Emanuel’s ad-hocracy, meanwhile, didn’t faze Obama. The president’s friend and adviser Valerie Jarrett sometimes pointed out that not only had he never managed an operation, he’d never really had a nine-to-five job in his life. Obama didn’t know what he didn’t know, yet his self-confidence was so stratospheric that once, in the context of thinking about Emanuel’s replacement, he remarked in all seriousness, “You know, I’d make a good chief of staff.”
Those overhearing the comment somehow managed to suppress their laughter.
The midterms, however, slapped the president upside the head—and shattered his sense of complacency. “It is hard to describe how personally upset he was at some of the members we lost, how terribly he felt, especially about the ones that were in the tough districts who’d voted with him down the line,” says someone who knows Obama well. “It was a really tough time for him.”
Obama trusted Rouse’s judgment about what needed fixing but wanted more data. So in November and December, on his own initiative, he did something out of character: He let the outside in. Scheduling the appointments himself, sometimes on the sly, he invited a passel of Washington wise men to meet with him in the Oval Office with no staff present. Some of the names have been reported: former Clinton chiefs of staff John Podesta and Leon Panetta; former Reagan chief of staff Ken Duberstein; former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle and centrist jack-of-all-trades David Gergen; and, of course, Bill Clinton. But others have not. Longtime Clinton consigliere Vernon Jordan is one. And another, more surprising, is Matthew Dowd, who served as chief strategist for the 2004 Bush-Cheney reelection campaign. (Dowd declined to confirm the meeting, but the White House did.)
The grandees, being grandees, had no paucity of advice for Obama. They told him that he could and should get business done with John Boehner and Mitch McConnell. They counseled him, in the words of one, on “the social power of the presidency”—building relationships with friends and foes alike by inviting them to Camp David or aboard Air Force One, even (or especially) when he wanted nothing from them. Most pertinent, they reinforced Rouse’s tripartite diagnosis: Obama and his White House had to be less cloistered and more strategic, and employ the bully pulpit better.
Obama’s self-confidence was stratospheric. “You know, I’d make a good chief of staff,” he said.
Obama knew that the hardest change for him to make would be shattering his self-circumscription, but resolved to push himself to do so. “He’s got an enormous capacity to do what he has to do when he recognizes he has to do it,” the Democratic bigwig says. “During the campaign, he did a lot of things he didn’t like to do, and he actually got pretty good at it. A lot of it was just the bullshit—the receptions, the glad-handing, all the stuff you have to do to be political. You have to be extroverted plus, and he will never be extroverted, much less plus. But he’ll get better at this, because he knows he has to, and he will work at it.”
The lame-duck session let Obama put other elements of the advice he was hearing into practice. Extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans was not an outcome he relished, but he believed he had no choice—that digging in would lead nowhere good. “It would have demonstrated that nobody in Washington heard the message coming out of the elections about working together,” observes Gibbs. “Secondly, we would never have gotten START, ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ the 9/11 bill, and food safety. And thirdly, those initiatives plus the tax deal would have been, in essence, dead for the next two years. Look, in some ways it was good strategy, but we didn’t have a lot of options. We could have done, like, the Alamo, but that didn’t work out real well, either.”
Obama’s people insist they would have preferred to do the tax-cut deal without inciting the wailing of the left. But those Democrats pushing the Alamo strategy did the president a favor. They gave him the grounds to divorce himself from them, and hence to claim virtually all the political credit for one of the most productive lame-duck sessions in history.
As Obama prepared to set off for Hawaii for the Christmas holiday, he was walking on air. “He loved December, and we loved December, because it felt like what we came here to do,” says White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer. “We ran as a postpartisan problem-solver. We were endorsed by prominent Republicans. We got here, we tried to be that guy, Republicans basically turned their backs to us, and we had a choice: We could do nothing or we could do things. We chose to do things. That had consequences, political consequences. And so [the lame-duck session] gave us a chance to go back to being that sort of less partisan adult from the campaign.”