The new approach comes after weeks of internal White House debate over a single question: What went wrong in 2013? The answers will help determine the outline of the State of the Union address Obama will deliver Tuesday evening, as well as how he pursues a meaningful legacy in the remainder of his term.
Last year began with the fresh-start ambitions of his second inauguration but ended in a long trail of mistakes, international embarrassments and missed legislative opportunities that sapped Obama’s credibility with the public.
Senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer outlined the lessons learned in a three-page memo that Obama discussed with his Cabinet in recent weeks, according to several administration officials who have read the document.
Among its conclusions is that Obama, a former state legislator and U.S. senator, too often governed more like a prime minister than a president. In a parliamentary system, a prime minister is elected by lawmakers and thus beholden to them in ways a president is not.
As a result, Washington veterans have been brought into the West Wing to emphasize an executive style of governing that aims to sidestep Congress more often. A central ambition of Obama’s presidency — to change the way Washington works — has effectively been discarded as a distraction in a time of hardening partisanship.
The White House postmortem also concluded that the administration suffered from a lack of focus in a year without an election. The 2012 campaign imposed discipline on the White House, providing a political filter to assess every new initiative. Obama wanted to know how his decisions would be explained to voters, a demand that vanished once the election was won.
As a result, senior advisers now say, the White House’s focus did not match its ambitions as 2013 began.
A bid for new restrictions on gun sales died in the Democratic-controlled Senate. Immigration reform, thought to be a priority for Republicans after their poor showing with Latinos in the last election, languished. A late-arriving budget proposal that included cuts to entitlement programs surprised and angered Obama’s base.
Even some of Obama’s closest advisers acknowledged that he sometimes appeared distant in meetings before the disastrous health-care rollout in the fall. The biggest national security leak in U.S. history, the first successful terrorist bombing in the United States since Sept. 11, 2001, and a worsening war in Syria piled more time-consuming issues onto a cluttered agenda.
By the end of the year, a majority of Americans questioned his administration’s basic competence. Now without an election ahead, Obama has fewer opportunities to recover — making this State of the Union address as politically consequential as any speech in his tenure.
“A State of the Union creates a contract with the public about what you say and what you will do,” said John D. Podesta, a senior adviser to Obama brought in this month to help design an effective governing strategy around the president’s goals.
“In that sense it is like a campaign, and it disciplines the priorities of the White House by creating an operation manual for the year ahead,” he said. “It is certainly in that spirit we are approaching this year’s State of the Union.”
Prime Minister Obama?
Before Obama answered questions in December from the White House press corps during the traditional year-end news conference, he personally wrote portions of his opening remarks, hoping to put a positive cast on the past year and the one ahead.
“I firmly believe that 2014 can be a breakthrough year for America,” he said. “We all know there’s a lot more that we’re going to have to do to restore opportunity and broad-based growth for every American. And that’s going to require some action.”
Afterward, Obama departed to Hawaii for nearly three weeks of golf, family time and thinking about how to correct the course of his presidency. Others on his senior staff did the same.
Pfeiffer, who has served in the administration from the start, returned to the West Wing a week before Obama. He had read a few presidential histories over the holiday and had taken heart in some of the lessons — and perspectives — offered by the travails of recent presidents.
Unsolicited, Pfeiffer wrote his three-page memo to Denis McDonough, another veteran Obama adviser named chief of staff at the start of the second term. Facing a divided Congress, the memo said, Obama’s legislative record should not be used as the primary measure of his success.
The assessment concluded that Obama and his communications team allowed his fifth year to be judged too much by his dealings with Congress, which were poor.
A conservative Republican faction killed his gun-control proposals — joined by some Democratic senators — and eventually shut down the government for 16 days. “We still didn’t know enough about the Republicans,” said one senior administration official, who like others interviewed for this article spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the internal assessments.
A second senior administration official said, “The problem for us is that the test of our success became what we passed in Congress, and even in the best case — if the fever had broken and the clouds had parted — we still would have only gotten maybe 40 percent of what we wanted.”
“The political discussion, the press, the politicians want to pull the president into the role of prime minister,” the second official added. “So you have to swerve really hard to the executive powers at a time like this.”
That point was more a reminder than a novel assessment. After Obama’s second inaugural address last January, Podesta, then head of the Center for American Progress, the administration’s off-campus think tank, said Obama “no longer feels to me like a prime minister.”
“He now understands the full range of the power of the presidency to get things done,” Podesta said at the time.
Now in the West Wing for a year-long stint as senior adviser, Podesta acknowledged that he was brought in partly to make that early prediction a reality.
He said that too often the story of Obama’s past year was dominated by his dealings with Capitol Hill, whether it was his early series of dinners courting lawmakers, the gun legislation defeat or a shutdown that the administration did not expect to actually happen.
“Looking at the last year from outside, a lot of it was the president in battle with a dysfunctional Congress,” Podesta said. “Our task is to remember that [Sen.] Harry Reid is the majority leader, not the president,” and allow him to manage Democratic priorities in the Senate.
This year, for once, began without a looming fiscal crisis. A budget agreement that replaces some of the money cut by the sequester has been passed, including White House priorities such as early-childhood education. Senior advisers say the deal may bode well for other modest legislative successes to come.
Senior advisers also say Obama intends to work with Congress to secure an immigration bill, believing that the Republicans are willing to cooperate to improve relations with Latino voters. It could well be the last measure of legacy-building scale that Obama will be able to get.
