Ghosts of Christmas Past, Future, and a Parallel Universe

Weird and wacky weigh-ins on Obama’s job so far

As the surprisingly active lame duck session draws to a close and the president’s third year in office draws to a start, a handful of pundits are filling out their presidential report cards. Once again, the Beltway consensus seems to have turned, and the president has bounced up from the death bed in which we were told he had settled, ready to ride a second wind into his next semester.

This is the headline of the Los Angeles Times’s assessment, at least. In “Obama has strong first-half finish,” Tribune Washington bureau staffers Paul West, Christi Parsons, and Lisa Mascaro offer a mixed review of the president’s first two years—but one that suggests a recent “storm of activity of impressive, even historic, dimensions” will be looked back upon favorably. Especially in relation to what’s to come:

Obama has two years left to persuade Americans that his approach of compromise and consensus-building is assertive enough to revive the economy and the flagging fortunes of the Democrats.

Arrayed before him will soon be a far more conservative Congress and a continuing slow-motion economic recovery that will likely hang over his head for the next two years.

Mostly, the Times piece is about looking back and defining the president’s job and image to date—a Ghost of Christmas Past type deal—except unlike Scrooge’s night time visitors, the writers don’t go far beyond the past two to three weeks.

Still, the year-end victories have gone a long way toward reshaping the image of a president who seemed isolated and out of touch only a month ago after an enormous midterm election defeat.

Obama now looks like a dealmaker who can reach across party lines to get things done and, perhaps, make progress that Americans found lacking when they went to the polls.

Also here:

By working closely with Republican leaders over the last few weeks, Obama appears engaged and involved in a way he didn’t before. Along the way, he’s helped himself with portions of his base and given independent swing voters a reason to take a fresh look.

And here:

Opinion surveys show that voters across the political spectrum give the tax deal high marks, which will let Obama do something else he was unable to do before: associate himself with a highly popular initiative.

Still, the Times writers offer a nuanced take on the president and the challenges to come for him. Though they only seem to have talked to those on the president’s team for direct reporting for the piece, and pulled quotes from the vice president’s Sunday Meet the Press visit, the reporters remind readers that current Obama resurgence narratives are complicated by the failure of Congress to pass the Dream Act, and, above all, the continuing limpness of the so-called recovery.

But if the tax deal succeeds in boosting the nation’s tepid economic growth rate next year, as some forecasters predict, the public’s pessimistic mood could brighten and lift Obama’s reelection prospects along with it, said veteran Democratic strategist Bill Carrick.

“That is the most important political dynamic going into 2012,” he said, “that people think the economy is turning around.”

Unsurprisingly, the economy makes less of an appearance in Politico’s big presidential midterm think piece, “President Obama 2.0: Becoming a ‘CEO’ of America.” Written by John F. Harris and James Hohmann, it’s a Christmas Future deal whose title tells you everything: light on substance, heavy on cute wording and quotes from Clinton-era folks—the CEO comment comes courtesy of former Clinton White House Chief of Staff John Podesta. It comes early in the piece:

“He needs to be CEO of America,” said former Clinton White House chief of staff John Podesta, an Obama sympathizer who ran his transition to power after the 2008 election and is now urging him to dramatically refashion his presidency.

The West Wing makeover, as Podesta and others see it, would involve Obama no longer “being Velcroed to the Hill” and giving more attention to powers of the presidency that don’t involve signing bills into law.

From there out, the writers speak to “numerous veterans of previous White Houses and other experts” about the “urgent need to reinvient his [Obama’s] presidency” by “discarding the Congress-focused strategy of the first two years and coming up with new and more creative ways to exercise power.” The five pithy bullet point headers the president can use to achieve such a 2.0 transformation are: “Grow the White House staff—by 2 million people,” a figure representing the number of folks who work for the executive branch; “Draw new lines—with new ideas”; “Co-opt the opposition”; “Be leader of the country—not just the government”; and, get your “Wheels up,” going overseas for photo ops where you look respected and revered. Or, more briefly: “Become Bill Clinton.”

When they’re not talking to former Clinton staffer Podesta, Harris and Hohmann are drawing from the examples of 42’s eight years for advice. How do you get all two million staffmembers working for you? Well…

Former president Bill Clinton, who similarly had to abandon a legislative approach after Democrats were bounced from power in 1994, was the most creative president in the modern era at using the powers of the executive branch in legitimate ways that nonetheless expressly served his own political ends as he prepared for reelection in 1996.

