat.”

P080410PS-09123. As far as broader strategy, Obama and his staff admit they were blindsided, debunking any defense along the lines of “Everyone in the administration knew all along how hard it was going to be — it was only the media / the Republicans / the public who had unrealistic expectations”:
a) “We’re all a lot more cynical now,” one aide told me. The easy answer is to blame the Republicans, and White House aides do that with exuberance. But they are also looking at their own misjudgments, the hubris that led them to think they really could defy the laws of politics. “It’s not that we believed our own press or press releases, but there was definitely a sense at the beginning that we could really change Washington,” another White House official told me. “ ‘Arrogance’ isn’t the right word, but we were overconfident.” 
b) The biggest miscalculation in the minds of most Obama advisers was the assumption that he could bridge a polarized capital and forge genuinely bipartisan coalitions. While Republican leaders resolved to stand against Obama, his early efforts to woo the opposition also struck many as halfhearted. “If anybody thought the Republicans were just going to roll over, we were just terribly mistaken,” former Senator Tom Daschle, a mentor and an outside adviser to Obama, told me. . . . 
“Perhaps we were naïve,” [David] Axelrod told me. “ . . . I think he believed that in the midst of a crisis you could find partners on the other side of the aisle to help deal with it. I don’t think anyone here expected the degree of partisanship that we confronted.” 
c) From the start, Obama has been surprised by all sorts of challenges that have made it hard for him to govern — not just the big problems that he knew about, like the economy and the wars, but also the myriad little ones that hindered his progress, like one nominee after another brought down by unpaid taxes. Obama trusted his judgment and seemed to have assumed that impressive people in his own party must have a certain basic sense of integrity — and that impressive people in the other party must want to work with him.

4. Obama had a major role in creating the messianic expectations of his presidency:
a) When Obama secured the Democratic nomination in June 2008, he told an admiring crowd that someday “we will be able to look back and tell our children that . . . this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal . . .” 
I read that line to Obama and asked how his high-flying rhetoric sounded in these days of low-flying governance. . . .
If you promise to save the planet, might people think you would, you know, actually save the planet? He laughed, before shifting back to hope and inspiration. “I make no apologies for having set high expectations for myself and for the country, because I think we can meet those expectations,” he said. 
b) [I]t is Obama himself, and not just his supporters, who casts his presidency in grandiose terms. As he pleaded with Democrats for patience at another fund-raiser in Washington two weeks later: “It took time to free the slaves. It took time for women to get the vote. It took time for workers to get the right to organize.” 
c) Obama came to office with enormous faith in his own powers of persuasion. He seemed to believe he could overcome divisions if he just sat down with the world’s most recalcitrant figures . . . . As it turned out, the candidate who said he would be willing to meet in his first year with some of America’s enemies “without precondition” has met with none of them. 

5. Despite all those admissions, Obama and his staff offer plenty of defensive justifications, which aren’t very compelling since any administration could use the same formula filled in with the specific issues of the day. I’ll give a very selective sample, since the article is overflowing with this kind of thing:
a) “[W]e probably spent much more time trying to get the policy right than trying to get the politics right.” 
b) He quoted Mario Cuomo’s line about campaigning in poetry and governing in prose. “But the prose and the poetry match up,” he said. “It would be very hard for people to look back and say, You know what, Obama didn’t do what he’s promised. I think they could say, On a bunch of fronts he still has an incomplete. But I keep a checklist of what we committed to doing, and we’ve probably accomplished 70 percent of the things that we talked about during the campaign. And I hope as long as I’m president, I’ve got a chance to work on the other 30 percent.” 
The Washington Post is tracking the status of "Obama's Key Promises." Out of 25 promises, it calls 7 "completed" and 15 "in progress," with the other 3 still on the "to do" list.

