The Political Transformation Of Barack Obama


There are two indisputable facts about politics.

The first is that every modern president in the fourth year of his presidency resorts to the cheap political stunts, broken promises and truth-fudging it takes to win reelection in what has been and will be a 50-50 nation. The reason is simple: Politics is not clean-living; it’s survival.

The second is that Barack Obama, for all his talk of moving beyond conventional political tricks, is doing just that, which wouldn’t be so glaring had it not been for his incessant call for a newer, cleaner and more transparent paradigm for American politics.

So much for the high road: Victory is more important than purity.

It’s debatable whether Obama is more crudely political than George W. Bush or Bill Clinton orRonald Reagan. But what’s transpired over the past several weeks isn’t debatable: He’s made a series of calculated, overtly political gestures that are far more transactional than transformational.

Here’s just a sample:

Sucking up to Wall Street — again

The president better hope those Occupy Wall Street voters don’t read Bloomberg News. Hans Nichols, who covers Obama for Bloomberg, has a richly reported piece that Obama’s most important advisers are privately pleading with the same Wall Street titans they vilify to help fund their reelection campaign.

Jim Messina, one of the president’s top political advisers, met privately with financial services industry executives — big banks, money managers — and promised them Obama will not demonize Wall Street as his reelection efforts unfold. Not demonize Wall Street? Hasn’t that been a consistent theme of the Obama presidency?

Messina provided big donors with a private briefing at the members-only Core Club in Manhattan, a nice perk for the rich and powerful.

Let’s not be naive. All politicians hit up the people who have money for money. But in the middle of a political campaign that pits the rich against the rest of America, the optics are not great for the White House.

This is classic dual messaging: For the 99 percent, Obama is playing up his attacks on Wall Street, especially the Dodd-Frank bill.

For the 1 percenters, there’s a different message, as Ron Suskind reported in his book on Obama’s economic team. “I’m not out there to go after you,” the president reportedly told Wall Street titans, not long after allowing Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner to quietly kill a plan to stop bonuses for bailed-out bankers. “I’m protecting you. But if I’m going to shield you from public and congressional anger, you have to give me something to work with on these issues of compensation.”

A super flip-flop

Obama needs the millionaires in the financial services industry to buy his go-easy-on-you-guys spin because they can cut limitless checks to super PACs.

Super PACSs are the newest way for rich people to influence elections. Obama was vehemently opposed to them, calling them a “threat to our democracy.” That vehemence was heartfelt and consistent — until Monday night, when it wasn’t.

To understand how big a flip-flop this actually represents, rewind the tape to 2007, when Obama discussed his opposition to outside groups taking and spending unlimited funds in campaigns. “You can’t say yesterday you don’t believe in them and today, you are having three-quarters of a million dollars being spent for you. You can’t just talk the talk. The easiest thing in the world is to talk about change during election time. Everybody talks about change during election time. You have got to look at how they will act when it’s not convenient, when it’s hard. And the one thing I’m proud of is my track record is strong on this and I’ve walked the walk.”

He’s not only not walking the walk — he has green-lighted White House officials to walk right into super PAC fundraisers and speak, while others hit donors up for as much money as they can cough up or even charge for admission. The explanation is simple to anyone who was a kid or has one now: Hey, everyone’s doing it. This is risky business. White House officials will be appealing to donors for super PACs that are legally prohibited from coordinating in any share or form with the president’s reelection efforts. Again, everyone’s doing it. So, to hear Obama’s aides tell it, the president is all-in, too, by necessity.

A little secret about Washington: Everyone loves this decision. Democrats get more money, strategists and pollsters and ad-makers get bigger checks; Republicans will use this to call Obama a hypocrite and to scare donors into giving them more money, which in turns means more money for their strategists, pollsters and ad-makers; and the media make more money as all of this is funneled into TV and Web ads. Incestuous, isn’t it?

There is some danger for Obama of a public backlash. But everyone in Washington — with the exception of the good souls at the Center for American Politics and Citizenship, Sunlight Foundation and a few other do-gooders — lives by the creed that no one wins or loses elections on campaign fundraising as a political issue. Just ask John McCain — who is wholeheartedly backing Mitt Romney, the candidate whose record-breaking super PAC fundraising is trashing the legacy of the overturned McCain-Feingold law.


Feingold isn’t nearly as forgiving of Obama: “It is a dumb approach. … It will lead to scandal, and there are going to be a lot of people having corrupt conversations about huge amounts of money,” the Wisconsin Democrat told The Huffington Post after Obama flopped.

