Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's a Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on The Brian Lehrer Show, John Heilemann, national political columnist for New York Magazine, discusses his cover story this week on the rapid overhaul of Obama's Presidency.
President Barack Obama took the midterm losses personally. "It's hard to describe how personally upset he was at some o fhte members we lost, how terribly he felt," a close confident of Obama told John Heilemann. "It was a really tough time for him."
It also sped up some major shifts in the Obama White House that were already underway. There were the expected departures of Natinoal Economic Council Director Larry Summers and National Security Advisor Jim Jones among others. Then came the unexpected resignation of Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel after the Chicago mayor's seat opened up.
Interim Chief of Staff Pete Rouses immediately went to work to identify where the Obama administration had gone wrong in the first two years. Chief among them: Obama's insularity.
President Obama, for all of his strengths, one of his weaknesses, and one that the president really came to understand in a pretty profound way over the course of the period after the midterms, was that he is an insular guy. He is someone who has always relied on a tight circle of advisors, does not trust outsiders easily, does not give them access to him easily. And I think he started to realize that that had been a problem for him in the first two years.
As part of that effort, President Obama himself started scheduling one-on-one meetings with Washington "wise men," as Heilemann called them. Among those consulted were former President Bill Clinton, former Senate Majority leader Tom Daschle, former Chiefs of Staff John Podesta and Leon Panetta, former Clinton advisor Vernon Jordan, and perhaps most surprisingly, even Matthew Dowd, who ran the Bush-Cheney reelection campaign in 2004, Heilemann reported.
One of the things they were saying to him was you need to be less insular. Another thing they were saying is that he can get business done with Republican leadership. Talking to him about reclaiming the bully pulpit, to be less ubiquitous in the media culture, and how he could govern in an age of divided government by using exeuctive orders, by doing stuff that the executive can do unilaterally that doesn't require Congressional action, but can still advance his agenda on a number of fronts.
And when it came time to name the permanent replacement for Rahm Emanuel, Heilemann said Obama's "seminal choice" of Bill Daley showed that Obama had heard the criticism.
This was a choice between Pete Rouse, who was his interim Chief of Staff and a total insider, to Bill Daley, who is like one of the most well-wired people in American politics and American business. A guy who is going to bring with him a vast array of contacts outside Obama's inner circle....If he had chosen Pete Rouse, the building, the White House itself internally, there would have been universal acclaim. Everyone in the White House loves Pete Rouse. Bill Daley, nobody knows Bill Daley in the White House. And yet Obama decided he needed someone who would force him out of his comfort zone and bring in people because of his network of contacts, bring people into Obama's orbit who are not there already. It was a huge decision for Obama to make and really reflective of his views about these questions about insularity and the need to be less inbred going forward.
But Heilemann said all this retooling will not be part of the State of the Union speech on Tuesday, but it will be clear in his style. Gone will be the President Obama who got his hands dirty shepherding through health care legislation. Instead, Heilemann said Obama is trying to recapture the post-partisan, pragmatic platform that he ran on.
He's going to be wanting to talk very much about the long-term of the American economy....He's going to be talking, not about passing individual pieces of legislation over the next sixth months. This is not going to be a big policy rollout speech....The bigger picture here is Obama trying to sketch out a vision for the country economically...that goes twenty years down the road. That means coupling a new kind of fiscal discipline, which I think will appeal to Republicans, with a lot of investment...Talking about education, talkingg about innovation, talking about infrastructure — what do we need to do to build the American economy for hte future going forward. And those things are consistent with what Obama identified as weaknesses in the first two years.
Which leaves a crucial question hanging for this new Obama team to answer after this address: where is the line between "government investment" for the future and what's "government spending" that needs to be reigned in?