POLITICS
02/25/2014 11:21 pm ET Updated Feb 26, 2014

Bobby Jindal's 2016 Hopes Rest On Mantra: 'It's Not About Personalities'

WASHINGTON -– Bobby Jindal isn't going to go away quietly. He made that much clear Monday.

In the space of an hour, he reminded many Democrats why they hate him with a passion, and aggressively angled for a spot among the first tier of 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls.

His roundhouse punch at President Barack Obama's policies, while standing on the White House driveway a few feet from the Oval Office and surrounded by governors of both parties, incensed Democrats, who see him as a grandstanding, know-it-all partisan. Of course Jindal's enthusiasm for mixing it up will only endear him to many conservatives.

And moments after launching a free-for-all in front of the microphones outside the West Wing, Jindal walked across Pennsylvania Avenue and into the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, where he took the helm of a press conference with the Republican Governors Association. Jindal was supposed to be the chairman of the organization this year, but was outmaneuvered in 2012 by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who claimed the spot for himself.

However, with Christie hiding from the press to avoid a TV camera feeding frenzy, Jindal operated as de facto chairman, speaking first and dominating much of the 35-minute affair. He talked about his disappointment with Obama's answers during the governors' meeting at the White House, and affirmed that Christie should stay chairman of the governors association, despite the cloud of the Bridgegate investigation. But Jindal also threw a not-too-subtle elbow in Christie's direction.

"The RGA is more important than just any one governor. It's not about the chairman. It wasn't about the chairman when I was there last year. And it's not about the chairman this year," Jindal said, emphasizing the 22 Republican governors up for election this fall.

Jindal was asked whether he plans to run for president in 2016. He repeated his pat answer of not knowing, unable -– like most human beings asked such a question -– to suppress a gratified smile. To his left, on the other side of South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, sat Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who ran for president in 2012, but who did not receive a question about his presidential intentions. Perry looked on, rubbing his thumb against his index finger.

It was exactly the kind of weekend Jindal's operation had likely hoped for. The 42-year old son of Indian immigrants has been perpetually relegated to the second and third tier of potential presidential candidates since his disastrous speech in response to Obama's 2009 State of the Union address. He has had plenty of time to overcome that mistake, but has been unable to break out. And at the same time, his approval rating in Louisiana -– which was above 70 percent after he was first elected governor six years ago, has dipped into the 30s, though one survey -- showed him climbing above 40 percent recently.

In a 30-minute interview over the weekend, Jindal repeatedly downplayed the importance of who's up and who's down.

"Hey look, the media's got a favorite flavor of the day and the month and the week. It doesn't matter," he said. "People will go up and down, and if you survey the media, 8, 9, 10 years ago, nobody would have thought then-Senator Obama [would be the Democratic nominee]. Hillary was going to be unstoppable. She was going to be the next president. She was certainly going to be the next nominee.

"So, I think all the attention on the horse race is foolish," he said.

Nonetheless, Jindal's emphasis on the unpredictability of elections is a sign he believes he can still emerge from the pack. And he is clearly not content to sit back and allow the conversation to pass him by. Thus the forceful interjection this weekend.

One Democratic National Committee official called Jindal's behavior "desperate." And that is the common view among Democrats, who in private conversations often reveal an intense dislike of the Louisiana governor. But longtime Jindal adviser Timmy Teepell said that the governor had done little different than usual, pointing to his criticism of the president last year after a meeting at the White House.

"He did what he has always done. More folks noticed this time," Teepell said in an email. "Bobby has guts. He is not intimidated and will not be."

Teepell said Obama, during the meeting with the governors, had "lectured" Jindal and the others. Jindal and his fellow governors said at their press conference that the tone of the meeting was cordial, aside from a moment when they said the president promised cuts to the National Guard in a manner that Haley called "aggressive."

It was clear, however, during our interview, that Jindal intended to be confrontational toward Obama. He assailed the president's policies in harsh, no-holds-barred language.

"I don't think it's an accident that his policies are destroying jobs. That's what they were designed to do," Jindal said. "Nancy Pelosi famously said in 2010, telling young people, 'You can go quit your jobs.'"

Pelosi's comment about the president's health law was: "We see it as an entrepreneurial bill, a bill that says to someone, if you want to be creative and be a musician or whatever, you can leave your work, focus on your talent, your skill, your passion, your aspirations because you will have health care. You don't have to be job-locked."

Monday morning, Jindal published an op-ed with 10 bullet-point suggestions for the president on improving the economy and job creation, accusing him of giving up on helping the middle class. When Jindal talked to me about those recommendations, I asked if he thought there was any chance Obama would listen to him.

"No. To be blunt," he said. "I think that the president is obviously a very smart guy. I also, however, think he is extremely ideological in his approach to governing. But I think it's in his own interest. … For three years, he can be a lame duck president who excites his base and says things that gets them riled up, or he can look for practical victories."

When I suggested to Jindal that he might see his ideas go further with the Obama administration if he took a less confrontational approach, he emphasized that he is "always respectful." Then he told a story of the president dismissing his advice in the past. Last year, Jindal said Obama should consider delaying an expansion of Medicaid in order to lessen the impact of sequestration.

"It wasn't combative. It wasn't attacking personally. I personally would like to see the entire law repealed. I was making what I thought was a reasonable suggestion that if this is really so bad, why not do this," Jindal said. "He didn't take it that way. He was fairly aggressive in his response that, 'No, I won the election,' and in so many words, 'Deal with it.'"

I asked if Jindal thought the president disliked him personally.

"Look I don't know and I don't care. It's not about personality," he said again. "It's not about whether he likes me or not. We always have respectful, cordial discussions. … What's more important is the impact these policies are having on our people in my state and these other states."

Jindal, a former Rhodes scholar, is so full of ideas his mouth can barely keep up with the thoughts that tumble out of his brain. He has an attractive bio for a national candidate, has been at the center of the school choice and education reform debate with his overhaul of Louisiana's public school system, and offers a populist message that pairs opposition to big government with opposition to big business.

What's always been in question is whether he has the political talents for the national stage. So far, he has failed to break through in a lasting way. He is clearly banking on his mantra that "it's not about personalities."

"I think the American people still believe that our country's best days are still ahead of us. … I think they're hungry for substantive solutions," he said. "And I think the party that offers them that, that gives them detailed, specific ideas, this is how we get on track, I think that's the party that wins elections. I think that's more important than personalities, than tiers."

Christie's absence from the national stage is an opportunity. But among political types on Twitter, much of the chatter Tuesday was about Sen. Marco Rubio's (R-Fla.) speech about government repression in Cuba and Venezuela.

John Podhoretz, editor of the conservative Commentary Magazine, linked to a video of Rubio's speech and tweeted: "And just like that, Marco Rubio is back in the first tier."

If only it were that easy for the governor from Louisiana.

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