The public got only one glimpse of Barack Obama on Thursday, March 26 — the 66th day of his presidency, and the most intense so far in an administration that has been defined by its intensity.
The event was an online town hall designed to show the president as accessible, informed, in control.
The cable networks and other media — whose daily scorekeeping mentality and 24/7 obsessiveness is the subject of both scorn and fascination among President Obama’s equally obsessive political team members — covered it live. And both sides scored it a success.
Away from the cameras, a lot more was going on — a series of meetings that cast the casual, placid figure on display at the electronic town hall in a different light. The day showed a president and his team gasping for information and clarity amid a breakneck cascade of decisions.
On Obama’s schedule that single day: deciding whether to force the ouster of the head of General Motors and to put Chrysler on a death notice; fine-tuning a speech in which he would break with his vice president and dramatically increase the U.S. role in Afghanistan; preparing for his first European trip, during which he would call for the eradication of nuclear weapons; directing administration lawyers to ask a court for more time to decide whether to release top-secret memos on the torture of terror suspects; and monitoring congressional progress on a budget that would have him spending and borrowing more than any president in U.S. history.
“At the end of that day, that particular day,” White House senior adviser David Axelrod recalled, “I went back to my office and said, ‘That was a phenomenal day,’ when you think of everything that’s come his way.” Then his phone rang. It was chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.
“He said, ‘They just evacuated Fargo.’” Obama had pulled Emanuel to the side and wondered if, amid all the other chaos, he should go to flood-ravaged North Dakota to monitor the disaster firsthand. The last thing the president needed was his own Katrina. He and his aides quickly decided that phone calls to governors and mayors, and a Saturday YouTube address, would suffice.
“It was head-spinning,” Emanuel recalled of that day.
Differences Since the Inauguration
Obama’s first 100 days will end on Wednesday, April 29. Axelrod, echoing the sentiments of White House colleagues, belittled the milestone as a “Hallmark holiday” — a day that will get lots of attention but has no genuine significance.
They say it’s absurd to think that a 100-year recession, a banking collapse, two wars and global unease can be tamed in mere months. “We’ve got big, serious challenges, and we’re not going to eradicate them” that fast, Axelrod said.
Yet the Obama team also gets the game. His aides know the 100 Days measurement has been a journalistic conceit imposed on all presidents starting with FDR, a phenomenon of which this article is itself an example. We sat down with three of the president’s top aides who are always by his side — Axelrod, Emanuel and press secretary Robert Gibbs — to take stock of this strategy and the frenetic first months of the Obama administration.
The reality is that the 100 Days yardstick, even if arbitrary, works rather well for this president. Because of the plunge in the economy, Obama was confronted in his opening weeks with as many consequential domestic decisions in three months as some presidents face in four years. Because of his party’s big congressional victories, he has more power to assert his will in a short amount of time than many presidents ever get. And because of the epic reach of his own ambition, he has revealed more about his own leadership style and values sooner than might be expected from a typical president in typical times.
Simply put: A lot more is known about Obama and how his ascension would change Washington and change the country than was known at his Inauguration on Jan. 20.
Before Obama took office, many people assumed the “no-drama Obama” style that marked his campaign would not translate to the White House — especially with a roster of outsized characters such as Lawrence Summers and Hillary Clinton populating his administration.
But few of the generational or ideological rivalries of the early Clinton White House have surfaced. “We don’t allow something to bubble up and consume needlessly a lot of oxygen,” Emanuel said. “And I think the team has an esprit de corps. … Everybody knows they’re on the Obama team. … So as a person who is responsible for making sure the president’s culture or his value system got employed both in the staff and in the Cabinet, that has happened. And a lot of people said early on our challenge would be keeping all the egos in check. … We’re not done, but we haven’t had a fistfight, although … getting the budget and getting the Recovery Act passed were tough. But the divisions have not erupted. When you think back, ‘Oh, how do you keep so many big egos together?’ we’ve done that to date.”
Axelrod, Emanuel and Gibbs all went out of their way to emphasize the president’s intellectual curiosity and his penchant for prodding those on different sides of an issue to clash in his presence before he makes a final decision.