Clinton issued an executive order to turn 1.7 million acres in Utah into the Grand Staircase of the Escalante National Monument, a far-reaching move that thrilled environmentalists. He announced the move not in Utah, but in Arizona, a swing state. During his reelection campaign in his second White House term, Clinton set up a de facto think tank run by senior adviser Tom Freedman, who scoured the executive branch for ideas that the president could embrace and make his own.

How might you co-opt the opposition, exactly?

One way to do that, some presidential observers suggest, is by appointing a prominent Republican — ideally someone with high-level business experience — to a top position in his administration. Another common way to do that is rhetorically, which was the idea behind Clinton’s 1996 State of the Union address when he announced, “The era of Big Government is over.”

Liberals will chafe at such steps. But the idea is to co-opt the opposition — not to capitulate to it. Clinton made that statement as a tactical move to advance his larger strategy, which was to preserve Medicare and Social Security and expand government into new areas.

And how does one lead the country and not just the government?

After the 1994 elections put his own relevance in doubt, Clinton spent much of the balance of his six years talking about things like school prayer, local education and television sex and violence. All these things were — at least under conventional presidential powers — only tangentially within his purview. But nontraditional powers can have results. The Welfare to Work Foundation that Clinton started in 1996 at the recommendation of Freedman and the late Eli Segal after signing welfare reform into law encouraged private corporations to hire millions of people off welfare rolls.

Guess who thinks Obama needs to do something similar…

“President Obama has a similar opportunity: to be the one who explains, who articulates what that common ground really is, securing the place where I think most Americans, especially the independents, want him to be … while preserving and protecting as much as he wants to around his core agenda,” said Don Baer, a top adviser to Clinton during that period.

Yes, Politico’s ghost of Christmas Future looks a lot like a certain red-faced, white-haired Arkansan. But we’re not surprised. By definition, political media narratives, even those we write for stories yet to come, are derived from the past, as if each political moment and the people who shape it are but reincarnations of problems and persons who have come before. The president’s in a Clintonian mess—despite the vast polling and economic data that would suggest that’s too broad—and he must take Clintonian steps to get out of it. (We doubt the president himself much likes this vision of his future; a point Politico acknowledges.)

Still, the president is likely to prefer Politico’s take to what’s being offered at the Daily Beast. There, in what is surely the year’s most mirthless slice of attempted comedy—Adam Sandler flick Grown Ups included—“White House survivor” Matt Latimer plays the Ghost of Christmas Sideways with a satirical look at where we’d be in late 2010 had John McCain and Sarah Palin pulled off a surprise win in 2008. The gist is that Obama, leaning over the Truman balcony, is visited by a guardian angel—“call it Obama’s Wonderful Life” Latimer suggests (to the sound of crickets)—who shows him, through a Keith Olbermann broadcast on number one cable news channel MSNBC (tumbleweed), what life would be like without him. Sarah Palin has just quit before serving out her term, to be replaced by the Governor of Guam (guffaw), and McCain has just flip-flopped on tax cuts.

The point seems twofold. First, to be a kind of rib-tickling satire for the Beltway set. To that end, you will enjoy it if you enjoy this excerpt:

”More WikiLeaks controversy today after top-secret documents revealed that U.S. Secretary of State Joe the Plumber once stunned Saudi Arabia’s Prince Bandar by telling him during a meeting that quote, ‘I learned so much about your country from watching ‘M*A*S*H.’ Secretary Plumber responded to the story by saying he misspoke. He actually had been thinking of ‘Hogan’s Heroes.’


Second, that the president is solely responsible for whatever success the GOP is enjoying in the real universe, because, in the parallel one, they’re running some kind of bizarre (and hilarious!) kamikaze administration without his help.

You aren’t looking at the big picture,” the angel replies. “Think of all the dreams you have realized for those unfortunate Republicans. All the chances you’ve given them that they never would have had on their own. Why, without you, John Boehner would be a contestant on the Celebrity Apprentice by now.”

“You’re right,” a smiling Obama replies. “My presidency is helping some people.”

“Yes, it is. Because of you, every time a bell rings another Republican is effortlessly winning political office, whether he deserves it or not.”

Imagine: an alternative universe in which this piece was never written.

We will be watching this space as more report cards are handed in.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.