On January 23rd, President Barack Obama had a reminder to those rebellious Hill Republicans who questioned his plan for the country: “I won.”
Ten days, one fouled up stimulus package (the first major legislation of his administration, and only 38% of Americans support it), one nasty Rachel Maddow rant, two dozen lobbyist appointments, and two withdrawn nominations later (bringing the total to three), he had something new to say: “I screwed up.”
Some of these early stumbles are the fault of vetting snafus or mistakes by low level staffers — but in this case, more of it is the fault of the president himself. President Obama misjudged the American populace, and saw the level of bipartisan sentiment on the Hill where he simply expected it to be, rather than what it is.
The loss of Tom Daschle, the most public failure yet of the new administration, is the loss of an enormously powerful personality. Most Washington supporters of free market health care were terrified of tangling with the man, known for his ruthless approach to policy issues and his skills in moving the Senate to his will. It was a foregone conclusion in some corners that Daschle would be the second most significant cabinet member after Hillary Clinton in shaping the social changes Obama intends to enshrine into law. What’s more, while Obama’s own health care proposals were fairly moderate during the campaign, Daschle had all the signs of a cabinet member poised to pull his department to the left of the president, effectively and with significant results for the country.
Daschle’s fall came rapidly, surprisingly so given his stature. Consider that his tax problems weren’t hidden from the vetters or scoured from the trash bin by a Republican operative. Everyone in Washington knew that Daschle was the sort to accept these kind of perks in his time outside of the Senate, and one only needed to look at his speaker’s fees and his wife’s lobbying work to know that this would be an issue he would have to answer for. The New York Times, perceptive for once in its life, acknowledged in its editorial calling for Daschle to withdraw today that he represents the typical Washington game for an ex-politician. None of this should have surprised anyone.
Yet it did. Perhaps it is because so many of Daschle’s people are in Obama’s inner circle. When Daschle announced in 2006 that he would not run for president, he essentially handed over all his major staff to the fledgling Obama campaign – including Pete Rouse, Robert Gibbs (now Obama’s press secretary), Steve Hildebrand, Anita Dunn, Todd Webster, and others. As staffers with loyalties and past relationships with Daschle, these campaign veterans are exactly the kind of political staffers inclined to gloss over the faults of the figures they serve.
On Thursday, it seemed that Daschle would endure some difficult questioning, but ultimately the deference of the Senate for one of its own would seal the deal, and he’d be confirmed by a Geithner-like margin at the worst. On Tuesday, he was gone.
It was a shocking result. But Jake Tapper makes a point that mattered more than some of the older members of the Senate might like to admit:
One third of the Senate took office after former Sen. Tom Daschle, D-SD, was defeated for re-election in 2004. While that doesn’t mean that a third of the Senate was automatically opposed to him — far from it — it does mean many of them didn’t know him, didn’t feel any allegiance to him, didn’t owe him anything.
So how does Obama move past this? His roster of potential replacements for HHS, with the exception of Leon Panetta, is unimpressive at best (Howard Dean? Not bloody likely). But there’s more going on here than just health policy reform, which without Daschle’s firm hand, may now have to be pushed until after the midterms. Obama must personally adopt a fundamental shift in perception to avoid another “I screwed up” of this magnitude.
The President must recognize that his “I won” declaration has the potential to be remembered as an audacious declaration of an exaggerated mandate – his own “Mission Accomplished” moment. He must realize that he came to office with two constituencies making up his largest portion of support — constituencies not defined by race, education, wealth, or youth, but intent. Even before his inauguration, some worried the Honeymoon had ended. How could it last with such differences in expectations?
For his first constituency, Obama’s election is and always was the primary goal. His success is their success, or by extension, their vindication. They did not particularly care what kind of president he will be. They only care that he is president, an event worth celebrating to the tune of $150 million. They declare “America we are one” despite the polls on issues or differences, because that is what they believe. Their political mission was accomplished the moment he finished the oath of office.
For his second constituency, Obama’s election marked the possibility of a powerful new push for progressivism — some of them old school supporters of big government, but many of them members of “a new crowd of idealistic young political worker bees, who actually believe they can change the world.”
It would bring the country into nationalized health care (which Obama only partially endorsed), heavy regulation of the marketplace (which Obama only tenuously endorsed), anti-Global Warming measures (which Obama only said should be considered), card check for unions (which Obama is now backing away from), the closing of Gitmo (which is already proving more difficult than expected), expanded embryonic stem cell funding (which Obama has said he will wait on and defer to Congress), same sex marriage endorsed from the federal level (which Obama always opposed outright), and a completely altered approach to foreign policy and Iraq (on which Robert Gates and David Petraeus may already have changed Obama’s mind) – all in all, a laundry list of vast sweeping social change.
Which constituency is Obama more likely to disappoint? He cannot disappoint the former. He can only disappoint the latter. And if these early missteps continue, he will.
The selection of Daschle in the first place is the sort designed to please those worker bees and smart young liberal wonks like Ezra Klein. The selection of Republican Judd Gregg, a true fiscal conservative, to run the Commerce Department is the kind of choice that Obama can make that a progressive president who owed more to the second constituency could not. The decision he now faces on HHS allows him the opportunity to make an equally centrist choice – as the progressives clamor for Panetta or Dean, Obama could choose to reach across the aisle. Marc Ambinder’s suggestion of Mitt Romney as Health Care Czar may be a bit much — but it’s worth noting that Romney’s Massachusetts plan more closely resembles Obama’s stated policy goals than any of the more liberal candidates.
Yes, this decision risks hurting the electoral mandate the new administration received. But it’s noteworthy that of the seven significant actions Obama has taken thus far, only two are not supported by the American people – the Gitmo closing and the Mexico City policy reversal, otherwise known as the two steps that are closest to the hearts of his more politically liberal supporters.
This young Commander in Chief has to come to grips with the fact that his presidency cannot be all things to all people. This isn’t the campaign season any more — those words you say really matter now. If he’s going to get back to being “No Drama Obama,” it’s going to be because he starts ignoring the Maddows of the world and gets down to the business of making the best choices for America. This typically means governing from the center, not aiming to please a small, vocal political constituency that is impossible to keep happy for more than one news cycle, and is already soured on their progressive president for his selection of an experienced, qualified cabinet that is, for the most part, the Clinton Years Redux.
During the campaign, Obama showed a high degree of willingness to throw people under the bus when they become too much of a drag on the advancement of his agenda — which may not earn you loyalty points with your campaign volunteers, but helps bar against the kind of cronyism and bias that typifies traditional Washington politics. We’ll see if he has the stomach to do this. Sometimes you have to hurt the ones you love.