The dissenters are rarely described as holding dramatically different views than the boss. Take the recent decision to release the top-secret torture memos. The CIA was described as opposed to releasing anything short of heavily redacted documents. White House deputy chief of staff Mona Sutphen was pushing for heavier redaction from the beginning, too. Vice President Joe Biden wanted a more tempered approach to Afghanistan. And the Defense Department wanted more wiggle room on Iraq. But rarely do aides describe real policy tension in the early days of this White House.
There are other ways Obama looks much different than he did on Jan. 19. The obsession with race, the slurs about celebrity politics, the doubts about preparedness all seem dated now. Partly because of the rush of colossal events, this is a presidency at light speed that looks and feels remarkably mature, and with some of the huge question marks already settled.
The president retains — but doesn’t depend on — his global star power. He is like Nike: Kids still love him; foreigners still love him. Obama remains a powerful brand that commands constant media coverage, much of it fawning, and that moves markets.
But emphasis on personality and style obscures one of the biggest things that look different now than three months ago: the familiar categories that had classified Democrats for a generation. When Obama took office, a raft of stories talked about how he had relied heavily on Clinton veterans to staff the administration and how he seemed likely to govern with a “centrist” ideology.
Three months later, this seems absurd. The reality is that the size and speed of Obama’s agenda is as stark a departure from the defensive-minded incrementalism of Bill Clinton as it is from the conservatism of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.
His proposals for health care for all, easier student loans, restrictions on carbon emissions and unabashed income redistribution from the top to the lower and middle classes represent the most focused and far-reaching argument for activist government of any Democratic president for at least two generations.
Obama aides always insist the president is a pragmatist, not an ideologue. But this is disingenuous: What is ideology except an argument about the role of government? A more precise way of putting it is that Obama is bored by, or even contemptuous of, the debates between liberal “traditional Democrats” and centrist “New Democrats” that once consumed the party. The convergence of Obama’s agenda and the economic crisis has for the moment made both labels seem like relics.
Axelrod said that his boss isn’t “consumed by tactics or ideology” and that he cares deeply about reforming health care, lifting educational levels and being smarter about energy. “If in engaging in those, people want to call him a big-government liberal, he doesn’t care,” Axelrod said.
“Here’s the thing,” said Emanuel, who as a former top aide to Clinton has a better view than anyone of the difference between Clinton and Obama. “People today have a different view of what government should do and what they want — not because they have a renewed faith in it, but they’ve lost confidence in a lot of other things. That is really different than where we were, OK? … People want government to be an affirmative force. Under Clinton, you were trying to have a progressive vision when people did not have an affirmative view of the public sector.”
Consistency in Policies and Postures
If this has hit Washington as a surprise, Obama advisers rightly point out that it shouldn’t. Go back and read his 2007 speech announcing his candidacy for the White House, they say, and you’ll see that he vowed to do many of the things he has done during his first three months in office — or has promised to do before the close of this year.
Emanuel, whose manic congressional style has been tempered with the help of regular yoga sessions as he seeks to emulate his boss’s Zen, bragged: “I don’t want to go through accomplishments, because I feel like I’m just walking around with a punch card or running stuff through on the scanner.”
Bravado aside, there is an undeniable consistency to Obama’s policies and posture. The three men who have spent as much time with Obama as anyone during his first 100 days all speak with awe of a man who rarely loses his cool, always controls meetings and never shies away from momentous decisions. They describe him as the anti-Bush when it comes to around-the-clock work, detailing how he attended the bulk of a six-hour meeting on the banking bailout — on a Sunday.
Of course, it’s easier to walk briskly with a wind at your back, in the form of support from two-thirds of voters and nearly all of his own party in Congress. History suggests the winds will shift at least a few times before his party faces voters in 2010 and Obama himself does in 2012.
The next 100 days and the 100 after that will be as revelatory as the past 100. In particular, they will test Obama’s ability to deliver on big issues that are not tightly tethered to the economic crisis. Officials tell us Obama expects to sign into law this year tougher financial regulatory laws, a massive change to student loans and the education system, and a health care reform bill. In every case, his biggest fight could come from congressional Democrats whose instincts are to push even more than Obama thinks is doable in this political and fiscal environment.
In his spare time, he’s winding down the war in Iraq and ramping up the one in Afghanistan.
“It’s what he promised, and I think people are responding well to that,” Axelrod said. “Every single thing [we talk about] is completely consonant with what he talked about for two years” during the campaign. This message is echoed enough to suggest it’s the predicate for the 2012 reelection campaign.