Back to the defenses:
c) “Democrats just congenitally tend to see the glass as half empty,” Obama said at a fund-raiser in Greenwich, Conn., last month. “If we get an historic health care bill passed — oh, well, the public option wasn’t there. If you get the financial reform bill passed — then, well, I don’t know about this particular derivatives rule, I’m not sure that I’m satisfied with that. And, gosh, we haven’t yet brought about world peace. I thought that was going to happen quicker.”
In short, he dismisses any disappointment with his policies that comes from his own side, as if they should blindly praise all Democratic policies. But how can you take this position while simultaneously presenting yourself as a bipartisan, unifying figure? It you expect Democrats to fall in line with your policies, why wouldn't you expect Republicans to unite in opposing your policies?
d) “The mythology has emerged somehow that we ran this flawless campaign, I never made a mistake, that we were master communicators, everything worked in lock step,” he told me. “And somehow now, as president, things are messy and they don’t always work as planned and people are mad at us. That’s not how I look at stuff, because I remember what the campaign was like. And it was just as messy and just as difficult. And there were all sorts of moments when our supporters lost hope, and it looked like we weren’t going to win. And we’re going through that same period here.”
He’s right that there were huge missteps in his campaign; to suggest otherwise would be flat-out amnesia. (Jeremiah Wright, bitter clinging, weak debate performances, etc.) The more legitimate point would be: while both his presidency and his campaign had their low points, the high points of his campaign haven’t carried over into his presidency. In fact, Obama admits this too:
[B]y his own rendering, the figure of inspiration from 2008 neglected the inspiration after his election. He didn’t stay connected to the people who put him in office in the first place.
e) White House aides wonder aloud whether it is even possible for a modern president to succeed, no matter how many bills he signs. Everything seems to conspire against the idea: an implacable opposition with little if any real interest in collaboration, a news media saturated with triviality and conflict, a culture that demands solutions yesterday . . .

6. Most illogical defensive argument:
In this environment, [White House aides] have increasingly concluded, it may be that every modern president is going to be, at best, average.

7. People who refreshingly cut through the defensive justifications:
a) The first refuge of any politician in trouble is that it’s a communication problem, not a policy problem. If only I explained what I was doing better, the people would be more supportive. . . . Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, laughed at the ever-ready assumption that all problems stem from poor communication. “I haven’t been at a policy-problem meeting in 20 months,” he noted.
b) “He’s no Bill Clinton when it comes to having the ability to move and to wiggle,” says Joe Gaylord, a top Gingrich adviser. “I find rigidity in Obama that comes from his life in liberalism.” 
c) White House officials largely agree they should not have let the health care process drag out while waiting for Republican support that would never come. “It’s not what people felt they sent Barack Obama to Washington to do, to be legislator in chief,” a top adviser told me. “It lent itself to the perception that he wasn’t doing anything on the economy.”
d) [Ed Rendell, Democratic Governor of Pennsylvania, advises Obama to] stop moaning about what he inherited: “After the election, I’d say no more pointing back, no more blaming the Bush administration. . . . [T]o do it as much as we do it, it sounds like a broken record. And after two years, you own it.”
By the way, the comments from Obama and other staffers in the article are almost entirely defensive, not making an affirmative case for their accomplishments.

8. Baker heard “eerie” parallels between Obama and the last two presidents:
Obama says the easy issues never make it to him, only the hard ones; Bush often said the same thing. Obama says our war with terrorists will never end in a surrender ceremony; Bush often said the same thing. Obama says he does not want to kick problems down the road; Bush often said the same thing. In the days leading up to the 1994 midterm elections, Clinton mocked Republicans for promising to balance the budget while cutting taxes, saying, “They’re not serious.” In our conversation, Obama used some variation of the phrase “they’re not serious” four times in referring to Republican budget plans.

. . . Like Clinton, he digs into the intellectual underpinnings of a policy decision, studying briefing books and seeking a range of opinions. Some aides express frustration that he can leave decisions unresolved for too long. But like Bush, once he has made a decision, Obama rarely revisits it. 

