Obama didn’t change Washington. But he did make change. Will that be enough?
By Ezra Klein,
Bill O'Leary The Washington Post
Wal-Mart? Best Buy? A hedge fund trying to unload Greek bonds?
Nope. That was the official Twitter account of President Barack Obama — excuse me, President @BarackObama. And it’s not the first time Obama’s 2012 campaign has sounded more like a commercial for Al’s Used Car Lot.
Last month, “Barack Obama” e-mailed me with the subject line “Last chance at dinner.” “Because you and I don’t have a lot of chances to have dinner together,” he — or, more accurately, a campaign staffer claiming to be him — wrote, “I hope you’ll take advantage of the one that’s coming up this fall.” Then he asked me to donate some money so I could be entered into a raffle to have dinner with him.
Another e-mail, again from Obama, carried the subject line, “If I don’t call you.” Again, the upshot was you could donate money to be entered into a dinner raffle. But as Garance Franke-Ruta noted at the Atlantic, the e-mail writers at the Obama campaign had taken one of the most distinctive voices in American politics and left him sounding like a plaintive boyfriend.
All of this is, of course, a fundraising effort. And it’s working. The Obama campaign has received donations from more than 1,000,000 individuals, and 98 percent of those donations were for $250 or less. Some of those donations, to be sure, are Obama schwag. When you buy a hat or a shirt, technically, you’re donating to the campaign, and the campaign is sending you a token of its thanks. But it’s hard to argue with the results: at this point in the 2008 race, the Obama campaign had fewer than 400,000 donors. “This is what a grassroots campaign looks like,” the campaign brags in an infographic celebrating the million-donor mark.
But there’s something tawdry about it. This isn’t transformational politics. This is, almost definitionally, transactional politics. You give me money for my campaign, I give you a beer koozie with Vice President Joe Biden’s face on it.
I asked the Obama campaign about that seeming disconnect, but didn’t get much back. “We don’t talk specifics about merchandise because we don’t talk specifics about fundraising in general,” Katie Hogan, the campaign’s deputy press secretary, told me.
In a sense, these e-mails and tweets — and the annoyed, exasperated reactions many of their supporters have had to them — perfectly encapsulate one of their biggest challenges going into 2012: resolving the yawning chasm between the sort of politics America wanted from the Obama campaign and the sort of politics, the Obama administration has found, work in Washington.
Obama’s 2008 campaign wasn’t really about health-care reform or stimulus bills or financial regulation or killing Osama bin Laden. All that was in there, of course. But it was really about something much more general, and perhaps because of that, much more appealing: change.
At the 2007 Jefferson-Jackson dinner, Obama delivered a speech that was decisive in his campaign’s victory in Iowa, and thus in his national victory. But the core of it wasn’t a policy agenda. It was, in a way, a procedural agenda. It was a promise about how Obama would do business more than about what business he would do.
“This party — the party of Jefferson and Jackson; of Roosevelt and Kennedy — has always made the biggest difference in the lives of the American people when we led, not by polls, but by principle; not by calculation, but by conviction; when we summoned the entire nation to a common purpose — a higher purpose,” Obama said. “And I run for the Presidency of the United States of America because that’s the party America needs us to be right now. A party that offers not just a difference in policies, but a difference in leadership.”
But President Obama soon found himself faced with a choice: change American politics, or change American policy. He chose changing American policy. The stimulus package passed amidst constant congressional horse trading, and ultimately required an 11th-hour deal that shaved $100 billion off the total and infuriated his supporters. He broke a campaign promise when he signed the 2009 budget, which was larded with earmarks. The crucial negotiations that led to health-care reform did not take place in front of C-SPAN’s cameras, as Obama had promised they would, and to secure the bill’s passage, the Democrats agreed to a special deal for Nebraska that quickly acquired the name, “the cornhusker kickback.”
And it wasn’t just the legislative process that proved stronger than Obama’s campaign promises. His election didn’t usher in a new post-partisan era. If anything, partisanship is stronger than ever. Nor did his administration fulfill its promise to lock lobbyists out of the halls of power. A number of ex-lobbyists got special permission to work in the Obama administration. Public confidence in Washington is at record lows, and for good reason. Three months ago, the United States of America almost defaulted on its debt. For no reason. That’s not change anyone would have believed in.
Some of this isn’t Obama’s fault. Bipartisanship requires a willing partner, and Obama’s partner, in this case, is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell — a man who said his “single most important goal” is to defeat Obama in 2012. But some of this is Obama’s fault. The White House calculated that changing policies was more important than changing Washington.
And ultimately, this election is going to turn on whether they can persuade the American people that that was the right decision. Obama has accomplished vastly more in his first term than any of his recent predecessors. He signed a near-universal health-reform bill into law, and overhauled the nation’s financial regulations. He passed a stimulus bill, and followed it up, in December 2010, with a set of massive tax cuts. He carried out the TARP program and conducted the stress tests that stabilized the financial system. He gave the order to kill Osama bin Laden and chose to provide air support to the insurgency that ousted Moammar Gaddafi.
He has brought, in other words, a lot of change. Perhaps not the change people thought they were getting. And perhaps it hasn’t looked the way they had hoped it would look. But, like his fundraising operation, he has been an effective president, even if his methods have not always been pretty. The question is whether that’ll be enough.