The rest of the administration’s legislative wish list consists mostly of bills that once would have passed with little debate or measures with growing bipartisan support. A farm bill, patent legislation, a federal minimum-wage hike and a transportation bill are areas where Obama’s advisers believe a partnership with Congress can produce modest results, even in a midterm election year.
To better manage the relationship, Obama has brought back Phil Schiliro, his chief congressional liaison during the first two years of his presidency, and promoted Katie Beirne Fallon, who has extensive experience on Capitol Hill, to run the legislative affairs office. The White House political office has also been revived after three years of dormancy, with senior adviser David Simas promoted to run it.
“The president is always reminding us that this isn’t the worst that partisanship has been, and you always have to be pushing because you never know when something will break,” said the first senior administration official. “Progress is three yards and a cloud of dust — that’s how it is for us in this environment.”
The ‘outside game’
At the start of the second term, Obama and his advisers outlined a strategy for success that relied on smart management of Congress inside Washington and applying pressure to Congress from outside Washington through presidential speeches and travel.
The president, his advisers said, would play the “inside game” and the “outside game.” The internal White House assessment of the past year, however, has concluded that Obama should now see the “outside game” as an end in itself.
The buzzwords this year are “the pen and the phone” — the West Wing terms for executive action and presidential effort to promote ideas on the economy, education and social mobility at the state and local levels.
“Engaging the public on how to improve our communities is a very important feature of the modern presidency,” said Podesta, a veteran of the Clinton administration.
Since the start of the year, Podesta and Pfeiffer have held regular meetings in the West Wing to begin charting out how Obama should use his pen and phone in the coming year. Podesta said executive actions will include work to execute the Climate Action Plan, a government-wide blueprint announced last year for addressing global warming.
Senior advisers say Obama will also travel outside Washington frequently. The effort will include urging businesses to hire the long-term unemployed, working with university presidents to promote skills training adapted to the demands of the changing economy, and identifying problems such as violence against women and girls, as he did this past week, as priorities for society to address.
McDonough and others are also trying to knock down some of the walls within the administration that have often kept advisers and Cabinet secretaries limited to narrowly defined areas of expertise.
Advisers and allies outside the government have long complained that the Obama White House makes policy in a political vacuum. The president prefers his advisers to “stay in their lanes” — that is, offer counsel only in their area of expertise — and prefers to put the pieces together himself. But the practice has led to confusion and, at times, poor execution.
The deeply flawed health-care rollout, for example, was identified by Obama as a case in which he was not receiving candid reports about problems and made promises on the eve of the Web site’s unveiling that turned out to be embarrassingly untrue.
Buying health insurance on the federal exchange never turned out to be as easy as “shopping for a plane ticket on Kayak,” as Obama promised.
“I think he was asking the right questions, but he wasn’t getting the right answers,” Podesta said. “And we have to debug that process at the management level.”
McDonough has begun meeting with small “clusters” of Cabinet secretaries, attempting to bring them into the policymaking and execution process much more directly.
The idea, Podesta said, is to “get more throw weight” behind these ideas. The intent is to address criticism from allies and critics alike that the White House has failed to follow through on some of Obama’s biggest policy ideas, from the Muslim outreach initiative that began in 2009 with Obama’s speech in Cairo to the health-care implementation last year.
The Cabinet clusters are chosen around issues. A job skills training group would include Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. Other clusters work on climate change and energy issues.
As a third senior adviser said, “The idea is to bring all of the government alive in a way we have never been very good at.”
Running out of time
The clock has begun running in reverse on the Obama presidency, ticking back from Inauguration Day 2017.
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Obama will end the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan at the end of the year, concluding America’s longest war. Negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program are underway — precarious but continuing. Israelis and Palestinians are talking, though no final peace settlement is in sight.
The economy also continues to improve. But Obama has not stopped warning that the gap between rich and poor in the United States is threatening the nation’s long-term economic prospects, a reminder he will deliver again Tuesday to a prime-time audience.
Climate change, immigration reform, Wall Street financial regulations and implementation of his namesake health-care law remain unfinished.
In his memo, according to people who have read it, Pfeiffer noted that because a modern presidency is often tugged by unexpected events, it is all the more important for the Obama administration to better manage events within its control.
The health-care rollout stands as chief among the items the administration controlled but failed to successfully carry out.
“The end of the year,” Podesta said, “focused everyone’s attention on execution.”
After discussing it with senior staffers, Obama hit some of the highlights of Pfeiffer’s memo in a Jan. 14 meeting with the Cabinet, his first of the year.
“One of the things that I’ll be emphasizing in this meeting is the fact that we are not just going to be waiting for legislation in order to make sure that we’re providing Americans the kind of help that they need,” Obama told reporters before the session began. “I’ve got a pen, and I’ve got a phone.”
Senior administration officials have been meeting with think-tank experts, administration alumni, Democratic strategists and others before the State of the Union — an outreach described by White House officials as more intensive than in the past. “After five years,” said one adviser, “it’s good to get some fresh eyes on the target.”
With only two State of the Union addresses after this one, Obama’s target is increasingly history. This year will help decide how he is remembered — from new policies to ones in place that have yet to be fully executed.
“We’ll be doing that as aggressively as possible,” said the first senior administration official, “and if we succeed, that is a big presidency.”
Karen Tumulty contributed to this report.