P092710PS-01699. Insights into Obama’s personality:
a) “He’s still never gotten comfortable here,” a top White House official told me. He has little patience for what Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser, calls “the inevitable theatrics of Washington.”
But in politics, theater matters, whether it should or not, a lesson Obama keeps relearning, however grudgingly. His decision to redecorate the Oval Office was criticized as an unnecessary luxury in a time of austerity, no matter that it was paid for by private funds. On the campaign trail, he thought it was silly to wear a flag pin, as if that were a measure of his patriotism, until his refusal to wear a flag pin generated distracting criticism and one day he showed up wearing one. Likewise, he thought it was enough to pray in private while living in the White House, and then a poll showed that most Americans weren’t sure he’s Christian; sure enough, a few weeks later, he attended services at St. John’s Church across from Lafayette Square, photographers in tow. 
b) Obama comes across as an introvert, someone who finds extended contact with groups of people outside his immediate circle to be draining. He can rouse a stadium of 80,000 people, but that audience is an impersonal monolith; smaller group settings can be harder for him. Aides have learned that it can be good if he has a few moments after a big East Room event so he can gather his energy again. Unlike Clinton, who never met a rope line he did not want to work, Obama does not relish glad-handing. That’s what he has Vice President Joe Biden for. When Obama addressed the Business Roundtable this year, he left after his speech without much meet-and-greet, leaving his aides frustrated that he had done himself more harm than good. He is not much for chitchat. When he and I sat down, he started our session matter-of-factly: “All right,” he said, “fire away.” 
c) By all accounts, Obama copes with his political troubles with equanimity. “Zen” is the word commonly used in the West Wing. That’s not to say he never loses his temper. He has been known to snap at aides when he feels overscheduled. He cuts off advisers who spout information straight from briefing papers with a testy “I’ve already read that.”

P072210PS-009710. Obama’s public persona is vague:
As an author, Obama appreciates the rhythms of a tumultuous story. But who is the protagonist, really? At bottom, this president is still a mystery to many Americans. During the campaign, he sold himself — or the idea of himself — more than any particular policy, and voters filled in the lines as they chose. He was, as he said at the time, the ultimate Rorschach test.

Now the lines are being filled in further . . .
Are they? That last sentence seems like something you’d write half-heartedly, either because it sounds good or to transition to another thought. Does Baker really believe the general public has increasingly come to understand Obama’s personality, when he also writes in the present tense that “this president is still a mystery to many Americans”?

11. Ideas for how the Obama administration could have a good next 2 years:
a) [W]ould he jeopardize re-election absent an immediate crisis? The choice may confront him soon after the midterms when his bipartisan fiscal commission reports back by Dec. 1 with plans to tame the national deficit with a politically volatile menu of unpalatable options, like scaling back Medicare and Social Security while raising taxes.
b) Obama also anticipates putting immigration reform, another divisive issue fraught with political danger, back on the table. “If the question is, Over the next two years do I take a pass on tough stuff,” he told me, “the answer is no.”
c) “You’ll hear more about exports and less about public spending,” a senior White House official said. “You’ll hear more about initiative and private sector and less about the Department of Energy. You’ll hear more about government as a financier and less about government as a hirer.”
d) As a senior adviser put it, “There’s going to be very little incentive for big things over the next two years unless there’s some sort of crisis.”

12. White House officials' predictions about 2012:
[They believe] the Tea Party will re-elect Barack Obama by pulling the Republican nominee to the right. They doubt Sarah Palin will run and figure Mitt Romney cannot get the Republican nomination because he enacted his own health care program in Massachusetts. If they had to guess today, some in the White House say that Obama will find himself running against Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor.

13. Historical pattern to watch:
The last four presidents who failed to win a second term were all challenged in their own party. Lyndon Johnson was driven out of the race in 1968 after nearly losing the New Hampshire primary to Eugene McCarthy. Gerald Ford fended off Reagan in 1976 but went on to lose the general election to Carter, who likewise had to beat a primary challenger four years later, Ted Kennedy, before falling to Reagan. And George H. W. Bush had to overcome Patrick Buchanan before losing to Clinton in 1992.

14. Most bleak depiction of Obama’s staff:
[T]his is an administration that feels shellshocked. Many officials worry, they say, that the best days of the Obama presidency are behind them. They talk about whether it is time to move on.

15. Baker's most opinionated statement:
As he told a group of visitors during the week last spring that Congress passed health care and his administration reached agreement on an arms-control treaty with Russia, “I start slow, but I finish strong.”
He will have to, if the history he is writing is to turn out the way he prefers.


(Photos from Obama's Flickr site.)

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Jim Ament said...

Very well done! It seems that in the next couple years, the best the public can hope for is gridlock, which isn't very inspiring but it may cost a lot less.

Meade said...

Nice job.

By the way, the comments from Obama and other staffers in the article are almost entirely defensive, not making an affirmative case for their accomplishments.


John Althouse Cohen said...


That Onion article is similar to a point made by Glenn Loury in the video here.