John Heilemann has the cover of New York this week—out today with a picture of the president on the front, phone pressed against his left ear, hands in pockets, eyes downcast to the cover line, “The Remaking of the President.” Inside, the article comes under something a little jazzier: “The West Wing, Season II.” Obama’s poll numbers are up, his new Chief of Staff is in, expect a lot of these more headlines.
As with most of these big narrative-shifters (or narrative shift-watchers; it’s hard to tell anymore), the best parts are not in the lay-of-the-land stuff—Obama is shifting to the center, realizing his failings, reaching out beyond his inner circle, and it all seems to be working. Heilemann’s is a thorough assemblage and synthesis of memes we’ve been reading about since summer 2009. But this kind of stuff can rise and dip quickly with the passing of a health care bill or the election of a new congress.
What’s best about this piece are the same parts that made The West Wing, seasons one through seven, so entertaining: the juicy tidbits Heilemann manages to squeeze out of his numerous contacts on Pennsylvania Avenue, and the glimpses he provides into their thoughts and operations.
How’s this, to emphasize the point that the Obama administration has, until recent appointments, been a far too insular operation. (Our emphasis.)
The more pointed variant of this critique was directed specifically at Obama. Unlike 42—who loved to stay up late, jabbing at the speed dial, spending countless hours gabbing with local pols and businesspeople around the country to gauge the political wind and weather—44 not only eschewed reaching out to governors, mayors, or CEOs, but he rarely consulted outside the tiny charmed circle surrounding him in the White House. “What you had was really three or four people running the entire government,” says the former White House strategist. “I thought they put a pretty good Cabinet together, but most of those guys might as well be in the witness-protection program.”
A funny line, no doubt, but an overstatement, surely? Well, maybe not. “I happen to know most of the Cabinet pretty well, and I get together with them individually for lunch,” says one of the most respected Democratic bigwigs in Washington. “I’ve had half a dozen Cabinet members say that in the first two years, they never had one call—not one call—from the president.”
Or this Martin-Sheen-staring-meaningfully-out-the-Oval-Office-window moment:
The midterms, however, slapped the president upside the head—and shattered his sense of complacency. “It is hard to describe how personally upset he was at some of the members we lost, how terribly he felt, especially about the ones that were in the tough districts who’d voted with him down the line,” says someone who knows Obama well. “It was a really tough time for him.”
And here’s a nice bit of insight into a president to whom loyalty matters. On the new chief of staff appointment:
Before offering the job to Daley, however, Obama—out of respect for his interim chief’s fealty and judgment—gave Rouse effective veto power over the decision. “If Pete had said ‘I want this job’ or ‘I think this is a big mistake,’ the president wouldn’t have done it,” a senior White House official says. But Rouse—as Obama must have intuited he would—professed no qualms. “I’m totally in support of this and comfortable with it,” he told the president.
Another joy of reading Heilemann is his creativity with anonymous sources. Forget “White House aid,” or “source close to X”—here’s a man who puts some effort into describing his secret ear-whisperers, and is careful not to repeat his choice monikers. Some favorites:
- “Democratic bigwig” (from above)
- “Obama adjutant”
- “someone who knows Obama well”
- “a Democrat who has Obama’s ear”
- “A-list player in a previous Democratic administration” (probably not Polk’s)
- “one of the grandees who met with Obama after the midterms”
Such colorfully named folks provide some tips for press types interested in what’s to become of press secretary Robert Gibbs:
“The president said, ‘What is our biggest void here?’ ” recalls another top adviser. “We don’t have a Begala and Carville out there. We’ve got nobody out there in D.C. on cable making our case. Who’s gonna do that? That’s not Axe’s thing—Robert’s that guy. He’s pugnacious, he’s good on TV, we need him out there. What I like to joke is, he’s a better-looking version of James Carville.”