Like most DC political people, I read the recent flurry of articles/posts about the palace intrigue at the White House with interest. These kinds of pieces about a struggling president are as predictable as the sun coming up in the east and the Washington area being shut down by a snowstorm. But at the end of the day, who's up and down at the White House is not what matters. Only two things matter in terms of the success of Barack Obama's presidency:
- Will the economy create enough jobs so that American workers feel that real progress is being made economically?
- Will the American people feel that Obama has had a decent measure of success in changing Washington's track record at failure on the big challenges facing us and failure to curb the power of the big special interests?
Obama's sagging numbers, and the twin electoral cancers that brought down Democratic statewide candidates in VA, NJ and MA -- working-class voters turning against us and base voting Democrats not turning out to vote -- are both tied directly to the lack of progress on these two things. It was no surprise at all that Democracy Corps found in its research about the State of the Union speech that the only big place the president lost people was when he tried to take credit for an economy turning around -- they just aren't feeling it yet. And the polling of base voters who didn't turn out shows that they are disappointed (a) with the economy and (b) that the special interests still seem to be running Washington.
Like all Democratic presidents in my lifetime, President Obama has done some things well, and been disappointing in others. I continue to credit him for taking on big challenges like health care, financial reform, and climate change. But for me, the most troubling thing about Obama has been that even as he has tried to take on big issues, he hasn't seemed to have grasped the need to go beyond the conventional wisdom of the Washington establishment in terms of how to get them done. He pushed through a good stimulus bill, but accepted in advance the advice of those who said it didn't need to be bigger. He listened to the establishment economists who said we just shore up the big banks first and blithely counseled him that jobs were a lagging indicator, and he accepted it. He listened to advisers who told him that the only way to get legislation passed was to cut deals with industry lobbyists. He listened to political advisers who consistently counseled him that the base could be ignored while he courted the "middle" (which in DC is not defined as actual (mostly working class) swing voters but as powerful corporate lobbyists). He allowed administration progressives like Van Jones and Greg Craig to be thrown to the wolves.
It doesn't matter who is top in the administration inner circle if Obama's core governing style is to accept what traditional neo-classical economists and conventional wisdom advisers say. What Obama has to do is to embrace the change he promised to represent, to break out of the prison of the CW establishment and special interest lobbyists. He does it sometimes - like taking on the banks regarding student loans and embracing bolder financial regulations in recent weeks, or pushing back against conservative Democrats who wanted to give up on health care reform when Scott Brown won. But he has to embrace the bigger, bolder change in everything if he's going to fix our broken economy and broken government.
Does that mean shaking up his White House staff, replacing Rahm as Chief of Staff? I don't know, maybe. Rahm has become a dominant COS for an inexperienced president, and he certainly is a creature of CW Washington. While Bill Clinton, whose lack of discipline and disdain for orderly flow chart type of operations meant that he talked and listened to everybody under the sun and took ideas from all over, Obama's sense of order and discipline has meant that Rahm dominates the decision-making process in a way that none of Clinton's Chiefs of Staff did. Maybe that process needs to be broken up. But if Obama brings in someone with the same mindset as Rahm, and keeps to the same top down closed circle, listens only to a few perspectives all of the same inside-DC worldview, replacing Rahm doesn't change anything.
President Obama needs to be the change he ran on. I don't really care who is up or down on his staff as long as he understands that he needs to break out of the DC conventional wisdom that says it's okay for jobs to be a lagging indicator, and it's okay to accept special interests rather than challenge them. When he challenges the establishment, he is at his best. When he pushes back boldly against the usual Washington BS, he wins the hearts of both swing and base voters. Let's hope that he chooses to do it more, not less.
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