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Zack Exley Headshot

Rahm, His Critics, and the American People

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A storyline is solidifying around the topic of the administration's failure to lead. One great example is Steve Clemons' post yesterday on Edward Luce's big White House article. Through Luce's piece, a swarm of angry critics of the Rahm Administration, voice their (anonymous) concerns. It's Rahm vs. a range of complaints about what he, and the inner circle he coordinates, are doing wrong. But none of the critics, as they are presented in the article, or the others like Clemons now piling on, have hit the nail on the head.

Most of the criticisms fall roughly into two categories: Rahm & Co. are alienating their most important allies, which is stupid politics; and they are running the White House like a campaign, jumping from crisis to crisis and losing the forest in the trees -- leading to the final diagnosis: "The Obama White House is geared for campaigning rather than governing."

The Rahm administration, however, has always lacked the most important quality of the Obama campaign: It has never, not even for a minute, had a big, clear, inspiring mission. If it had one, then running the administration as though it were a campaign would be the right thing to do; as would be alienating some allies who oppose the mission. Instead, the administrations' muddled agenda centers on industry-approved health care reform (which has again been turned out to be an impossible DLC dream), Wall Street bailouts and scattershot stimulus that few Americans are feeling.

But the criticisms in the Luce article and elsewhere expose the true problem: Policy and political strategy in American politics have been completely divorced from one another. The political strategists who ran Obama's campaign allowed him -- or maybe it was just that kid Jon Favreau? -- to run on a big, clear, inspiring mission: "A nation healed. A world repaired. An America that believes again." Note: I didn't say detailed, just big and inspiring! But after the victory, like Garibaldi they took their applause and walked into the sunset (or OFA). In fact, they had to: because, according to the caste system of American politics they knew about the romance of campaigning, but not the realpolitik of governing.

The American people, like people everywhere, are hopeful. They gave Obama a chance to make good on such big words as "hope" and "change" in office. But then the policy wonks took over. Big, clear policies worth fighting for were unthinkable for these particular people, because they see industry and Wall Street as more important than the American people. To be fair, most of them are just trying to be realistic, not malicious: they would prefer to stand up for the American people, but industry and Wall Street are simply more powerful and must be appeased.

Therefore, neither "Medicare for Everyone," nor a direct bailout for tens of millions of Americans who were victimized by Wall Street were ever a possibility. But in ruling out those kinds of pro-people policies, the administration deactivated the American people. The massive grassroots organization that propelled Obama to victory seemed to evaporate into thin air in the months after the election. For the campaigners, separated by a both intellectual and bureaucratic walls from the policy, it was as though someone somewhere had flipped a switch that turned off the American people. In fact, people in another building had simply taken away what the people had been fighting for.

The miracle of the Obama campaign was that political strategists who believed in the American people enough to present them with a big vision were in charge--or at least had enough control to make a difference. One of the criticisms in the Luce piece is that the administration is jumping, like a campaign, from one crisis to the next. But think back to how the campaign dealt with one of its most telling crises. Obama's "race speech," delivered in an attempt to get out from under a mountain of Jeremiah Wright headlines, assumed the best about America, and flowed from the same big, inspiring frame as everything else in the campaign. It talked up to America, not down. It was deep, complex and 45 minutes long. And it worked: It drew America closer to Obama, and it pushed the "Obama Hates Whitey" storyline to the margins of the campaign. In one sign of its appeal, the YouTube video of the full ad was second in view count only to one of Obama dancing on the Ellen Degeneres Show.

In other words, not only did the campaign call America to an overarching big, inspiring mission (countless variations on the themes of "A nation healed. A world repaired. An America that believes again.") but it responded to daily crises from that same frame.

The Rahm Administration is failing because it believes that the Obama Campaign's big, inspiring message was in fact hippy BS. Unfortunately, most of Rahm's beltway critics agree with him on that score. What the Luce article mainly shows is merely that they are unhappy with the way they've been treated, or that they have some technical issues with the way the White House has been operating.

The fringes of the Progressive movement contain a different kind of critic, a new generation of campaigner-visionaries who believe in the big ideas of the Obama campaign, and who are waiting for a chance to make them real in a future administration. Will Obama reboot his White House to include them? Or will their time come only in 2016, or later? Here's a suggestion: let's keep our fingers crossed about the present, but let's start spending a little more of our time planning explicitly for 2016. That may sound far off and therefore like a cop out, but it's exactly that kind of planning, and nothing less, that put the country in the hands of these "New Democrats."