It happened at the start of the first term, and they made the same mistakes at the start of the second.
Within weeks of entering the White House in 2009, President Obama and his inner circle capitulated in the message war against Republicans on jobs and the stimulus spending. They lost control of the narrative on health care for most of a year through its tortuous passage, and even after its signing into law.
At the start of their second term, it took a little longer for Obama’s team to lose control of communications: around three months, rather than three weeks. But the second time around, it was a sudden collapse rather than a slow, grinding disintegration. First they could not muster enough support to get gun control out of the Senate; then they were deluged with four controversies in quick succession: the continued dispute over the attack on Benghazi, the aggressive media investigation around national security leaks, the hostile IRS approach toward political groups seeking tax-free status, and revelations about the extent of online surveillance by the National Security Agency.
How could a team that was triumphant at messaging their way out of a bad economy find such smaller challenges so overwhelming?
The simple answer is that the White House team was not made up of the same people as the campaign. David Plouffe, the de facto campaign manager, left the West Wing at the start of the new term. His sidekick, Dan Pfeiffer, took his place as the first among equals of the senior advisers. But the rest of the team had little to do with the election messaging.
Indeed, there were no plum jobs offered to anyone senior from campaign headquarters in Chicago. In other campaigns, after previous elections, there were always senior positions found for the people who had toiled so hard to reelect the president. But for the Obama reelection campaign, there was no payoff in the new administration. A small handful of midlevel campaign officials, like polling director David Simas, found similarly midlevel jobs inside the new administration. “At the end of 2008, there was a long list of campaign staff landing administration jobs through the presidential appointment office. They made sure they looked after them,” said one senior campaign official. “Where is that list now? It never happened. They just moved on.”
Most moved on to create consultancies where they could make money from their experience on the Obama campaign. Whether or not they had ever worked on the digital or analytics side of Chicago’s operations, many marketed themselves as if they were instrumental in the more innovative side of the message. Stephanie Cutter survived the attempts to push her aside to set up a consulting firm with Teddy Goff, one of the leaders of the digital media team. Her abrasive nature found its natural home as one of the cohosts of the confrontational CNN talk show Crossfire. David Axelrod cemented his position as an elder statesman of messaging by founding the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago, and by sitting down to write his memoirs. Jim Messina joined the speaking circuit and became head of Organizing for Action, a long-shot effort to turn the campaign’s database of donors and supporters into an activist group across the nation. Larry Grisolano repurposed his ad-buying strategy into a business model for a new data-driven firm called Analytics Media Group. Robert Gibbs joined with Ben LaBolt to start the Incite Agency, a communications firm that promised to deploy the strategies behind “one of the most successful startups in history.” In public, they all professed to have respected one another and enjoyed the triumph of reelecting the president. In private, their emotions remained raw and far more complicated. The campaign disputes continued to gnaw at them, as rivals claimed credit for each other’s work and their careers developed at different paces.
Inside the White House, the senior officials kept their jobs whether or not they were washed out. In fact, the ex-aides, who had either left or been pushed out previously, were regularly brought in for advice. As the IRS story dragged on, and House Republicans threatened long investigations, Obama’s fifth chief of staff Denis McDonough convened two groups of outside advisers to help shape their message strategy. One group included Clinton-era aides, like Paul Begala and Mike McCurry, whose advice amounted to ridiculing the small scale of these so-called scandals. Compared to the suicide of the deputy White House counsel, fraud charges against an associate attorney general, or a presidential affair with an intern, the Obama White House was barely in trouble. The rumors, intrigue, and investigations that surrounded the stories of Vince Foster, Web Hubbell, and Monica Lewinsky engulfed much of the Clinton era. What Obama’s team faced would have been treated like a minor road bump in the 1990s.
The second group included Obama aides who had barely left: David Plouffe himself, Robert Gibbs, Anita Dunn, and Stephanie Cutter. Their advice was to release information quickly, return to the economic and middle-class agenda of the election, and to get out of Washington as much as possible. “We spent less time talking about the IRS and more time strategizing about the stuff that is dominating the public conversation right now, which is the economy, improving education, and preparing the workforce for the twenty-first century,” said Gibbs. Their advice elicited a great ho-hum from the West Wing: with all the experience gathered in the room, they managed to come up with no fresh ideas. Besides, the president’s approval ratings had barely moved since his election, hovering at or slightly under 50 points.
All four stories—the IRS, the leak investigations, Benghazi, and the NSA— involved agencies that, by their very nature, were either hard to discuss or impossible to control. The independence of the IRS was codified into law after Watergate; the Justice Department’s investigations were strictly secret until filed in court; and the Benghazi attacks involved CIA officers and a CIA safe house. The real challenge facing the White House was how they handled the message around those stories. Did they know about the IRS overreach earlier than they initially suggested? Did the attorney general know about the aggressive nature of the investigation into journalists’ work? Did they minimize the role of terrorists in Benghazi in their public statements ahead of the election? Three stories were metascandals: disputes about the message—and what it said about transparency and credibility—rather than underlying wrongdoing by the president’s aides. The fourth sparked a genuine policy debate about transparency itself: there was simply no communications solution to the secret efforts to monitor all communications across the globe.
