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.”
And for those interested in what’s to come from message man David Plouffe and the thinking behind a Chicago-based campaign operation, there’s this:
Many politicos believe that putting it there is lunacy; that no amount of geographical hocus-pocus can confer outsider status on an incumbent president; that the benefits of being outside the Beltway are vastly outweighed by the loss of proximity to the principal. But Plouffe avidly argues otherwise: that being in Chicago will enable the campaign to be in closer touch with ordinary voters, and also less prone to leaks or becoming suffused with conventional wisdom. Moreover, he is confident that the tightness of the Obama team is such that proximity matters little. “It isn’t like in 2008, Barack Obama was in our headquarters twice a week holding strategy meetings—he was out campaigning,” Plouffe says. “We made a lot of decisions by conference call, and, you know, it worked out okay.”
In keeping with the theme, Heilemann finishes his piece with something of a “Season Two” cliffhanger—though it’s one that for the most part avoids the most pressing “will they or won’t they?” question driving the current presidential drama: Will they or won’t they get the unemployment rate down?
Still, Heilemann’s “grandee” provides a nice kicker.
Nowhere in the Constitution is the spinning of yarns enumerated as a responsibility of the president of the United States. Yet the most successful of them in our recent history—Roosevelt, Reagan, Clinton—were all masters of the art. For a variety of reasons, Obama lost his storyteller’s touch, and also his connection to what made so many vest so much hope in him to begin with: his apparent capacity to lift the country up and calm it down at the same time. Has he figured out how to reclaim that brand of mojo? Not yet, not fully. But at least he understands he must, which is a start. “It’s kind of like with a 12-step program,” says the grandee. “Before you can begin fixing your life, you have to admit you have a problem.”
*Note: Headline originally read “Obama profile” without the WH, which might have been misleading.Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor. Tags: John Heilemann, New York, Obama, State of the Union, White House