The White House is re-opening its political office after three years of dormancy. The question is why -- and why now.
In early 2011, the White House took the unusual step of shuttering the office -- and its 15 employees -- as President Obama formally ramped up his reelection campaign. Patrick Gaspard, who was the last political director before the operation ended, went on to become the executive director at the Democratic National Committee and, eventually, the United States Ambassador to South Africa. The new operation will be run by David Simas, who coordinated the polling operation in Obama's reelection race and has been serving as a senior advisor to the President on communications and strategy for the past year. It is expected to have 5 people, a slimmed-down version of what Gaspard oversaw.
The White House has said little publicly of the move, which was announced on Friday. President Obama, in a statement detailing a number of personnel moves, said that the public would be "greatly served by the talent and dedication"of Simas. Eric Schultz, a White House spokesman, offered this slightly broader take today: "The new Office of Political Strategy and Outreach will coordinate the White House’s existing political strategy and outreach activities. This office will serve as a single point of contact for the [Democratic National Committee] and national, state and local political groups."
Unanswered is why the White House got rid of the political department in the first place and, relatedly, why they decided to bring it back now. Let's take the first question, well, first.
The political shop within the White House has become increasingly controversial in recent years, scapegoated for the alleged over-politicization of all things in Washington. (We would argue politics has always walked hand and hand with policy, just like campaigning and governing go hand and hand but that's another blog post.) During the tail end of George W. Bush's presidency -- exacerbated by the politicizing of the U.S. Attorneys positions -- politicians in both parties were insisting that the White House should be a place walled off from political considerations. (As the New York Times' Mike Shear notes, John McCain said he would close the office during the 2008 campaign.)
Obama seemed to bow to that sentiment -- and to a desire to consolidate all political decision-making for his campaign in his Chicago headquarters -- when he closed the office in January 2011. But, ever since that moment, it has been a point of contention between the White House and downballot Democrats. Closing the political shop did little to hurt the Obama campaign -- there was a massive political operation being built in Chicago for his reelection -- but left many Congressional Democrats feeling abandoned, lacking a formal apparatus in the White House to oversee the broad political agenda of the party, not to mention handle the logistics of presidential campaign appearances and the like.
"The decision to close [the political office] was all about reelection -- the fact that our political center was moving, but also prevent anyone from accusing politics out of White House," explained Stephanie Cutter, a senior campaign aide and now co-host of CNN's "CrossFire". "What's being created now is not same as it was -- mostly about incoming requests...and getting them through process."
Aside from serving as a sort of central repository for political requests, it's hard to imagine that the political office won't also serve to placate Democrats nervous about running on the ballot this November laden by a president and a health care law viewed unfavorably by a majority of the country. There is -- at least in some quarters of the Democratic party -- a you-got-us-into-this- now-you-can-get-us-out feeling that re-opening the political office is aimed at sating. And, while Obama appears set to pursue a Congress-can-come-along-for-the-ride-if-it-wants strategy the White House is not unaware that a Congress entirely controlled by Republicans after the 2014 midterms will make any attempt to cement a legacy that much more complicated (if not entirely impossible).
It remains to be seen how broadly -- if at all broadly -- the re-imagined political operation will view its mission. At the moment, it's an attempt by the Obama White House to show its Congressional allies -- and other downballot Democrats across the country -- that they are not alone, that the White House is here (or there) to help. The proof will be in the political capital; how much does President Obama have left and what (if any) is he willing to spend on trying to save endangered Democrats this November?