“Part of his political identity is someone who’s not of Washington,” said a Democratic strategist who supports Obama. “So the consequences for his brand, if actions look political or craven, are exponentially worse than they would be for most politicians.”

The State of the Union is … very political

No one accuses Obama of playing small ball quite as cynically as Bill Clinton did — no school uniforms this year, thanks. But Obama’s January speech to the country was more like a slam dunk contest than a blueprint for sober governance, with no-miss poll-tested proposals that won’t translate into points on the board unless Democrats win super-majorities in both houses, and even then maybe not.

Take the so-called “Buffett Rule,” which seems to have been introduced for the sole purpose of getting Republicans to reject it. It won’t appear on the House floor but it will be a mainstay in Democratic campaign ads. Some of ’em might even be bankrolled by super PACs.

The plan to levy a 30 percent tax on billionaires makes the GOP look bad, and it makes Romney — who paid 15 percent on his earnings — look even worse. But the tax revenue it raises would barely make a dent in deficits.

Another one: Obama proposed to pay for a new infrastructure program by offsetting the costs with savings from ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Again, this isn’t likely to pass, but Obama gets 1) credit for offering up a funding source, albeit one that has been criticized as a gimmick; 2) props for ending two unpopular wars; and 3) Republicans to shoot down a jobs program.

Then there’s housing. The White House and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development have proposed a series of fixes for the crisis, the black hole of the U.S. economy, that have thus far proven to be ineffectual or ill-conceived. Obama’s latest proposal — to offer lower interest rates to 3.5 million homeowners struggling to pay mortgages — earned praise for its audacity, even if there’s no hope of passage.

A senior aide to a Senate Republican dismissed criticism, leveled publicly by other GOP-ers, that Obama’s something-for-everybody speech late last month was a boring, laundry list-y dud.

“It was brilliant,” the staffer said, admiringly. “Nothing in it, with a few exceptions, will see the light of the day. But that wasn’t the point. It was this great list of stuff the base wants, pitched in a way that dares the GOP to buck public opinion.”

Does that make Obama a cynic? Isn’t it a president’s job to lay out his vision for the country, to dare small-minded lawmakers to aspire and to give voters a meaningful template for the future?

Maybe. But timing is everything in politics.

And Obama’s progressive backers were clamoring for this kind of boldness in 2010 and 2011, only to get the bum’s rush. Instead, he heeded the political lessons of the 2010 midterms, embraced deficit reduction and saved the base-tickling talk for an election year when his name is on the ballot.

Jamming the pipeline

Never has Obama more angered an essential part of his political coalition than when he decided last year to punt on stricter ozone regulations — without even alerting Lisa Jackson, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, until the decision had been made. Environmentalists were apoplectic.

So when it came time last month to pick between environmentalists and supporters of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would move oil and jobs through a key part of the country, Obama had no choice but to go green.

He wanted to punt until after the election, but Republicans forced a decision. Presidents face these political jams all the time. Like it or not, they often choose the path of least political resistance. So Obama did.

To recap: The president had the chance to bring significant oil into the United States from Canada, rather than Middle Eastern petro-dictators or Venezuela, and create some U.S. jobs. Environmentalists opposed the pipeline, partly because the Canadian oil is extracted from tar sands and partly because of concerns about the construction of the pipeline.

Joe Nocera, writing in The New York Times on Tuesday, probably nailed it on the head. “I realize that President Obama rejected Keystone because, politically, he had no choice,” he wrote in his column titled, “Poisoned Politics of Keystone XL.”

“My guess is that, in his centrist heart of hearts, the president wanted to approve it. But to give the go-ahead before the election was to risk losing the support of the environmentalists who make up an important part of his base.”

The contraception conundrum

The administration’s decision to require Catholic hospitals and universities to provide workers free contraceptive coverage seems on its surface to buck the trend of this story — a principled protection of reproductive rights that risks sparking a culture war with white independents, the critical swing-voter bloc.

But even if you accept the premise that Obama’s original decision was apolitical — and conservatives don’t, accusing him of kowtowing to women’s groups — the president’s advisers are scrambling to defuse an endless stream of attacks from church officials, presidential hopefuls and House Speaker John Boehner, who cast it as an assault on religious liberty.

And that, at the very least, makes the administration appear to be playing politics with a sensitive personal and religious issue.

Amid the administration’s ongoing cleanup effort, one Democratic operative allied with the Obama campaign said the president will still get credit for the original decision, “a political winner with women voters who will decide the election.”

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