What Obama didn’t make so clear on the 2008 campaign trail was that he would push to do all of these things so fast — and run up deficits that could easily shoot north of $1 trillion for many years to come.
Axelrod said he wished the press would better convey that everything Obama does fits together into a broader plan to fix the economy now and build a foundation for sustained growth later and do so in a way that allows more Americans to share in the prosperity he thinks will follow.
But Axelrod and the others want the public to focus only on the upside of swift action on so many fronts. There is a downside, too — and one freighted with dangers. Right now, these dangers are questions: Can the country sustain this level of spending? Will the bailout plans save the banks? Will the stimulus plan stimulate? Will the president’s laser-like focus on the economy allow other threats, namely terrorism or a rising China, to grow? Did he launch more policy changes than any administration can competently implement?
A bad answer for Obama on any of these could quickly change the public’s assessment of his big bet, especially because few Republicans are willing to back it.
The Obama advisers want the public to see the president as someone who genuinely works to win over these Republican critics. On this count, he is failing. A recent poll by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found that Obama is the most polarizing president in recent history when it comes to the number of Democrats and Republicans who like the job he’s doing. Recent polls, though, blame Republicans for an unwillingness to meet him halfway.
His numbers are probably worse on Capitol Hill. He didn’t get a single vote from House Republicans for the $3.5 trillion budget or the $787 billion stimulus plan. The truth is that Obama aides don’t really care if they win over Republicans, as long as the public sees the president as making a genuine attempt at it. In fact, some Obama officials think he’s better off with a standoff against an unpopular Republican Party. Either way, it’s clear Obama is putting less effort into winning over Republicans now than he did during his early days in office.
The Tally of a ‘Head-Spinning’ Day
These strands of the Obama leadership style — an outsized personality with an outsized substantive agenda — were all exposed on March 26, Emanuel’s “head-spinning” day. Obama had just one public event, the “Open for Questions” online town hall in the East Room.
Gibbs and the communication team delight in challenging the conventional ways of presidential communicating. In the president’s first news conference, they arranged for Sam Stein of the left-leaning Huffington Post to ask a question. Based on the mainstream reaction, “you would think we had invented the washing machine,” deputy press secretary Bill Burton recalled.
Ditto for the president’s decision to appear on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” a move that was criticized by some as demeaning to the White House. “I thought that it was the first time I felt like there was just a real misunderstanding about how to cover him and cover us,” Gibbs said.
Gibbs says many of the conventional methods of communicating are no longer applicable, including the notion that a president should focus on one big issue at a time so the public will focus on it, too. This was on full display on March 26.
Just before the town hall, at 10:45 a.m., Obama’s public schedule read: “THE PRESIDENT meets with senior advisors.” That was his auto industry task force, and he was supposed to sign off on decisions about the future of GM and Chrysler before the 11:30 a.m. town hall. It was a ludicrously short window, and the president made plain his unhappiness with the high-pressure deadline.
“‘I’m not going to do this in 30 minutes,’” Obama said, according to Gibbs. “We’re going to need to do this again at the end of the day.”
Obama wasn’t just listening as the auto guys gave their spiel. He ran the meeting, as he does many National Security Council meetings, a responsibility that Bush often handed off to his national security adviser. One of the president’s tactics is to call on the one person in the room who seems to be holding back, to make sure any objections are on the table.
On autos, Gibbs added, “the very easy decision — and I think probably the predicted decision — was, you know, give a little bit more money to GM, give a little bit more money to Chrysler — sort of continuously kind of kick these things down the road.”
In fact, advisers say, Obama never really considered giving the carmakers a lot more cash.
By the end of the day, the plan to oust GM’s CEO and raise the possibility of Chrysler going belly up was done; the speech for the next morning announcing the Afghanistan surge had gelled; preparations for the European trip were nearly complete; and the calls to lawmakers in flood-hit North Dakota were planned.
Emanuel, who knows Democratic impulses as well as anyone after years of observation from two White Houses and as a congressional leader, concluded our interview with a thought that would have seemed relevant on that day — and almost every day of this presidency.
“Don’t underestimate what happened here … don’t over-interpret what you’re allowed to do here,” he said. “Everybody’s got to conserve their political power, use their political power and know what you have and what you don’t have. … You’ve got to always monitor what you’ve got, how long that reach is before it snaps.”