Pfeiffer is well aware of the widespread criticism that his communications shop did a lousy job of pitching Obama’s accomplishments during his first term, but he argued that the Recovery Act was tough to hawk as the country hemorrhaged jobs and that health-care reform “has bedeviled every president and political operative who has tried to sell it.” His new role requires him to come out front and do the selling.
Many of the reporters who have received mocking 4 a.m. nastygrams and abrasive phone calls from Pfeiffer over the years relished his May debut on all five Sunday morning talk shows. It was not a command performance. His clenched jaw and clumsy construction that “the law is irrelevant” in the IRS scandal is now featured in a reelection ad for the administration’s arch nemesis, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
Perhaps chastened, the new-media obsessive and Twitter theorist allowed that Washington’s old guard “can be very relevant.”
Pfeiffer is considerably more comfortable advising Obama behind the scenes. Plouffe called him the “gut-check person” who could tell the president “how it is going to play.” White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said that after a background-check
provision for gun purchases died in the Senate, Pfeiffer urged the president to show his disgust with the system, which Obama then did in a Rose Garden speech. McDonough said that Pfeiffer understood, months before members of the national security team, that the president’s reliance on drones could blemish his legacy. Pfeiffer advocated for a speech, which Obama delivered late last month, in which the president would clearly articulate the framework of presidential powers within which the drones were employed. And Jennifer Palmieri, Pfeiffer’s successor as communications director, said he stepped up for the party’s base by fighting for a lower threshold for tax increases in the “fiscal cliff” negotiations.
Pfeiffer said his communications experience has made him more mindful above all of projecting the president’s strength. The 2011 debt-ceiling negotiations, he said, showed him the importance of Obama not being perceived as weak or taking the base for granted.
“The greatest danger zone a president can be in is when he is being attacked on the left and the right,” Pfeiffer said, recalling the negative reaction to the debt deal. “When they are reading off the same talking points, that’s when presidencies fall apart.”
That is, of course, precisely the situation Obama is in again, as civil liberties advocates on both ends of the political spectrum criticize his aggressive surveillance programs. Some people who have worked with Pfeiffer questioned whether he is up to the task, describing him as more a daily planner than a long-term strategist. Others with knowledge of the administration’s inner workings find the characterization of Pfeiffer as the base’s champion in the budget deliberations exaggerated and said he played no role in frequent White House discussions on gun policy strategy.