Can Obama Reboot? Does he even want to?
By GLENN THRUSH and CARRIE BUDOFF BROWN
Politico Magazine/November 02/14
Brack Obama is antsy. His aides can see it when he alights from Air Force One from the all-too-occasional campaign trips he has taken this fall. There’s a sigh, an unhappy-camper body language when he finds himself back in the depressing slipstream of Ebola confabs and national-security-crisis-of-the-day meetings. The vibe, according to people in his orbit, is not so much of being checked out as of being fed up.
“[I] do like campaigning. … It’s fun,” Obama said on Thursday, speaking wistfully at a rally for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike Michaud in Maine. But the Michaud event was the exception, not the rule. “There have been $2 billion in ads shitting on the president and no one to defend him,” a senior administration official told us. “He is very fired up to get this campaign behind him, to run through the tape.”
Obama, for so long the man with the bright future, has hated being relegated to a sidelined pariah in the midterms—even if it is the inevitable lot of a second-termer with approval ratings hovering in the low 40s—according to a dozen current and former Obama advisers we spoke with in recent days. He both resents the narrative that he’s basically irrelevant and doesn’t much relish the fact that many of his longest-serving staffers, the remnant core of his once-buzzing and brash White House, are strapping themselves to ejector seats. More than anything, Obama’s loathing for Washington, an attitude that reads as ennui to outsiders, has hardened into a sullen resignation at being trapped in a broken system he failed to change, advisers told us.
“I sense a certain fatalism there, and it’s disturbing,” says a former adviser on Obama’s campaign who, like many others we talked with for this story, requested anonymity. “There’s a sense that ‘I’ve tried everything, and look where it got me.’ People misread it as disengagement. It’s frustration. But who cares? It’s a bad mind-set.” Another Obama veteran adds, “the bully pulpit is gone, maybe forever.”
Administration officials tell us that Obama’s political and policy teams are planning a big counterattack if the Republicans win the Senate—introducing a slate of legislative proposals and executive actions on immigration, infrastructure and early childhood education that are popular with the Democratic base and that he will dare the GOP to oppose. Time and history, however, aren’t on his side. The six-month period between Election Day and next summer is likely the last chance for Obama to make his mark before the 2016 presidential campaign to succeed him really kicks into high gear. But the implacable opposition of a GOP that has turned him into his party’s albatross and his own hard-to-pin-down state of mind cast doubt on a major comeback.
Many are convinced he has already given up, more or less. “He appears tired,” says Sen. Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican and one of the few in his party who sees himself as a potential dealmaker in a GOP-controlled Senate. “It is almost as if he is wishing for a six-year term instead of an eight-year term,” added Corker, who would ascend to the chairmanship of the Foreign Relations Committee if Republicans win the chamber. “But if he can get motivated and reenergized, I think this is a tremendous opportunity for the country.”
Obama and his team, gearing up for one final fight, say they are intent on not throwing away the next two-plus years. West Wing officials concede that Obama is weary of the endless partisan combat and the unrelenting six-year GOP strategy of attack, but they insist he has absolutely no intention of embracing his inner lame duck. “I’m not sitting here blithely telling you we are as awesome as we can be,” said one of Obama’s top aides, laughing at his own understatement. “We’ve done a lot of good things this year but not as many as I would have liked. … We know we’re in for a shit storm if we lose the Senate. You have to gird yourself mentally ’cause you are going to come out on the other end.
“But,” the official added, with a glint of actual optimism, “you hit bottom, and then you have the Obama comeback story.”
It’s hard to see that comeback just now, what with Obama’s slow-footed responses to an array of crises and forehead-slapping lapses like his decision to play 18 holes of golf after issuing a statement condemning the American journalist James Foley’s decapitation by Islamic State militants in August. Circumstance and the innate power of the presidency could provide Obama with unanticipated opportunities, but even his closest friends are fretting about Obama’s willingness to make the changes necessary.
You know it’s bad when Obama message man emeritus David Axelrod, who almost never utters a negative word about his former boss, was publicly lamenting to Bloomberg Businessweek last month, “There’s no doubt that there’s a theatrical nature to the presidency that he resists. … Sometimes he can be negligent in the symbolism.”
Glenn Thrush is senior staff writer at Politico Magazine.
Carrie Budoff Brown is senior White House reporter at Politico.