For White House officials, there could not have been any greater contrast to the campaign, where the so-called events of an election were manufactured and preplanned. Everything was in public view in an election, and the message was supported by hundreds of millions of dollars of advertising.
Could they have reacted any better, or faster, once the stories emerged? “You want to be fast, but it’s not worth the ten or twelve-hour jump you would get on the news cycle, if you’re going to be wrong or you do something that gets you into bigger trouble,” said Jennifer Palmieri, the White House communications director who also served in the Clinton White House at the depth of its scandals. “One of the things people don’t appreciate about the IRS story is: yes, this was flagged up and people knew it had the potential to be really bad. But we get lots of warnings like this, with Inspector General reports. When you hear the IG side of it, they may have a theory that sounds pretty spectacular. But when the report comes back, you often find there’s nothing to it.”
The White House waited for the IG report before it took action against the leadership of the IRS, but the wait—in today’s Twitter-timed news cycle—seemed like an eternity to the media. The following Sunday, Pfeiffer took to all five talk shows for the first time to explain their approach. He tripped up at least once, telling ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that “the law is irrelevant” because the administration would take action regardless. He meant that the question about the law was irrelevant, but the sound bite further enraged the already angry cohort of conservative commentators.
Events were unpredictable, but presidents were less so. Even before his second inauguration, President Obama chose to invest his considerable political capital in an issue on which he had never campaigned nor commented on at any length: gun control. After the massacre of elementary schoolchildren in Newtown, Connecticut, in mid-December, the president took the executive decision to throw everything behind reasonable gun laws to restrict some semiautomatic guns and large-capacity magazines of bullets. Obama’s aides knew they had a less than 50 percent chance of getting a successful vote out of the Senate, but they were ordered to try anyway. “There honestly wasn’t a ton of analysis that went into the decision,” said Palmieri. “The president really wanted to do it. We all thought it was either important to get it done or get caught trying. This is a time when getting caught trying is fine.”
They justified the narrow defeat in the Senate—they were five votes short of breaking the filibuster on expanded background checks, and two votes short on gun trafficking—by blaming the terrorist attack in Boston. The pressure cooker bombs and the ensuing manhunt sucked up the nation’s attention and the media’s focus just two days before the gun control votes. “We were building momentum, and the bombing took attention away,” said a senior White House official. President Bush suffered the same fate when he tried and failed to reform Social Security in the first year of his second term: he was struggling before Hurricane Katrina made landfall, and Social Security reform never recovered afterward. His much vaunted political capital was spent. Much like his predecessor, the problem for the newly elected President Obama was that the gun control failure and the three pseudoscandals left the impression that he was a weak and ineffective leader. Maureen Dowd at the New York Times infuriated the West Wing by writing a column that chided Obama for failing to twist arms or schmooze senators. She yearned for a leader like President Andrew Shepherd of Aaron Sorkin’s 1995 movie "The American President," starring Michael Douglas. Obama’s aides believed the gun control debate was immune to arm-twisting and schmoozing. Besides, they had tried the strategy in health-care reform and it had backfired badly: voters who did not understand the legislation were very clear in disapproving of sweetheart deals to buy a lawmaker’s affection. The White House felt the most powerful message came from the Newtown families themselves: if senators were prepared to ignore them, they were prepared to ignore anybody.
This kind of passive fatalism was common in the first term, as well as the start of the second. Obama’s team felt they faced issues—in the recession and gun control—which they could not message their way out of. That was not their approach during the campaigns of 2008 and 2012, when they confronted huge personal and political challenges, including a struggling economy that threatened to overwhelm them. When faced with an apparently insurmountable obstacle, they sought to redefine the opposition and the nature of the obstacle. They did not give up the fight at the thought of high unemployment; instead they ran against an economic system that hurt the middle class, and redefined their opponent as part of the problem.
The message team could make that play when millions of voters were the ones to decide on the merits of the debate. Inside Washington, the Obama White House was much more leery of redefining the opposition in the kind of caricatures used against Romney. There were only one hundred voters they cared about, and all of them were United States senators.
However, this was the same trap they fell into with health-care reform. By playing an insider’s game, they could not afford to alienate anyone who might be a gettable vote in the Senate. Public events were powerful, but they did not translate into effective pressure on individual senators. The grassroots remnant of the Obama campaign—Organizing for Action—proved far less potent that the grassroots campaign of the National Rifle Association.
Playing an outsider’s game would have required different staffers, a greater focus on a single message—backed by real ad dollars—and a swarming response to the other side. Instead, Obama returned to the White House after the election to his old team, slightly reshuffled. The tough offense and the ad dollars were in the hands of outside groups, like Michael Bloomberg’s Mayors against Illegal Guns. In that sense, with a reliance on outsider messaging, Obama’s White House looked more like the Romney campaign than his own.
