Photographs: Clockwise from top left: Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post/Getty Images; Newscom; Michael Kovac/WireImage; Yuri Gripas/AFP/Getty Images; Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg/Getty Images; Scott Olson/Getty ImagesSee the Administration's Ins and Outs, Above
The rebooting of Obama began in earnest right after Labor Day, when Pete Rouse began work on his biennial review of his boss’s operation. At 64, Rouse has been at Obama’s side since 2004, when he became the senator-elect’s chief of staff. Methodical and low-key, Rouse liked to say there were two ways to get things done inside an organization: whack-a-mole or moving boxes. So committed was he to the latter, systematic approach that Obama’s younger staffers taped a sign to his door that read CHIEF OF BOX MOVING.
By this past September, both Obama and Rouse, by then serving as one of his senior advisers, were aware that the White House was out of sorts and that some carton-shifting was in order—and that the impending exodus of National Economic Council head Larry Summers, National Security Adviser Jim Jones, and others created an opening for an overhaul. What they did not anticipate was that just as Rouse was getting down to business, Chicago mayor Richard Daley would announce that he wasn’t seeking reelection, which meant Emanuel would soon be on his way out, too. On October 1, Obama announced that Rouse would become the interim chief of staff, thus saddling him with two enormous jobs at once: running the White House while reinventing it.
But Rouse was undeterred. After spending much of October talking to people both on- and off-campus about what was and wasn’t working, he concluded that the White House’s troubles fell into three baskets—the first of them labeled “insularity.”
Few perceptions were more widely shared or loudly voiced around Washington than that the Obamans were huffing their own fumes. “You know the cliché about our strengths being our weaknesses? It’s true for them as well,” says a top political strategist in a previous White House. “I think they felt like if they had listened to conventional wisdom in 2007, they never would have run. When they hear criticism, they say, ‘Been there, done that, we’re gonna stay the course.’ There’s almost a Zen-like quality about how they’ve been in their own universe and their own bubble.”
The more pointed variant of this critique was directed specifically at Obama. Unlike 42—who loved to stay up late, jabbing at the speed dial, spending countless hours gabbing with local pols and businesspeople around the country to gauge the political wind and weather—44 not only eschewed reaching out to governors, mayors, or CEOs, but he rarely consulted outside the tiny charmed circle surrounding him in the White House. “What you had was really three or four people running the entire government,” says the former White House strategist. “I thought they put a pretty good Cabinet together, but most of those guys might as well be in the witness-protection program.”
A funny line, no doubt, but an overstatement, surely? Well, maybe not. “I happen to know most of the Cabinet pretty well, and I get together with them individually for lunch,” says one of the most respected Democratic bigwigs in Washington. “I’ve had half a dozen Cabinet members say that in the first two years, they never had one call—not one call—from the president.”
The second basket that Rouse identified had to do with a trap the White House had fallen into of being too tactical and reactive. To some extent, this was the result of the fusillade of crises and imperatives—the stimulus, TARP, the auto bailout—that hit the administration in rat-a-tat succession right from the get-go. But it was also a feature of Emanuel’s métier. “Rahm always wanted to win the day, win the week, at the expense of a longer-term focus,” says a senior White House official. “So we’d set up a plan to drive the economic message for a week, and then something would happen, so we would switch and do something different. The legislative calendar was all over the place. Everything had a certain madhouse quality about it.”
In the third of Rouse’s baskets was the failure to use Obama’s gifts as a communicator to full effect. He was overexposed. He was in the weeds. The thread got lost. “With these big legislative fights, he was almost like a prime minister or negotiator-in-chief,” says the same official. “The price for that was, we lost the vision, the inspiration.”
Though Obama grasped this last critique, he dismissed the charges of aloofness and insularity. When business complained that he was hostile, he cited all the times he had invited CEOs to the White House. When donors moaned about the fact that at the first year’s Christmas parties, he had done away with the tradition of taking pictures with the guests, Obama scoffed, “Big deal, they’ve all got pictures of me before.”