Obama’s single most effective aide in political strategy and messaging was David Plouffe, and he left the White House as the new term began, to pick up private-sector consultancies and rejoin the speaking circuit. Plouffe was so effective at controlling the message that the president had to keep secret his farewell remarks at an event to announce his new chief of staff. “I had to hide this in the end of my remarks because I knew he wouldn’t want me to bring it up. So we had some Secret Squirrel stuff going on here to avoid him thinking that we were going to talk about him,” Obama said in the East Room of the White House. “But as many of you know, David has been with me from the very start of this enterprise running for president. I can’t tell you how lucky I have been to have him manage our campaign back in 2008, then join the White House during these very challenging last two years. He’s built a well-deserved reputation as being a numbers genius and a pretty tough combatant when it comes to politics. But what people don’t always realize—because he doesn’t like to show it—is the reason he does this stuff is because he cares deeply about people. And he cares about justice, and he cares about making sure that everybody gets a shot in life. And those values have motivated him to do incredible things, and were it not for him, we would not have been as effective a White House and I probably wouldn’t be here.”
Plouffe was a great asset to the president, but he wasn’t flawless. His decision to base the campaign in Chicago, while effectively running the campaign from the West Wing, was questionable. Obama’s inner circle insists it allowed the campaign to maintain its focus on the grass roots and to ignore the Beltway conventional wisdom on messaging. But the field operation would have stayed focused on its metrics, regardless of location. And the message team was stuck in a quagmire of infighting and suspected conspiracies, not least because Plouffe was out of view. Some of these tensions would have also knotted themselves into being at a DC headquarters: there were inevitable overlaps between a campaign and a White House, designed to stay separate under election laws. And some Obama aides believed a Washington headquarters would have suffered even more from internal rivalries than Chicago did. Still, Plouffe’s absence—like that of the president—left a vacuum that others filled poorly. There was no way for the campaign staffers to bring their election spirit to a new term, because those staffers were essentially frozen out of the biggest decisions during the election itself. Besides, many of them were dispatched to the campaign precisely because they were already frozen out of the administration’s decision making in previous jobs.
That dynamic underscores the cliquish nature of Obama’s presidency. Despite his confidence on stage, Obama has governed with a very small circle of decision-making aides, and his circle barely expanded through his first term in office to take in a handful of Clinton-era aides. His new chief of staff, Denis McDonough, was one of his original Senate staffers in 2005, alongside his senior adviser and former chief of staff, Pete Rouse. Another senior adviser, Valerie Jarrett, had hired Michelle Obama into Chicago city government and been a personal friend to both Obamas for several years. And the fourth senior adviser, Dan Pfeiffer, was a relative newcomer, having joined the first Obama campaign in early 2007.
Real outsiders fared badly inside Obama’s West Wing. Bill Daley, the president’s second chief of staff, never fit in and was considered hopeless and lost by Obama’s aides. The first director of communications, Ellen Moran (who was previously executive director of Emily’s List), lasted barely three months. His first chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, was a known factor from Chicago. But Emanuel’s Clintonesque, calculating, and tactical style epitomized the inside-Washington mentality that Obama’s closest advisers felt was a betrayal of the campaign spirit of 2008.
Unlike the Bush administration, Obama’s White House did not suffer from deep policy splits between doves and hawks, or moderates and their ideological rivals. Their rivalries were personal and spiritual: whether they truly believed in the ethos of 2008, or whether they preferred the realpolitik of the Washington system. The outsiders were ironically seen as the ones who didn’t comprehend the outsider’s nature of the Obama brand.
Such contradictions were part of the warp and woof of Obama himself: a newcomer who promised to upend the status quo but seemed all too ready to live within its conventions and limitations. Inside the White House, he never resolved those tensions, especially if they involved the personal conflicts on his political team. He centralized decision making around himself and his inner circle, but his decisions were often painfully slow in coming. He erred on the safe side of big decisions for too long before edging into the risk-filled choices that presented themselves inside the Oval Office. Whether it was his decision to arm the rebel forces in Syria or to support same-sex marriage, Obama was a constant source of frustration and mystification for his supporters inside and outside the administration. On Capitol Hill, even Democratic members complained that his absence and coldness left them struggling to understand his motives and his management style: if they didn’t love him or fear him, why should they take a bullet for him? They were unclear about where he was headed, so they focused on the lack of personal outreach. But the reality was that personal contact left them no clearer about his true identity and purpose.
There were two rare exceptions to the notion that outsiders could not thrive inside the White House: Obama’s previous chief of staff, Jack Lew; and White House press secretary Jay Carney. Both were low-key, pragmatic, and effective at executing their given mission. They stayed inside their lanes and the status quo, which helped them to fit in to an often fractious team. But that low-key style did little to challenge an often-complacent commander in chief, who was quick to resent outside criticism and felt perennially misunderstood and underestimated by the political class that sat in judgment of him.
From the book "The Message: The Reselling of President Obama." Copyright (c) 2013 by Richard Wolffe, Inc. Reprinted by permission of Twelve/Hachette Book Group, New York, NY. All rights reserved.